When I first heard the words “cross-cultural communication”, the image of an American business tycoon negotiating a deal with a Thai entrepreneur appeared before me. The latter was mystified by the words and gestures of the American and seemed to be lost. Today, the situation is different. The Indian Institutes of Management have been promoting studies of business negotiation in cross-cultural environments. Their graduates are now choosing roads less taken, and accepting placements in new regions such as West Asia and China.
One does not need to go to Thailand or China for lessons in cross-cultural communication. Multinationals are sending their executives to work on projects in India and, likewise, Indian companies are deputing their professionals to other countries.
Among the several facets of cross-cultural communication, a few stand out. Language, of course, is what worries most professionals.
At a party the other day, someone introduced himself to a British guest and started a conversation, “Your missis has not joined you?” he asked. The guest replied, “No, my wife is doing a project in London.” In a close circle of friends and office colleagues, we can refer to someone’s missis, but not with business partners from abroad.
Every language has formal and informal styles and several degrees in between. We have to strike the right degree of formality in addressing people. “How old are you?” translates in different ways in Chinese depending on the person you are talking to. The phrase “to table a proposal” means to present it for discussion in British English; in American English, it means to lay it aside.
Even after getting the right vocabulary, there arises the question of accent and intonation. English is spoken in a wide variety of accents around the world. Indian speakers have been accused of speaking too fast; they also impose the intonation of their mother tongue on English speech. English is a stress-based language. Speakers need to practise proper enunciation.
Once the hurdle of language has been passed, we come to non-verbal communication, including body language.
In most societies, we shake hands. In Arab countries, an embrace and a gentle kiss on the cheeks are in order when men are introduced. In Europe, a kiss is normal when greeting family and close friends. In many other parts of the world, gender considerations can complicate things: women may not shake hands with men. Public show of intimacy between men and women is unacceptable in many Asian countries.
Over 70% of our communication is non-verbal, and so we need to know how to act to be clearly understood. Eye contact is considered extremely important as it can convey sincerity and reliability. But there are societies in which prolonged eye contact may be misconstrued as staring.
Matters of etiquette in different countries can be easily handled by observation and emulation. But when it comes to norms and values, we are on trickier ground. If we are from a well-organized culture, on a visit to certain Middle or East Asian countries, we will have to tolerate uncertainty on many occasions.
Nations such as Germany or the UK set great store by time. Time is linear, events are arranged to take place one after another as scheduled. Visiting professionals have to adapt to this system: turning up late for an appointment can make a poor impression and affect one’s chances of successful negotiation. There are societies that consider relationships more important than schedules and may transact only part of the agenda by the end of the meeting. Lin Yutang wrote, “When two Chinese begin to dig a tunnel from both sides of a mountain, both come out on the other side... And the Chinese are extremely punctual, provided you give them plenty of time to do a thing.” But this stereotype is no longer valid for modern China, the waking giant.
In sum, with the emergence of the global market, interaction across borders has assumed great importance. Marketing success depends not only on the quality of the product but also on effective negotiation, which acknowledges and respects cultural differences.
V.R. Narayanaswami, a former professor of English, has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He will look at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column. Comments can be sent to email@example.com