Wouldn’t communicating across cultural divides be easier if we were like the character in Star Trek, Dr. Spock, and had the ability to mind meld and read other’s thoughts? The art of communicating goes well beyond the actual words spoken as is seen in the gap between Individualistic and Collectivist cultures. This gap was difficult to bridge twenty years ago when cultures were less connected. In today’s global environment we find ourselves leading and managing across cultural boundaries, whether we are located in a host country or connecting virtually. Thus we find the communication expectations of management more complicated. We know that communication can be difficult across behavioral styles and personality types, but communicating across cultural boundaries adds another stratum of complexity! At times our perceptions of a host culture, more often than not, can be very wrong.
Geert Hofstede, Yuri Miyamoto, and Richard Nisbett provide a foundation to examine the cross-culture communication dilemma. In Individualistic societies (i.e., Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands and the U.S.) the ties between individuals are less certain. The needs of the individual are taken care of before the needs of the group. In collectivistic societies (i.e., Japan, Korea, India, and many African, Middle Eastern, and Central American nations) people are integrated into strong, cohesive, in-groups which emphasize the needs and goals of the group as a whole. This group-need trumps the wishes of each individual. In such cultures, relationships with other members of the group and the interconnectedness between people play a central role in the manner in which they communicate.
Those from individualistic and Collectivistic cultures infer different priorities to the communication variables of information and relationship. Ms. Miyamato and Mr. Nisbett maintain that individualistic cultures place greater emphasis on conveying information, whereas collectivistic cultures place greater emphasis toward relational functions.
The weight of information sharing and the strong relational aspects of a Collectivistic culture can be seen in Japan, where great detail is taken to ensure that the relationship is honored. When working with a new group, communication may be centered on tatemae (public and political response) and after trust develops honne (one’s inner and true thoughts) may be expressed. The value of the relationship takes priority over the information being shared. Yes, critical information and great detail will be shared, but usually not before one demonstrates profound respect.
It is good to remember that cultural understanding is revealed in language. In Japanese, there are several ways to say “yes.” There are many indirect ways to signal a negative response, but rarely is the direct “no” used in a business conversation.
How do we apply this understanding for greater cross-culture effectiveness?
How can we communicate more effectively when reaching across the Collectivistic/Individualistic societal divide? One way is to understand that both Collectivistic and Individualistic cultures value sharing information and extending relationships. It is in the initial contact that the culture aspects come to the forefront. The next time you are communicating cross-culturally, consider placing the preferred communicating emphasis to your colleague or venture partner.
If you are from an Individualistic culture, and your colleague is from a Collectivistic culture, consider placing more emphasis on the relational aspects of honor and respect when communicating. Consider beginning your email with a greeting before getting down to business.
If you are from a more Collectivistic culture and work with someone from an Individualistic culture, consider placing more emphasis on the information content and look for ways to strengthen the relationship in other domains of work and life.
We at CAI hope this helps you to communicate more effectively across cultural boundaries. Let us know what you think.
Hofstede, G. (2001). Culture’s consequences: Comparing values, behaviors, institutions and organizations across nations. London: Sage.
Miyamoto, Y., Nisbett, R.E., & Masuda T. (2006). The Culture and the physical environment: Holistic versus analytic perceptual affordances. Psychological Science. February, vol. 1, 113-119.
Nisbett R.E., & Miyamoto Y. (2005). The influence of culture: Holistic versus analytic perception. TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences, October, vol.9 No.10.