Anyone who has worked in a global team setting has likely witnessed firsthand how communication problems are much more than inconveniences. They can be damaging and costly. A Project Management Institute study found that one out of five projects is unsuccessful due to ineffective communications, translating to $75 million at risk for every $1 billion spent. When my colleague and I began to study this problem with engineers working together from four continents, we found communication problems stemmed in part from assumptions the engineers had about communication. Common ways people talk about communication are mostly insufficient for the digital communication environment.
Let’s take an example. Many people, like the engineers, will say that good communication is direct and clear. It might sound foolproof to “be direct,” especially when all you have is a one hour window of time before the European office goes home or before you lose another day. But if you think about it, when it’s critical to persuade someone or get a request filled, most people choose language that is collaborative. Demands are made indirectly most of the time, because indirect expression does two things at once. It communicates a need and at the same time builds good will by showing respect and appreciation for other people. So far so good. In the global office, though, different cultures have different ways to preserve relationships when making demands, and these are not understandable universally (though respect is the same goal). In fact, you probably have never thought about how weirdly demands are made in American English.
Strangely enough, when Americans ask someone for something, they question that person’s ability to do even the simplest thing (can you pass the butter? can you send me an email?). Another weird way Americans make requests is by telling someone their worries: “I’m concerned about that water line.” A German colleague told me that she didn’t understand why her American passenger (who knew the way) kept saying “why don’t you turn here?” The German thought it was a criticism, rather than a polite way to get her to turn the car. The Indian engineers we studied said “Why are the Americans so maddeningly indirect?” The Americans felt the same way about other groups. These are the types of situations that cause people to think: let’s just be clear and direct (“Turn here!”). Cultures have different ways of requesting and demanding, but unfortunately asking people to be more direct is like asking them to be disrespectful and even immoral.
These types of communication habits make communicating in a global office environment spanning multiple countries and time zones challenging. Especially where there is little chance to observe cultural differences face to face. To address this problem my colleague and I identified five principles as a guide for technologically-mediated, cross-cultural office settings. The principles make up what we call the Communication Plus Model, a way to use what you already know, with a research-based understanding about how communication works:
Language and culture are interwoven. This may seem like a familiar cliché, but it is helpful to keep in mind. Almost all the engineers we studied told us they had thought that cultural differences wouldn’t really matter because they were all speaking English; they had at first assumed they could strip culture out of their words or use a neutral form of communication. But no aspect of communication is free of culture’s influence, even ‘yes’ or ‘no’ or how to ask questions. And just like each person’s English has an accent from their first language, they have influences from their first culture. What seems like a lapse or deliberate disrespect can be someone doing what they were taught is right. An important part of becoming a better global communicator is becoming aware of how strange your own culture’s habits are. It’s probably not going to work to encourage your foreign colleagues to behave in a way that goes against their cultural norms, such as “just say no!” Remembering how deeply interwoven culture and language are make it less easy to blame or be blamed unfairly.
Successful communication depends on “common ground.” More than simply rapport, common ground is about background information and emotions. It’s knowledge built up so gradually it’s taken for granted. In a cross cultural setting, though, much less that can be taken for granted. In the best engineering teams we saw, the people were constantly and actively building new common ground even in very simple ways. They said what they thought might be obvious. They were redundant. They were careful not to suppose too much about what others might know. Members of every culture are largely unaware of how much they understate background information – that is, until something goes wrong.
Language is action. It’s about getting things done in the world. If what someone is doing with their language (making a request, denying a request, reminding, criticizing, humoring, inviting, rejecting, disagreeing) doesn’t look like they way you do it in your culture, this can be confusing. Once you begin to look for the action behind words, you will be sensitive to the fact that your own language actions can be misunderstood if those actions aren’t recognizable to others of another culture. People have very good culturally-based reasons for performing certain actions in certain ways. If the interaction isn’t going the way you expected, and what you said wasn’t interpreted in the way you expected, it’s time to backtrack and repair. Because many aspects of communication sequences are routine, people become very good at predicting what might be next in a sequence or what might be upcoming or how something might play out. However, in the cross-cultural setting, speakers and hearers can find conversations going in unexpected directions. Be vigilant in monitoring and repairing these sequences, and don’t just let them go as “strange”.
The hearer is the most important player. Hearers are the unsung heroes of communication. It’s up to them to make sense of what’s said. In face-to-face interactions, speakers can track hearers’ expressions and body language, but in virtual offices with little or no face-to-face contact, hearer feedback is still critical to good communication. A lot of communication training, especially in corporate environments, is aimed at improving the speaker’s behavior. The hearer is often a forgotten participant. Not all hearers can be treated the same (the myth of a universal hearer). It’s a good idea to find out something about the culture and history of your hearers. This takes time, but it pays off.
Expect technology to be a handicap and compensate for it. Technology reduces the signals and cues we are used to depending on for communication and cues about behavior, understanding, and focused attention. Good strategies for technologically-mediated communication include increased redundancy and increased checking of understanding (even though these communication styles can irritate participants), learning about other cultures, and providing more context.
Getting a promotion or a new career opportunity often depends on being a good communicator. No one is born with this ability. Anyone can learn to be more aware of the power of words and how culture influences them, for today’s global environments.