Communicating Across Cultures in Foreign Investments

Communication can be successful in conveying an intended meaning only when the sender’s perceptual field—his experience of the world—is congru­ent with the receiver’s perceptual field. That is to say, communication is a process of sharing perceptions. A message falling outside the receiver’s perceptual field, therefore, cannot transmit the sender’s meaning, although it may well transmit a meaning not intended by the sender. But this congru- ity of perception, although necessary, is not a sufficient condition for suc­cessful communication. In addition, the sender needs to “encode” his message in words, other linguistic symbols, gestures, facial expressions, or other forms of behavior that can be “decoded” by the receiver to obtain the sender’s meaning.6 The encoding/decoding processes are not confined to linguistic symbols; all forms of behavior may carry a meaning. Indeed, almost every verbal message is accompanied by a nonverbal message.

1. Perceptual and Encoding/Decoding Gaps

Communication between persons belonging to the same culture benefits from a high degree of congruence in their perceptual fields and of common­ality in their message codes. Contrariwise, communication between persons belonging to different cultures is distored by perceptual and encoding/ decoding gaps that derive from the cultural distance between sender and receiver. The greater the cultural distance, the greater the gaps. Further­more, because of the unconscious nature of much of culture, communica­tion distortion is intensified by a common failure of both the sender and receiver to recognize the existence of perceptual and nonverbal encoding gaps. Consequently, a sender may believe he has communicated successfully when he has not, and, correspondingly, a receiver may believe he has understood a message when he has not. The feedback process, therefore, is also subject to cultural distortion.

The distinction we have drawn between perceptual gaps and encoding/ decoding gaps is more analytical than behavioral. Our native language in which we encode or decode a message not only is a means of communica­tion; it also profoundly structures our perception of the world.7 For that reason, perceptual and encoding/decoding gaps usually occur together in cross-cultural communication, especially when cultural distances are large. It follows that the most direct way for a sender to overcome both percep­tual and encoding/decoding gaps is to learn the language of the receiver. By so doing, he is able to use the receiver’s linguistic code and, more impor­tant, to share in some degree the receiver’s perceptual field as shaped by his language.

A sender may try to overcome cultural gaps indirectly by using another person to encode or interpret his message to a foreign receiver. This indirect approach must be used by international managers at least some of the time, because no single manager can know the languages of all the foreign na­tionals he must deal with. It must be recognized, however, that the use of an interpreter (or translator) places another mind between those of the sender and receiver, a mind that may distort rather than transfer a message. The more the sender knows about the culture of the receiver, the better he can guard against interpreter distortions and the better he knows what to say at what time and how to behave in general, something he cannot (and should not) expect to get from an interpreter. In sum, interpreters at best can only partly compensate for the sender’s (or receiver’s) ignorance of a foreign culture.

Figure 27 depicts the congruence between the perceptual fields and encoding/decoding behavior of a message sender and a message receiver at different cultural distances. The greater the congruence, as shown by the cross-hatched overlaps, the lower the probability of cultural distortions in communication. When sender and receiver belong to the same culture, the congruence is complete, which is to say there is no cultural distance.” Although incomplete, congruence is substantial when the sender and re­ceiver are separated by a small cultural distance but use the same language.

This situation pertains to, say, the Americans and the British, the Germans and the Austrians, the French and the Walloon Belgians, the Egyptians and the Saudis, and the Argentinians and the Colombians. Congruence shrinks noticeably when the sender and receiver speak different languages even though they are separated by only a medium cultural distance. This situa­tion characterizes Americans and Europeans, who share the same Western macroculture, and the Japanese and Chinese, who share the same Sinic macroculture. With large cultural distances, congruence becomes marginal. At the extreme, communication may be confined to primitive gestures, such as pointing at the mouth to indicate a desire for food. The large cultural distance between the Western and Sinic macrocultures is of particular im­portance to international business managers.

The foregoing discussion of perceptual and encoding/decoding gaps in cross-cultural communication may strike some readers as merely academic. To remove that impression, ten examples of international advertising blun­ders follow, four demonstrating perceptual gaps and six illustrating encoding/decoding gaps. I leave it to the reader to decide which is which!

