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A cultural training workshop was recently held for a multicultural team within an international organisation. The team consisted of a manager, supervisors and sales staff from Australia, China, Japan and South Korea. The setting was their annual sales and marketing meeting.
After discussing verbal and nonverbal communication behaviour across cultures more generally, some key communication issues that existed within the team were discussed. The Australian manager raised intercultural conference calls as being a key area of concern. He believed that conference calls should be short and highly interactive, but found that in most instances, their Chinese, Japanese and Korean colleagues did not participate in the discussion, did not respond to open questions and only managed to make some vague remarks when they were really pushed to do so. The Australian manager complained that conference calls were taking too long as it took a long time to get people to speak up. Another Australian staff confessed: “The silences that people create are nerve racking and irritate me. I have better things to do than a conference call for three hours, instead of the scheduled one-and-a-half hours”.
During the initial discussion of this predominantly Australian issue most of the staff from China, Japan and South Korea smiled politely but continued to remain silent. It was only later, during a small breakout group exercise, that some of them explained that they actually found it quite annoying that they often had to listen to all these Australian individual opinions that did not differ all that much.
In our increasingly globalising world, conference calls are used more frequently as a medium to communicate across borders. Unfortunately, this convenient form of communication can also create or enhance intercultural communication problems. In communication processes we use verbal and nonverbal behaviour. Silence, tone of voice, facial expression, and body distance are all examples of nonverbal behaviour that refer to what people do rather than say.
Verbal and nonverbal communication within our own culture can be difficult enough to decipher; however, when different cultures come into play, complications can arise. We may not know the specific meaning of the verbal and non-verbal behaviour that exists within other cultures. This can become even more troublesome during conference calls when colleagues are located overseas and are unable to see each other.
During the workshop, the Australians expressed the need to have and voice individual opinions, the importance of being heard, and the opportunity to make a decision and move on. They felt that the silences experienced during the conference calls were uncomfortable: silences in Western cultures can mean a number of things which are often negative. For example, silence could mean that:
To attempt to understand what is going on the Australian managers indicated that they use verbal communication such as asking direct questions, requesting explanations and using confrontations to break through silences.
In contrast, the Chinese, Japanese and South Korean supervisors and staff expressed the need to discuss the various issues with each other before the conference call and then select one person – preferably a supervisor – to represent them and voice the groups’ opinion. A Chinese supervisor explained that silences in their culture are not uncomfortable and are actually important to express mutual trust in each other. and to reflect on what has been said. A Japanese team member added that sometimes ‘talking too much’ was regarded as a less intelligent way to deal with problems. The “just do it” approach was even regarded as ‘childish’ because no time had been invested in considering the possible outcomes. When East and West meet it is important to consider the following saying by Lao Tzu – an Eastern philosopher- “Those who know do not talk, those who talk do not know”.
At the end of the workshop, the team expressed relief that the tension during their intercultural conference calls surrounding both the issues of silence and talking too much was now out in the open, and more importantly better understood. With improved awareness and understanding, the team was ready to put in place a workable structure for their conference calls and design appropriate communication practices that would be more suitable to and comfortable for all cultures participating in future calls.
Joost Thissen, Partner & Interculturalist
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