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. Before we go deep into the differences caused by the cultures, it is important to first understand what culture really is and its characteristics that make it such an important influencer upon employees’ everyday communication.
Culture is the root of any society which gives it a flavor and a wholesome environment for an individual to form beliefs, views, perceptions and attitudes. Thus we say for this reason that culture is a set of beliefs, attitudes and values that are learned from living in a society which in turn influences the behavior of the individuals living in a particular society. Culture is an external influence upon an individual and includes all the forces that other people may induce upon him. This includes the standards raised by the people themselves living in a society for long. This is the reason why different areas have different cultures and societal norms, as they are man-made and whichever object is man-made and artificial is bound under variations. Culture is surely man-made and not natural but it naturally affects the behaviors and communication of people who live by it. Culture shapes all the communication attributes of a person, including his beliefs, values and morals, which are hard to mould and can a significant impact upon his many decisions, including purchase decisions (English, 1995, p.134).
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Culture is thus, a complex entity with several interdependent components. Two such components that play a major role in culture are beliefs and values.
Beliefs consist of the thoughts and statements that reflect the comprehensive understanding of various things in the environment. Values, on the other hand, are not the same things as beliefs. Where beliefs can be many, values are few in number and are different for each society. They are sets of appropriate behaviors that are standardized by the society and all members are bound by them. Together with knowledge, these components form customs and traditions and as whole an entire culture, that does adapt to the changing environment slightly, but stick well to its valued roots, such as the cultures in Asian countries which are still being strong.
Characteristics of Culture that Impact Communication
Following are the major characteristics of culture that strongly influence the buying behavior of the consumers:
It is Comprehensive
Culture presents a comprehensive outlook whereby all rules, norms, customs, traditions, beliefs, knowledge, and standards match well and coincide with each other and not contradict each other on any ground. That is all the elements are present in a logical pattern and are more or less similar to each other. Thus, the behaviors and communication of the members closely reflect the cultural standards, whereby the members communicate accordingly to what is set as right in their culture and doing what is considered vile is never accepted by them (Peterson, 2004, p.89).
It is Learned
Culture is the environment that a person lives in throughout his life, and the beliefs, attitudes, values, etc are all taught to him through this environment. Culture is man-made and a person is not born with the values and beliefs vested in a culture, they are in fact learned as the child grows. This learning is in three forms: Formal, whereby the parents and elders siblings teach behavioral patterns and lessons, informal, whereby the child learns certain things on his own through observation and imitation and technical, whereby a specialized and controlled environment of the school teaches a child a more comprehensive and advanced education to the child for his later years.
Culture is passed from one generation to another through enculturation, a process by which the members learn the culture into which they are born. A different way of learning is through acculturation, the process by which the members learn the rules and norms of a culture from the native culture. Through acculturation, the original or native culture is modified through direct contact with or exposure to a new and different culture (Peterson, 2004, p.90).
It is Set under Boundaries
Culture is bound under the acceptable and standard behavior of a society. This is what is taught to the offspring as they grow up. There are boundaries of acceptable right and unacceptable wrong behavior, in between which the culture resides (Peterson, 2004, p.92).
It is Dynamic or Static
Cultures can be dynamic and static. Being dynamic means they are open to change and adapt with the demands of changing times. Being static means the culture does not change any of its beliefs, values or customs. An example of such dynamism would be the change in family structure in Singapore, where now more American culture is prevailing and youngsters are residing independently and not with parents after the age of 18. For cultures that are dynamic, the employees adjust well in culturally different environment that they face in the workplace, something which is very different for the members of the static cultures to do, as it leaves less room for adaptations (English, 1995, 137).
It is Free of Conscious Awareness
There is limited conscious awareness of cultural beliefs, customs and norms. And also, there is lack of information and learning about other cultures, where several conflicts occur due to misunderstandings and communication gaps.
It Satisfies Needs
Cultural standards have been formed in each society based on the experiences of its founders. Every group has its own experiences based on which it sets standards. Same is the case with a society, which takes up “tried” actions and establishes them as standards for the future prosperity of its members. So, the standards are basically directions for the members and offer guidance to lead a life that is free of troubles and relief and is well focused and directed. Guidance and teaching being the core functions of a culture, it evolves within a society to include better rules and standards (English, 1995, p. 140).