  1. An American airline in Brazil advertised “rendez-vous lounges” on its jets. In Portuguese, “rendez-vous” neans a room hired for lovemaking.
  2. A leading producer of farm equipment built an advertising campaign in the United States around testimonials of small farmers. But this cam­paign fell flat in Europe, where dealers found it to be insulting because “small farmers” were viewed as peasants. Who wants advice from peasants?
  3. In many regions of Southeast Asia where betelnut chewing was an elite habit and black teeth were a symbol of prestige, Pepsodent’s promise of white teeth did not help. Nor did its slogan, “Wonder where the yellow went.”
  4. “Body by Fisher” became “corpse by Fisher” in Flemish.
  5. Parker Pen Company once launched an ad campaign in Latin America that unintentionally claimed that its new ink would help prevent un­wanted pregnancies.
  6. McDonnell Douglas Corporation created an aircraft brochure for po­tential customers in India depicting men wearing turbans. The Indians politely pointed out that turbans were Pakistani Moslem, not Indian.
  7. When Pepsi-Cola Company ran an ad in the Taiwan issue of the Reader’s Digest, it used the slogan, “Come alive with Pepsi!” Unfortu­nately, the Taiwanese translation told its readers, “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the dead!” In Germany, the same slogan was translated, “Come out of the grave with Pepsi!”
  8. General Mills advertised its breakfast cereal in Britain showing a freck-led, red-haired, crew-cut grinning kid saying, “See kids, it’s great!” But the cereal was almost untouched on retail shelves. The stereotyped American boy with the banal expression did not appeal to the British ideal of a child.
  1. When Kentucky Fried Chicken used its famous slogan, “It’s finger­licking good!” in Iran, it came out in Farsi as “It’s so good you will eat your fingers!”
  2. General Motors dealers in Puerto Rico were not happy with the new Chevrolet Nova automobile. The reason? When pronounced in Span­ish, Nova means “it does not go.” GM quickly changed the name to “Caribe.”

2. Low-Context and High-Context Cultures

Distance is greatest between cultures that rely heavily on words for com­munication (low-context cultures) and cultures that rely heavily on nonver­bal behavior for communication (high-context cultures).9 In a low-context culture, most of the information in most messages is contained in an ex­plicit linguistic code, that is to say, spoken or written words. In a high- context culture, however, most of the information in most messages is contained in the physical context or in the receiver’s internal context, and very little is explicitly coded in words. American culture is low-context (and even more so the Scandinavian and German cultures); the Chinese and Japanese cultures are high-context. While an American looks for meaning in what is being said, a Japanese looks for meaning in what is not being said—the silences, the gestures, the situation, and so on. To the American, therefore, it is most important to send accurate verbal messages, but to the Japanese it is most important to receive messages that are only partly (or not at all) in verbal form.

In low-context cultures, communication is more abstract and imper­sonal than in high-context cultures. That is because any event or situation is more complex than the language used to describe it, and the written lan­guage is itself an abstraction of the spoken language. In other words, language has a “linear” dimension, since one can talk or write about only a single aspect of an event or situation at any one time. It follows that language can convey only some of the meaning of an event or situation, including some things while leaving out others. On the other hand, in high- context cultures communication conveys much more of the complexity of an event or situation, because the receiver obtains meaning not only from words but, to a far greater degree than in low-context cultures, also from the sender’s nonverbal behavior and from the physical setting. But high- context communication also requires that the receiver share the perceptual field of the sender much more fully than in low-context communication.

High-context messages can be understood only by someone who has been “programmed” with the necessary information (internal context) and an understanding of the setting (external context). The Japanese and Chi­nese, therefore, must know much more that is going on at the covert level. It is the ignorance of Americans and other Westerners of the hidden, con­textual perceptions that so confounds communication with the Chinese and Japanese or with persons in other high-context cultures. That is why Hall says it is “sheer folly” to get seriously involved with high-context cultures unless one is really “contexted.”10

Because communication is the lifeblood of any organization, it is not surprising to find that typical business organizations in low- and high- context cultures are dissimilar in many ways. In a low-context culture, such as the American, a firm depends primarily on explicit, mostly written, rules to direct and control the behavior of managers and workers, and it rewards and punishes them by reference to their accomplishment of specific per­formance goals. Large American firms also explicitly define many functions and activities that are linked by formal relations among specialized man­agers and workers. Generally, only top managers plan several years ahead, while operating managers plan ahead to meet short-term budgetary goals and workers are left entirely out of the planning process. An American executive believes that few, if any, skills are unique to his company. Conse­quently, managers, technicians, and workers can be brought into the com­pany from the outside at any time and at any level, and will fit easily into the organization with its impersonal rules of behavior and specialized tasks. Managers and workers appear to be motivated mainly by the prospect of immediate economic reward from the sale of their job skills to the highest bidder. Hence Americans move frequently from one company to another, holding only a conditional loyalty to their present companies. Their social life is only partly, if at all, centered on their fellow employees.

