Strategies to Close Cross-Cultural Gaps

The Internet seems to be the perfect channel for finding business opportunities and connecting people and ideas across the world, but accessing it won’t guarantee you the massive results you dreamed of. According to the International Labor Organization (2009), 70% of cross-boundaries business ventures fail due to cultural differences.

The Internet seems to be the perfect channel for finding business opportunities and connecting people and ideas across the world, but accessing it won’t guarantee you the massive results you dreamed of. According to the International Labor Organization (2009), 70% of cross-boundaries business ventures fail due to cultural differences. Quite a big percentage I would say.

Globalization spread its capital across the world, selling clear Mission statements on markets and well-disposed Principles inside for shaping employees behaviors. Even so, in terms of money only in Europe and United States 25 billion dollars are lost every year, as a result of inefficient Cross Cultural-Communication.

What is the main gap? we might all ask, well… the main gap is the communication process itself, the way people send their message towards those they communicate with (business in this case).

Going Est, from Rome to Tokyo and South from Guadalajara to Santiago communication becomes more sophisticated, nuanced and layered. Messages are spoken, felt and red between the lines. Messages are often implied but not clearly expressed. For instance in Italy hand gestures, some emotions and projecting a good image are the features of effective conversations while in Indonesia, a higher value is placed on ambiguity and tact rather than getting straight to the point. Meanwhile in India there is a huge reliance on nonverbal communication – for example, eye contact, repetition of certain words or phrases with emphasis on facial expressions and body movements. What would a precise, clear western corporate manager decode out of this? It is quite a complicated message or straight-up confusion. “If “yes” is so passionately expressed, why should I look for “no” through gestures, jokes, stories or between the lines?” the western manager might ask himself.

But as there are challenges, there are also solutions for solving low-context versus high-context communication gaps. Here you will find the most important strategies to adapt your style to a high-context communication environment:

1. Be Flexible

Business meetings may initially center around seemingly non-business-focused discussions. This is an important part of the cycle of business and should not be rushed or dismissed as wasting time. Show that you are a person to be taken seriously by engaging in the necessary small talk. Only when you have convinced your contacts of your personal worthiness, is business likely to flow smoothly. Therefore get yourself introduced properly and spend time on providing information about yourself and your company post building rapport. Avoid using an aggressive or self-promoting presentation style.

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2. Pay attention to hierarchy and seniority

In case you are introducing yourself, include your title and the company you represent, and the country you come from if this is relevant. When being formally introduced to someone else, you are expected to pay due respect and include the person in your conversation. Get familiar with the formal protocol for meeting and greeting in your client’s organization. For example: Acknowledging the eldest or the most senior members, standing when someone enters or leaves the room and using a title and family name is important for Asian cultures.

3. Avoid sensitive topics

Local politics, human rights, corruption, religion, immediate ambition for business success, laughing and embarrassing others. All these are potential barriers for your business opportunities.

4. Use positioning as main tool

High context is about circumstances, politeness, vague or general statements. It is wise to offer to your business partners a story and to connect the story with your challenges. Revealing your ambitions in the first meeting may be frowned on or perceived as being “pushy.” Avoid going straight for a particular business need.

5. Build internal consensus

In many situations, it will be best to first build internal consensus among key players. Asking for advice is one of the most effective ways to do this. Asking questions such as “What do you think we should do?” and “How can we best convince others?”, “What is the best way of doing this? “will demonstrate a willingness to adapt to local methods and assist greatly in obtaining important information. By collecting information and allowing key players to come up with their proposals, both formal and informal communication structures will be used most effectively. A real benefit would be making partners use action words for what’s next.

6. Use Reciprocity in each context

Starting with exchanging gifts in India up to “I do a favor for you today because I know that you will repay the favor in the future” in China or South-East Asia, this principle is one of the best tools for building a relationship.

As the quote “ When in Rome, do as Romans!” says, when dealing with low-context cultures try to cope with predictability and simplicity, therefore basic communication skills represent the right recipe for an effective business relationship:

  1. Ask questions to clarify the request: ”What”, “Who”, “Where”, “When”, “How” and “Why” would be the key words for finding the big picture and main details.
  2. Always confirm your understanding. Low context communication is simple and clear, but it should be clear for both parties, therefore use re-phrasing as a skill, each time you find an opportunity or need.
  3. Use action words to explain what you want. Do not let others “guess” the message; they might feel confused, uncomfortable or simply not understand you, while your internal-dialogue about being on not being rude, would sabotage your chances for a real business opportunity.
  4. State the goal in simple words and, if needed, propose few rules for what’s next. With this you will avoid misunderstanding and will aim towards a common goal, following a fair approach. Be prepared to use your Reciprocity principle at its most highest level: Exchanging concessions while negotiating!

Building relationships with people from other cultures seems to be a challenge, but adapting your communication style and paying mutual respect to others values, represents the most effective strategy for business purposes

Iulian Ionita
Communication and personal effectiveness specialist 

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