It is Shared
The best part about culture is that it exists among a group and lives through interactions and relationships. Culture prevails in a society through one generation’s passing on of values and beliefs to another, through communication and relationships. Culture links its members and promotes socialization. This is the very socialization that influences to a great extent the consumer perceptions about brands.
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Differences between Cultures that Create Barriers in Cross-Cultural Communication
Different societies around the world are found to have different cultures. Why is that so? Researchers have found out that there are several dimensions of culture cause such a difference. These dimensions include, the individual or collective orientations of a culture, whether the culture is high text or low text, the power distances that exist in the culture, gender norms, standards and values, and uncertainty avoidance. Each of these is discussed now in detail.
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. 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 (Devito, 1995, 92).
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. High text cultures are also collectivist cultures. These cultures (Japanese, Arabic, Latin American, Thai, Korean, Apache, and Mexican) place great emphasis on personal relationships and oral agreements. Low text cultures, then, are also individualistic cultures. 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 (Devito, 1995, p.94).
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. These are called high power distance cultures. Examples of such cultures are Mexico, Brazil, India and Philippines. In low power distance cultures (examples include Denmark, New Zealand, Sweden, and to a lesser extent the United States), power is more evenly distributed throughout the citizenry. These differences impact on consumer behavior in s number of ways. 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.
Masculinity Vs Femininity
In some culture, males are held superiors than females and are deemed the role of the sole breadwinner of the family, whereas the females’ job is limited to the care of the family of the household chores. This is so because of the gender characteristics associated with each. Such as for males, the gender traits of boldness, aggressiveness and command, are considered important to support the inferior ones, such as females and infants. On the other hand, females are humble, emotional and articulate, so they are given the household responsibly. This is not the case in all cultures. Some cultures give women equal opportunities as men, and they too function as the breadwinners of the family. This drift is mainly caused by the cultural adaptations to changing times (Peterson, 2004, p.95).
Cultures tend to live in either a structured or an unstructured environment regarding consequences and situations, relating to various situations. The more structured the culture prefers to keep the situations, the more certainty it prefers and avoids ambiguity and is able to tolerate risk. Thus, for such culture a high level of uncertainty avoidance means high tolerance and preparation for risk suppression. On the other hand, the cultures that live by in uncertain situations, and not clarify ambiguity, they are left in haphazard consequences, and risks when take-up ugly results, they are faced with challenges and panic to the end (Devito, 1995, p.101).
Affect of Cross-Cultural Communication in the Workplace
We have discussed so far the reasons behind the differences. It is now time to discuss further about the impacts that these differences cause for the communication between the workers belonging to different cultures 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.98).
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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 (English, 1995, p.141)
The Cultural shock occurs in four stages as outlined by the anthropologist Kalervo Oberg in 1960 (Devito, 1995, p.93). These four stages are:
- Stage one: The Honeymoon – at first there is fascination, even enchantment with the new culture and its people;
- Stage two: The Crisis – in this phase, the differences between your own culture and the new one create problems;
- Stage three: The Recovery – during this period, we gain the skills necessary to function effectively; and
- Stage four: The Adjustment – at this final stage, we adjust and come to enjoy the new culture and the new experiences.
Effective Cross-Cultural Communication Strategies
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.100)
- Recognizing differences between yourself and those who are cultural different;
- Recognizing differences among the culturally different group; (English, 1995, p.143))
- Recognizing differences in meaning in the other culture of words and of people; and
- Following cultural rules and customs (Devito, 1995, p.96).
Culture is by the far the biggest influence upon an individual from the external environment. Culture forms a person’s beliefs, values, norms and moral attitudes. Each culture has its own set of beliefs and values that it passes onto the next generation. Communication plays a vital role in the passing on of culture from generation to generation, or from a new organisation into a new employee. The problem arises when two or more cultures create conflicting situations for the employees in a workplace. For example, a member of one culture may find interacting more fondly and too frankly with coworkers a way to develop good acquaintances. This may be offensive to members of some cultures, where close interactions with distant acquaintances is not an appropriate way to communicate. With the advent of 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.