Cross-Cultural Communication Pitfalls

'When in Rome...'

‘When in Rome…’ (Steven Gerrard in Thailand)

As the world shrinks, doing business with people from different cultures becomes something of a minefield, especially when it comes to those ‘difficult’ conversations, when things have gone wrong, or when bargaining for a better position.

Melissa Hahn and Andy Molinsky, both authors who have studied cross-cultural communication, write for about ‘Having a Difficult Conversation with Someone from a Different Culture‘. In this article they point out four of the ‘most common communication tripwires’. Their examples tend to be more ‘western-centric’, but I think they are equally worth considering when dealing with other countries in Africa. We have already experienced how some businesses in Nigeria view South Africans as arrogant — and this can only be due to not being cognisant of communication mores in this country.

The first pitfall is ‘Getting down to business vs. relationship building’. Some countries, like the US, tend to be very task-oriented, and place little overt emphasis in a meeting on the relationships. It’s a case of ‘let’s get down to business, and we can socialise later.’ In Africa, we place much more emphasis on relationships, and the first twenty minutes of a meeting could be taken up by discussing family and personal interests.

Tripwire no. 2 is ‘Direct vs. indirect communication’. Germans are renowned for their directness — it’s a sign of clear thinking and decisiveness; the Japanese and other eastern societies are more concerned with ‘saving face’ — so subtle hints and generalisations will abound in a ‘difficult’ conversation.

The third danger-zone is ‘Low vs. high context’, and here the authors talk about the actual words spoken when balanced against more subtle communication, such as body language, facial expressions and the broader context of the meeting.

No. 4 is ‘Informality vs. Formality’. The authors compare ‘laid back’ Australians with protocol-obsessed Poles, and the pitfalls attendant here are about making a person feel comfortable as opposed to dealing with a situation with appropriate gravitas.

The onus is on both parties to become more aware of each other’s cultural norms, and to avoid making assumptions. It’s tricky, and one of the best strategies is always to have ‘locals’ on your team to provide interpretations and clarifications.