Essay: Intercultural Communication

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Intercultural Communication

"Globalization is not trivial, it requires fundamental changes in companies; hence both managers and academicians in business related fields are increasingly realizing the need to explore the thinking and behavior of people in different parts of the world. In order to be competitive, companies need an international and multi-cultural vision to fully exploit the potential of new markets…" (Acosta, et al., 2004, Artificial Intelligence & Society, p. 242)

Intercultural Communication

The movement towards globalization over the past several decades has brought people from dramatically different cultures together in workplaces from Singapore to Seattle. It is no human relations secret that bringing several dissimilar cultures together in a workplace environment -- whether in a high technology lab or building a bridge across a swamp -- can be challenging. What kinds of cultural issues tend to influence good communication in a diverse workplace? This essay references a number of theories regarding intercultural communication in the context of the workplace; among those theories: high and low context cultures; individualistic and collectivist cultures; monochromatic and polychromatic cultures; and tight and loose cultures.

The Duty of Managing a Diverse Workforce Begins with a Review of the Literature and Pertinent Theories on Intercultural Communication

Managing a diverse workplace with employees from Asia and the United States -- like any workplace scenario -- requires intelligence, understanding, a good grasp of all legal aspects regarding employee-employer, and the ability to relate to a multicultural group of employees. Before taking the reins of such a group of employees, and knowing that those workers from the U.S. will have diversity as a given, and those from Asia are not all Chinese, but also Korean and Vietnamese, a person in management is obliged to conduct research into how intercultural communication works and how it breaks down.

Astrid Kersten writes in the Journal of Organizational Change Management that the diversity movement represents "an important ideological strategy" that attempts to "… manage and contain racial conflict and social contradiction" (Kersten, 2000, p. 235). Kersten makes the case that corporations have of late tended to "usurp, limit, and dominate the public sphere"; as a result of this corporate dominance, ordinary people have been deprived of "access to decision making in areas that affect them" (Kersten, p 235).

As an answer to this perceived corporate recalcitrance, Kersten suggests, is the development of a "critical model of race dialogue," and dialogue asks for three things: a) a "critical and reflective understanding of one's own world"; b) an "emphatic grasping of the world of the other"; and c) the "shared building of a joint world, based on an undistorted social consensus" (Kersten, p. 239).

That answer about dialogue has a nice ring to it, but there is more to successful cross-cultural communication than idealistic passages about near-perfect communication dynamics. For example, in culturally diverse organizations which is a better approach -- an individualistic or collectivist style of communication? But how does a supervisor know who is individualistic and who is collectivistic? It is generally true that Asian cultures are more collectivistic that Americans. But on the other hand, America is a melting pot with multiple cultures in the workplace.

Meantime, a study among 188 graduate students from 31 different nations -- published in the journal Communication Monographs (Cai, et al., 2002, p. 67) -- showed some stark differences between individualistic and collectivist approaches. For example, in the context of relating culture to conflict, five conflict styles were measured among the 188 students: avoiding, obliging, integrating, compromising, and dominating (Cai, p. 67).

In this study, both individualists and collectivists tended to prefer the integrating style of dealing with conflict; obliging was rated second and avoiding the third choice. Meanwhile, individualists preferred avoiding as a strategy; as to collectivists, in this research they preferred compromising and integrating more than individualists do," Cai writes (p. 67). This makes sense when one understands that persons from individualistic cultures tend to look out for themselves ("I" is the operative concept); and in collectivistic culture people are more cohesive (and "we" is usually the dynamic). Cai references a preferred model -- "dual concern" -- that can be used to not only solve conflicts, but to avoid them.

Whether workers are individualistic or collectivistic, management under my supervision must convey that while at work everyone needs to be pulling the same rope in the same direction. High concern for one's own interests needs to be matched with "high concern for other person's interests," in order to secure a peaceful, productive environment. When an individual has "dual concern" (high concern for himself and others) that person is more likely to "engage in problem solving" and in using an integrating style. As a supervisor of this team of multicultural workers I will make time for training during work hours -- two hours a week -- so I won't be asking my employees to take time during their free hours to work together. I will also schedule an after-work barbeque during which we can socialize in a relaxed atmosphere (I provide the food and soft drinks; no alcohol is available; no wives or families, just employees).

A study published in Communication Reports (Mortenson, 2002, p. 57) is helpful in my workplace management duties. The results of Mortenson's research show that females place greater value on "ego support" (making people feel good about who they are) and on "comforting" (the ability to "alleviate another's emotional distress") (p. 57). Given this research, a smart manager is going to involve women in leadership positions when intercultural communication are in the picture. Women, Mortenson asserts (p. 58), are more focused on "reciprocity rather than commonality and association." It makes sense then to utilize females in discussing the importance of skills "through which feelings and emotions are expressed" (p. 58).

Meanwhile, research by Jennifer Holt, et al., ("Culture, gender, organizational role, and styles of conflict resolution: A meta-analysis") published in the International Journal of Intercultural Relations lends credence to the earlier stated management goal to use women in training for the improvement of intercultural communication. Holt's research shows that females are: a) more apt to embrace compromising in individualistic and collectivistic cultures; b) males are "more likely to report using forcing than females in individualistic cultures"; and c) males are more likely than females to chose "a forcing style with their superiors" (Holt, p. 165-66). Clearly women are more flexible, more empathetic about the feelings of others, so in my team I will make every effort to use females as role models if possible, of how to communicate with a person of another culture -- even if there is a language barrier. Smiles are universal. Happy employees are more productive and they result in less employee turnover.

Trina Larsen, et al., writes in the Journal of Business-to-Business Marketing that some businesses operate under the belief that "cultures are converging" and hence, there's no need to work to improve intercultural communication. But for the purposes of my team, workers remain true to their cultures. Understanding those workplace communication dynamics in terms of "low context" (LC) cultures and "high context" (HC) cultures is a key to successful management. More detailed "background information is needed at every intersection" in an LC culture (Larsen, 2002, p. 6). Cultures that fall under the LC culture category: the U.S., Germany, and Switzerland. Conversely, and this is important for management, in a HC culture, a good deal of the message is "in the context" not the precise wording (Larsen, p. 6). In a HC culture relationships are close and "in-depth" background explanations aren't necessary. Examples of HC cultures are Japan, Mexico, and Saudi Arabia (Larsen, p. 6). So my employees from Japan might be expected to be collectivists and from HC culture.

What if there is an ongoing conflict between two men -- one from Alabama and one from China -- in my team that seems "intractable"? Peter T. Coleman suggests that fostering "ripeness" can mitigate this situation. Ripeness is a "process" through which the resolution of conflict can be achieved (Coleman, 2000, p. 300); this is a "process-oriented intervention" as opposed to an "outcome-oriented intervention" (Coleman, p. 306). First, obstacles to communication must be removed, Coleman argues; next, both parties must be shown that opening up to communication benefits every one in the dispute. Ripeness should follow.

Elizabeth R. Howard presents a workable intercultural concept in her piece in Educational Leadership, which although it is aimed at schools, could be helpful to a manager in a cross-cultural workplace environment. Howard posits that "two-way immersion" between non-native English speakers can lead to better cultural relations. English-speaking students actually go to Mexico and live with families for a week or so and Spanish-speaking students come to the U.S. To live with American families. Why not have Asians in my team invite African-Americans into their homes for an evening meal, and the following week those African-American employees invite an Asian family over for a barbeque? Simple, yes, but when a workplace is in need of a formula for intercultural… [END OF PREVIEW]

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