April 25, 2005
Book shows how to improve cross-cultural communication
BY Myra Thomas
In the new book, Guide for Internationals: Culture, Communication and ESL, Deborah Valentine, senior lecturer in management communication at Goizueta Business School, offers foreign-born managers and employees a primer on U.S. culture and how it can affect communication (verbal and nonverbal) and employee-manager interaction in the American workplace. Valentine talked recently with Knowledge@Emory, Goizueta’s electronic newsletter, about the cultural difficulties foreign-born workers face and solutions for bridging this gap.
Knowledge@Emory: In Chapter 1, you say the American idea of individualism, including the need for direct and forthright discussions and negotiations at work, is a particularly difficult concept for many people from outside the U.S. to understand. Why is that?
Valentine: Certainly, individualism is a concept that holds considerable sway in American life, as well as in American business. In cultures that operate in a more collective manner—most of Asia, for example—what is good for the society or group is the ideal, and that governs how business is conducted. In the U.S., however, often decisions are made by what is good for the individual. Knowing this cultural value will help international employees understand what they may initially view as selfish behavior on the part of their American co-workers.
How did you reach the conclusions in your book? Specifically, you note that the U.S. definition of a firm meeting time, typical American verbal and nonverbal communication, and the sense of U.S. individuality appear to be some of the biggest challenges for foreign-born employees and managers to understand.
We interviewed hundreds of international students and business people, as well as Americans in the workplace and in the university setting. We also drew from research of experts in the field. Our goal was to take the [research] and put it into a form that is challenging enough to be interesting and yet simple enough so that the reader doesn’t need an English-language dictionary.
We wanted the reader to understand the way things work in America to ease the frustration they often feel in their business dealings. The key is to aid in the process, so that the foreign-born person can walk away from a negotiation or a business project and not misconstrue an American interaction as disrespectful.
Once these activities are ingrained in someone’s behavior, are they impossible to change?
The culture you’re from really dictates what is the most difficult thing to relearn. For instance, someone coming from a Latino culture, where there is a more relaxed orientation towards time, might find it more difficult to adjust to the more exacting definition of meeting time in the United States. Some Asians might have trouble participating in the American-style workplace, especially when they are used to a more hierarchical structure and less direct input.
However, some are more culturally adept or more flexible than others. It can apply on either side. I give my U.S. students a quiz on whether they should accept a job assignment abroad. I ask them questions such as, “Are you comfortable with ambiguity” or “How willing are you to adjust your behaviors?” This applies to those coming from abroad to work here or Americans working abroad as well.
Obviously multicultural communication is a two-way street; just as much can be learned by U.S. employees and managers working with foreign-born colleagues. Can you give an example of such a situation?
A business colleague from Beijing, for example, who has been living in the United States for 10 years and speaks English perfectly, might be asked a question by a U.S. manager. The Chinese person might look thoughtful and then pause before offering an answer. Managers here tend to interpret silence as negative; sometimes they need to learn to take time and let others collect their thoughts.
How common is it for corporate trainers to deal with multicultural communication issues?
My co-author, Sana Reynolds, does this full-time for a variety of industries. Anyone can benefit from cross-cultural knowledge; for example, anyone who has a sales force will be calling on many different nationalities. Companies provide cross-cultural communication training because it improves the bottom line.
Your book devotes considerable attention to effective business communication. Doesn’t this present a particular problem for those writing in English when it is their second language?
One of the hardest things for people to learn is to be flexible depending on the needs of the recipient of that communication. It’s important to analyze your audience before you collect, organize and present your information correctly.
I teach a class at Goizueta called “Business Communication for International Students,” and the idea of this course is to help foreign-born students understand our cultural values and how they play out in business. My French students, for example, write beautifully and are well trained and smart. But the way they approach problem-solving is very different than in the United States. They talk around a subject, and they lead into a conclusion. So, their papers tend to be a lot longer. I teach them to break it down, and raise the “skim factor.” Good headings and bullet points are key.
They initially think it’s rude to approach an important subject from that point of view, but I convince them that this will get what they want in U.S. business situations.
This article first appeared in Knowledge@Emory (http://knowledge.emory.edu) and is reprinted with permission.