Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Communicating more effectively as a job and career skill set 7: communicating through cultural differences

This is my seventh installment to a series on what is one of the most important, and also one of the most commonly problematical of all workplace skills: communicating with others, and as an effective two (or more) way process (see Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development – 3, postings 342 and following for Parts 1-6.)

This posting, I add, also strongly connects into a line of discussion that I have been developing in a second concurrently run series: Thinking Through Alignment and Disagreement (see Business Strategy and Operations – 3, postings 450 and loosely following), and particularly its Part 5 and Part 6.

The common thread running through this posting and my two from the above-cited alignment and disagreement series is culture, and more specifically how unexamined, and unrecognized or misunderstood cultural differences can and do create mine fields for the unwary. I focus here on how this can skew effective communications and even as an extreme block opportunity to even continue trying to communicate.

• It is important to remember, as an ongoing awareness, that cultural differences often express themselves as differences in communications styles,
• And for both what we say in face-to-face conversation and what we write and put on record,
• And for how receptive we are to perhaps unexpectedly different types or formats of messages that are shared with us by others.

I wrote in Part 6 of my alignment and disagreement series about experiences that I have occasionally faced and particularly when dealing with Asian colleagues, and particularly when they come from organizations that actively promote a more consensus-based approach to reaching decisions.

• When people come from more of a rugged individualist culture and perspective, they at least begin more inclined to step forward and promote and even push their own opinions and perspectives, and any evidence that they would use to back them.
• When people come from more consensus-driven systems, their sense of normal and appropriate can be to hold back and wait for others to speak and to let others present ideas and perspectives first. The Japanese proverb “出る釘は打たれる” (deru kugi wa utareru), or “nails that stick out get hammered down” comes immediately to mind in this context, and as an important reminder for any more-extroverted colleague who they might work with.

An effective corporate culture that is inclusive across the divides between more reticent and more outgoing communicators, helps employees to find a mutually acceptable middle ground between being pushy and being silent – and with the prospect of those differences colliding until both sides reach a level of frustration as to cause real communications breakdowns and disconnects if such a middle path cannot be found. But I am not writing this as part of a series on corporate culture where you can expect others to develop best practices for you. I am writing this as part of a series on personal job and career development, and on building and pursuing better and best policies and approaches on your own.

• Be aware of cultural differences and how they can and often do express themselves in language and in communications styles and comfort zones. Be consciously aware of the communications styles and preferences of the people you work with.
• That, at times can mean standing up to people who prefer a more direct and even seemingly confrontational approach. For them, this can be necessary both to get to share your own ideas and to validate that you are actually listening to them and that you take what they have to say seriously.
• That, at times can mean stepping back and lowering your voice, and encouraging others to speak and to share their thoughts, doing so in a courteous and respectful, non-demanding tone. Then, and certainly if you can succeed in starting a conversation and bringing it into productive focus, you can probably discuss matters with these colleagues in a more equal and relaxed manner.
• My key point here is in understanding who you are talking with, and I do focus here more on spoken communications where cultural differences can be the most pronounced and immediately impactful. And my point here is to take the initiative yourself in reaching out to bridge any potential communications-style gaps or disconnects that you encounter.

It can be helpful to know how to eat with chopsticks as an American and Westerner when working with Japanese colleagues steeped in their national culture and traditions. A great deal of the business consensus building and deal making process can take place in what for an American businessperson would be after-hours and non-work settings and over food and drink. It can be even more helpful to understand how consensus is reached and how this process is developed and concluded as a communications flow, and with a pacing that is approachable to the people you need to deal with and reach agreement with.

I am going to turn in my next series installment to consider the sometimes conflicting requirements of speaking or writing for the immediate here and now, while also documenting for the record and even for the long-term archival record. As a foretaste of that I note that as a commonly encountered challenge, effectively communicating and working in the here and now can also require establishing a documented record to show ongoing regulatory compliance. But this type of communications-needs dichotomy can and does arise outside of that type of standard, expected context too, as for example when you are developing a contentious position or making a judgment call that of necessity has to diverge from standard and expected if it is to hold chance of real success. So my next installment is about simultaneously communicating with and addressing the needs of two or more very distinctive audiences and keeping all of this consistent and accurate while meeting different types of communications needs.

Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings at my Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development – 3 and at the first directory page and second, continuation page to this Guide. You can also find this and related material at Social Networking and Business and its continuation page.

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