Saturday, September 03, 2005

Contextual Relevance in a
Culturally Diverse World

One of the things I enjoy most about working at Cincom Systems is the fact that we are a global company. In fact, Cincom has been global for 37 years, making it one of the first software companies in the US to open offices outside the US. Even though everyone at Cincom must be able to speak English, communications can frequently be a challenge – and that’s just within the company.

While I have worked on many multi-country promotions in the past, my biggest indoctrincation was over the past year, leading the process to convert the Cincom website into an international site. My first lesson was that the United States is not the center of the universe. I had to change fundamentally how I viewed the role of this website as it addressed the varied needs of people around the world.

Genetically, I am German, Irish, and Cherokee. But any association with these cultures is long in the past. I’m just an American and tempted often to think that all other people think the way I think. When I land in Paris or Dusseldorf, I am immediately lost and isolated. Imagine, this is how people from other cultures must feel when Americans come barging in – whether in a business meeting, a phone call or an electronic communication.

The challenge is ever greater when communicating with prospects and customers in all these other countries, cultures and languages. It’s the challenge that I enjoy. It forces you to think more clearly and simply than if you are just US-centric. But even the US, being the melting pot that it is, communication across cultures is becoming more difficult as larger and larger portions of the population are now Hispanic, Asian, African, Indian, Middle Eastern. Consider the difficulties of launching the launch of a new product into a global setting with so many different ways of thinking and responding.

Patience, Courtesy and Curiosity Transcend Cultural Diversity

This brings new communication challenges to the workplace. We speak different languages, live in different time zones, eat different foods, practice different religions, different holidays, different schooling, different politics, different histories. Even our use of different colors can impact how we communicate. All of which may cause unintended communications.

Generally speaking, patience, courtesy and a bit of curiosity go a long way. It is not impolite to ask if you are being clear or if, perhaps, you are not understanding the source of confusion. Most people will not be offended if you are genuine in your desire to be more sensitive to cultural issues.

If you are sense that communications snarls may exist, simply ask team members. This may best be done in a one-on-one setting so that no one feels “put on the spot” or self-conscious, perhaps even embarrassed, about discussing their own needs or differences or needs. When dealing with people in a different culture, courtesy and goodwill can also go a long way in ensuring successful communication. Again, this should be insisted on.

Keep It Simple

It is a mistake to assume that every businessperson speaks good English. In fact, only about half of the 800 million people who speak English learned it as a first language. And, those who speak it as a second language are often more limited than native speakers. When you communicate cross-culturally, make particular efforts to keeping your communication clear, simple and unambiguous.

Speak Slowly and Keep Your Ears Open

For me, the hardest part of being in a cross-cultural meeting is the intensity with which I need to listen – even when the meeting is being conducted in English. Vocabulary is different. Pronunciation of the same English words makes it sound as if there are different words entirely. I come out of such meetings mentally and physically worn out from listening so intently. And, everyone in the room is in the same boat. So it helps to slow down. Reinforce with visuals. Watch the eyes for confusion. Watch out for jargon or colloquial phrases.

Use Humor Cautiously

Humor is notoriously culture-specific: Many things that pass for humor in one culture can be seen as grossly offensive in another. Avoid humor until you know that the person you’re communicating with “gets it” and isn’t offended by it.

We have a great eNewsletter at Cincom called Expert Access, with 36,000 subscribers from around the world. The newsletter is built around Steve Kayser's love for the humorous phrase. Because we have so many subscribers from around the world, we were tempted to believe that the humor was translating, but it was only after our Regional Marketing Managers got very vocal about the publication that we finally changed our business strategy regarding promotion of this newsletter into other cultures.

Enjoy the Experience

Working and communicating across cultural divides is a wonderful and enlightening experience. Celebrate our diversity.

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