In a high-context culture, such as the Japanese, the behavior of man­agers and workers is guided by implicit rules that are internalized through a process of enculturation in the firm’s values and ways of doing things. The mutual understanding of their own and others’ roles in the firm by employ­ees who are fully contexted in the firm’s own culture replaces the explicit relations and performance goals of the American firm. That is to say, in a Japanese firm, rules, roles, and expectations are communicated more through context than through words. A Japanese executive believes that managers and workers must acquire skills that are unique to his firm and can be learned only on the job. Furthermore, they must be inculcated with his firm’s business ideology. Hence it is extremely important to hire the right young people, people who are chosen as persons who will fit into the organization rather than as persons who possess specialized skills. A high- context firm seldom brings in outsiders except at the starting level. The basic organizational principle is that all employees have a collective respon­sibility to promote the company’s long-run welfare. Decision making is widely shared, and even workers are encouraged to take an interest in the long-range goals of the firm. To obtain this long-term orientation, the firm offers job security to its managers and workers. Employees center their social lives on the firm, to which they owe a lifetime loyalty.

This brief review of business organizations in low- and high-context cultures is not intended to suggest that one organization pattern is superior to the other. Nor do we want to say that every American firm is low- context while every Japanese firm is high-context. Instead, we have tried to make the point that the typical American (or Western) firm, reflecting its environing low-context culture, is organized along very different lines than the typical Japanese (or Sinic) firm, reflecting a high-context culture. One of the more interesting questions in management is the extent to which high- context organizations can perform effectively in the West.11

3. Nonverbal Communication

People in all cultures use nonverbal behavior as well as words to communi­cate meaning, although, as we have observed, people in high-context cul­tures rely on nonverbal behavior to a far higher degree than people in low-context cultures: Words are usually accompanied by some overt or covert behavior that can amplify, weaken, or even reverse their meaning.12 Overt behavior includes posture, dress, facial expression, and gesture. The meaning of such behavior varies from one culture to another. Overt behav­ior is also accompanied by covert nonverbal behavior, which Hall has called the “silent language,” such as the language of time, space, and agreements. Because it is hidden, the silent language is often a mysterious source of misunderstanding in cross-cultural communication. We offer be­low some comments on the languages of time and space, leaving the lan­guage of agreements to the next section.

Language of Time. Time carries different meanings in different cultures. To Americans, time might be described as a river flowing into the future, along which one moves from one activity to another. To get to where we want to arrive, we need to allocate our activities to discrete segments of time, that is to say, we need to schedule time. For that reason, Americans value prompt­ness, and because they are very future-oriented, they strike many foreigners as extremely impatient people. Americans are also uncomfortable when several things are going on at the same time.

Other cultures may perceive time quite differently. For example, the Arabs dislike planning for the future (they may even consider it blasphe­mous, since only Allah knows the future), and they do not take schedules as serious commitments. Making an appointment with an Arab far in advance is risky, because he is apt to consider any time beyond the next week as somewhere in a vague future. Unlike the American, the Arab is quite happy when several things are going on at the same time. Latin Americans have an elastic perception of time: “important” people, relatives, and friends get more time even during business hours than do “unimportant” people. When an American businessman has, say, a 9 A.M. appointment with a Latin American official, he may be kept waiting a half hour or longer. Using his own self-reference criterion, the American finds such behavior insulting, particularly since he has probably come a long way to see the minister. What he does not understand is that the official intends no insult and still wants to see him. Clearly, international managers should know the local language of time before visiting a country. American managers, in particular, need to curb their impatience when local nationals appear un­willing to “get down to business.”

