Culture refers to the relatively specialized lifestyle o a group of people – consisting of their values, beliefs, artifacts, ways of behaving, and ways of communicating. Also included in a culture are all that members of the asocial group have produced and developed – their language, modes of thinking, art, laws, and religion. Culture is passed on from one generation to the next through communication (Peterson, 2004). Cultures differ in how their members communicate. In the face of globalization, businesses have to equip their environments to deal with diversity that calls for understanding the differences of communication in different cultures of the workforce and continue to establish effective cross-cultural communication amongst all the members of the workforce.
Differences in Cultural Communication
There are three major ways in which culture differ in communication based on individual and collective orientation, high and low context cultures, and power distances.
Individual and Collective Orientation
Cultures differ in the extent to which they promote individual values, (for example, power, achievement, hedonism, and stimulation) versus collectivist values (for example, benevolence, tradition, and conformity). One of the major differences between these two orientations is the extent to which an individual’s goals or the group’s goals are given precedence. This difference is reflected in advertisements (Lehman, 2007, p.298). For example, in the United States magazine advertisements appeal to individual beliefs and preferences, personal success, and independence. In Korea, a more collectivist culture, advertisements rely on appeals that emphasize benefits to the group, harmony and family integrity.
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High and Low Context Cultures
A high context culture is one in which much of the information in communication is in the context of the person – for example, information that was shared through previous communications, through assumptions about each other and through shared experiences. A low context culture is one in which most of the information is explicitly stated in the verbal message. Members of the high context cultures spend lots of time getting to know each other interpersonally and socially before any important transactions take place. On the other hand, in low context cultures, the members spend a great deal less time getting to know each other and hence do not have that shared knowledge. As a result, to the member of the high-context culture, every detail omitted or assumed is vital for communication whereas, for the member of the low-context, what is omitted creates ambiguity (Guffey, 2005, p.312).
In some cultures power is concentrated in the hands of a few and there is a great difference in the power held by these people and by the ordinary citizens. Examples of such cultures are Mexico, Brazil, India and Philippines. In the workplace of low power distance cultures a member is expected to confront a friend, partner, or supervisor. In high power distance cultures, direct confrontation and assertiveness may be viewed negatively, especially if directed at a superior (English, 1995, p.64).
Affect of Cross-Cultural Communication in the Workplace
When members of different cultures come together to work under one roof their interactions and the consequences of those interactions have large impacts upon the workplace. The workplace suffers from communication barriers and cultural shock that affects the overall productivity of the workplace.
The different orientations of culture act as a communication barrier amongst the many members of the workplace who continue in communicating in their own set ways and produce ambiguity and uncertainty at the receiving or sending ends of the communication process. Effective communication is thus distorted and when misunderstandings take place, performance levels go down (Peterson, 2004, p.189).
People experience culture shock when they enter into an environment which is very different from what they are used to. It is normal but it makes the person very agitated and frustrated and his work performance is highly affected as he fails to merge his own culture in the new one, and where some or most of his beliefs have no place in the organisation (Locker, 2008, p.196).
Effective Cross-Cultural Communication
There are principles that can be used to counteract the problems that result from differences in cultural communications and to make the cross-cultural communication more effective. These principles include:
- Learning about the culture through reading or observing;
- Recognizing and facing fears regarding cross-cultural communication; (Peterson, 2004, p.190)
- Recognizing differences between yourself and those who are culturally different;
- Recognizing differences among the culturally different group; (English, 1995, p.70)
- Recognizing differences in meaning in the other culture of words and of people; and
- Following cultural rules and customs (Devito, 1995, p.447).
With the advent of the globalization of business, more and more companies are embracing diverse work groups, where cultural differences have to be settled and improved communication has to be established to ensure an effective work environment for all. But this is not an easy task, as several cultural differences exist with regard to communication. Understanding and respecting one another’s culture is crucial to bridging the communication gap.