It has been postulated that the behavior of every individual is largely defined by the cultural environment in which he or she lives. Cultural traditions and values themselves are developed under the influence of various social, political, and historical contexts. Due to the uniqueness of the combination, each culture has its peculiarities and characteristics that differentiate it from others. As a result of his life-long research, cultural scientist, Geert Hofstede, developed a model of cultural dimensions in which every national culture is ranked and classified based on five primary categories: masculinity vs. femininity, uncertainty avoidance, power distance, individualism vs. collectivism, and long-term vs. short-term orientation.
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Cultural differences significantly complicate cross-cultural communication because they create barriers to mutual understanding. However, by considering the features inherent within every nation, and identifying them using Hofstede’s model, one can create the chance to avoid conflicts and achieve better communication outcomes.
A few years ago, I worked as a receptionist in a large international hotel and had an opportunity to have first-hand knowledge of how cultural differences, and the lack of their understanding by management, can adversely affect employee communication and retention. In the hotel, the majority of the team members and managers were Chinese expatriates. From my observations, they shared some common behavioral features and views which can also be closely associated with their national culture.
For instance, China is rated high in the collectivism category (Hockel, 2017). In my colleagues, this was reflected in their belief of organizational needs having greater value than personal ones. At the same time, from the managers’ perspective, the development of harmony and cohesion among all team members and departments was a priority. Although such an attitude did not exclude some degree of individualistic aspirations, collective benefits were always the first to be considered.
All employees were expected to acknowledge this idea and comply with it. Thus, working overtime was regarded as the norm, while leaving the workplace at the exact minute your shift was over was considered rather unusual behavior. Additionally, the work environment was highly formalized, and a clear-cut hierarchy could be observed there. It can be related to the fact that, compared to US culture, there is a greater level of power acceptance in Chinese society.
Nowadays, many US organizations start to provide employees with greater autonomy and freedom of expression, regardless of their positions. Conversely, by not paying respect to authority, one can face a lot of trouble informal Chinese settings because Chinese society traditionally abides by the principles of the social and professional hierarchy, and even a polite disagreement with higher management may be considered rude.
My first encounter with these cultural differences was somewhat shocking to me as I did not expect to see such a high level of rigidity in the hotel environment and had looked for a job where I could meet my interests as well. Over time, as I started to understand the cultural differences more and more, I began to feel better, yet I could not stay at the workplace for long. However, I knew that this working experience could improve if the management tried to align both personal and collective interests and generate mutual advantages.
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The lack of cross-cultural communication and consideration of distinct cultural dimensions by the managers was rather a big strategic error. Without this, they were unable to make the corporate environment suitable for their diverse workforce and, as a result, they could not retain employees from a non-Chinese cultural background.
The described work experience demonstrates that it is critical to consider the fact that social and cultural structures vary from one country to another. The understanding of cultural peculiarities may contribute to better employee communication and lead to more productive outcomes. Thus, managers should analyze cultural differences in culturally diverse employees to facilitate their integration in the specific work process and the corporate environment in general.
A well-developed communication and support system can contribute to faster acceptance of unfamiliar cultural practices by employees from culturally different backgrounds. Indeed, in international companies with a highly diversified workforce, the corporate culture and structure should be even more flexible. By creating such a culture, considering cultural differences, and aligning individual and organizational needs, firms may foster greater employee satisfaction and loyalty.
Intercultural Communication Competence
In the era of globalization, intercultural encounters have become more and more frequent. However, when the distance between global communities becomes smaller, even greater risks for conflict arise as many people are not aware of the basic differences among cultures and do not have essential cross-cultural communication skills. The term “intercultural communication competence” refers to a set of abilities that allow collocutors to increase communicative productivity and come to a mutual understanding.
Inkaew (2016) defines intercultural competence as “the capacity to engage with people of a cultural group and identity to which we do not belong, to understand them and to act together with them” (p. 188). To be culturally competent, one does not need to change its own identity. Instead, it is implied that a culturally competent person will be able to see another culture from within, while at the same time evaluate their own culture from an outside perspective.
Intercultural communication competence can be useful in a variety of contexts. However, in the non-work environment, it becomes especially helpful when you travel. Traveling across Asia, I met a lot of people whose views, behaviors, and values significantly differed from my own. In many cases, these differences affected communication. For instance, when traveling in India and having occasional conversations with locals, I was frequently asked questions which are usually regarded as impolite in Western societies.
It seemed uncomfortable to me that the first thing people would ask was my age, marital status, and occupation and after hearing this repeatedly, I was starting to become irritated. However, later a friend explained that it is a common practice to inquire about age and marital status in their culture because these demographic characteristics define how people will refer to you during communication. It turned out that what I regarded as a manifestation of excess curiosity, in most of the cases, was nothing but a formality. I also realized that the very nature of our communicative behavior was different in multiple aspects.
For instance, Indians tend to be very loud compared to the culture in which I was brought up. They also use a lot of indirectness in their speech and sometimes may talk just for the pleasure of being listened to. Although Western cultures differ from each other as well, in general, they seem to be more introverted, and the communicative behaviors adopted there are more purposeful and pragmatic compared to India.
My traveling and communication experiences allowed me to develop several intercultural communication skills and I learned to be more open, respectful, and accepting of cultural peculiarities. I now understand that when we have particular behavioral expectations and mind settings, we reduce the chances to fully comprehend a person from a different country. It occurred to me that to overcome these barriers, one should not focus on differences as such but rather regard a person as an equal. It seems that while, on the one hand, cultural distinctions enrich humanity, on the other hand, when these differences are emphasized, they prevent us from developing an authentic connection. Thus, every person should aim to acknowledge different cultures, yet respect and embrace the differences between them as well.
According to the Uncertainty Reduction Theory, during cross-cultural interactions, we tend to compensate for the discomfort associated with encountering unfamiliar reality. For example, we may strive to improve our second language skills, develop knowledge about a foreign culture, and seek more intercultural contacts. However, not all compensation practices may lead to favorable outcomes. For instance, almost every individual is prone to the development of stereotypes − shared knowledge structures associated with particular ethnic or social groups. Stereotypes usually have negative connotations and not always accurate mirrors the truth.
They may adversely affect intercultural communication and even lead to hostile attitudes. To avoid this, one should engage in the development of intercultural competence. It is possible to achieve this through the process of self-reflection and evaluation of knowledge structures adopted from his or her culture and social environment, or supported by personal experiences. It is also possible to say that by reflecting on personal biases, a person may be able to get rid of them and, consequently, improve the quality of intercultural communication.
Hockel, L. S. (2017). Individualism vs. collectivism: How inherited cultural values affect labor market outcomes of second-generation immigrants in the US. Ruhr Economic Papers, 669, 3-37.
Inkaew, M. (2016). An analysis of intercultural communicative competence: Hotel front office personnel in Bangkok. The PASAA Journal, 51, 185-214.