Language of Space. The meaning of visual and auditory space is not the same across cultures. For instance, the American belief that space should be shared with others is not accepted by the Germans. In offices, Americans keep doors open, but Germans keep them closed. The German perceives open doors to be disorderly; the American perceives closed doors as un­friendly. Not surprising, German doors are much more solid than American doors.13

Another aspect of space is its role in neighboring patterns. Americans expect to get to know the people who live next door, but in Denmark and many other European countries, propinquity means nothing: personal rela­tionships are based on family and social class. In Denmark, suburban houses are protected by walls that firmly demarcate property lines. While living in a Copenhagen suburb, I watched with some astonishment the erection of a board fence around a house that was only half constructed. Incidentally, I never got to know any of my “neighbors.”

The French plan much of their space in a radial pattern, as with the— famous Place de l’Etoile. The manager of a French office is commonly found in the center, with his subordinates placed around him.14 Conversa­tional and other social distances are also influenced by culture. For in­stance, conversational distance is much closer in Latin America than in the United States. An American businessman talking with a Latin American may unconsciously back up to maintain his customary conversational dis­tance.

In Asian cultures, the language of space is radically different from that in American and other Western cultures. Japanese spatial patterns, for example, emphasize centers.[1]‘ The Japanese name intersections, not the streets leading to them. To the Westerner, a Japanese room looks bare because the sides are bare with everything in the center. (To the Japanese, a Western room may look bare because the center is empty with everything along the sides!) In Japan, there is a protocol of seating arrangements for business associates in a restaurant, the more formal with individual tables (the host welcoming guests in the center of the room), the less formal with a center table.16 More profoundly, the Japanese, unlike Westerners, are taught to give meaning to spaces, based on the ma or interval. The Japanese floral arrangement and the rock garden illustrate ma.

The Arabs also treat space differently than Westerners do. When they first encounter the Arab culture, Americans are likely to feel overwhelmed by smells, noise, and crowding.17 Arabs appear to have no concept of a “private zone” outside the body. They breathe on a person when they talk; they want to smell the other person. The American conversational distance strikes Arabs as cold and unfriendly. When an American sees two Arab men holding hands, he probably draws the wrong conclusion. An executive of an American construction company told me that his foreman in Saudi Arabia, a burly Texan, asked to be sent home because he could no longer endure the friendly embraces of his Arab workers! In sum, Arabs interact with each other on several levels much more intimately than Westerners.

4. Blunders in Face-to-Face Communication Across Cultures

Perceptual and encoding/decoding gaps create many blunders in face-to-face interactions between persons of different cultures. Here are a few examples.

  1. While walking in the park with a visiting American businessman, a Latin American official pointed to a statue, saying: “There is the statue of the great liberator of mankind!” The American asked the name of this renowned patriot and, being told, said, “I never heard of him.”
  2. Trying to break the ice in Germany with “Wie geht’s?” is twice wrong: the expression is too informal and too personal for first encounters.
  3. While using first names in business situations is regarded as an American vice in many countries, nowhere is it found more offensive than in France.
  4. When pressed by a U.S. sales executive for a “yes or no” in the construc­tion of a factory, a procurement official in Dubai responded: “After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day.” The American smartly quipped back: “That’s because they didn’t have an American foreman on the job.” The Dubai official reacted with what anthropologists call the “glass curtain”—a glazed stare which translated: “The conversation is over. Please leave.”
  5. In the Middle East it is risky for a guest to admire something, because his host may feel obliged to make a gift of it. A General Motors execu­tive told his host at an all-male cocktail party that he intended to buy an Arab robe as a souvenir. The host promptly took off his robe and, standing in pale-yellow long johns, handed it to the bewildered exec­utive.
  6. A sturdy handshake is part of the American cultural repertory. Yet in the Middle East the visitor gets a flaccid, “dead fish” handshake he may associate with femininity or unfriendliness. To the Arab, the hearty grasp is a sign that the American has more brawn than brains.
  7. Crossing one’s legs in front of a person or pointing the soles of one’s feet toward him is regarded as insulting in Thailand.

The first blunder shows a gross insensitivity to the culture of one’s host—ethnocentrism at its worse. The next three blunders are mainly lin­guistic in nature: using an improper form of address or trying out American humor on a foreign national, something always dangerous to do, because humor is so bound to a particular culture, it is apt to be misunderstood by a foreigner. But the last three blunders have little or nothing to do with words; they are blunders in nonverbal behavior.

Source: Root Franklin R. (1998), Entry Strategies for International Markets, Jossey-Bass; 2nd edition.

One thought on “Communicating Across Cultures in Foreign Investments

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