Cross-Cultural Communication – Check Your Assumptions

Cross-cultural Communication Introduces Unexpected Nuances
“What we need,” the CEO said, “is to find global partners who understand the rule of law.” The statement emerged from a discussion about a new global initiative.  “We don’t need to get bogged down in corruption, I want our partners to own our core values” the CEO continued. From the perspective of the CEO these two statements were clear and universal sources of certainty and protection as we entered an unknown world of global trade. This perspective had reduced the risk of expansion, hiring and managing competition in the United States.  But the deeper challenge inherent in a global initiative would shake these assumptions to their core.  Asserting that one’s core values are universal is a fundamental mistake of leaders who enter the global market for the first time.  The assumption that one’s own values are universal and the basis to assess all other values is ethnocentrism.

I do not use of the word ethnocentrism pejoratively rather I mean it descriptive. The greatest single challenge to entering a global market is to move from the assumption that one’s own mental categories are both universal and the correct way of assessing reality.  It typically comes as a shock to discover that the rest of the world does not share one’s own cultural assumptions.  Engaging cultural differences successfully means arriving at the realization that mental categories are culturally defined and thus are not universal.  Over time leaders that remain in a global setting gain an appreciation of cultural diversity that recognizes all worldviews are adequate in their context and inadequate to fully comprehend others who are different.

Business leadership today is a multicultural challenge even if one never travels across a national boundary. In a survey in of executives from 68 countries 90% named cross-cultural leadership as the most significant management challenge for the 21st century. While Friedman’s idea of a flat world is appealing (and verifiable at a surface level) it cannot be taken as permission to do business as usual wherever one travels.  The simple fact of the matter is that cultural differences exist despite the common business language and forms that make it seem like differences are minimal. The reality is that cultural nuances impact common business language and forms.

Consider the CEOs assertion that we needed a business partner who understood the rule of law.  This seems adequate however the question that immediately arises is whether every legal system around the globe is same as that which we use in the United States?  When working across cultures remember that what is seen and heard in the mind’s eye of people from different cultures may result in widely divergent understanding of the same situation and as a result widely different outcomes.

John C. Tobin notes that, “…even cultures that share the same legal systems may view the formation of legal states, such as a contract, or breach of contract, from fundamentally different viewpoints.”[i]  Why is this? The simple answer returns us to the reality that cultural differences exist and these differences mean that situations interpreted from one cultural perspective to another remain dissimilar.   The rule of law may be founded on either the adversarial system rooted in the common law developed in Elizabethan England or inquisitorial system rooted in Napoleonic Code.

Adversarial systems work from two pillars (a) that an impartial judge serves with broad discretion as a fact finder sifting through the competing arguments of adversaries represented by advocates and (b) the principle of stare decisis i.e., that the impartial judge applies the text of the law to the controlling facts he or she has determined in a fashion that harmonizes with prior decisions so that the interpretation of the law remains consistent over time. Stare decisis is a Latin phrase that roughly translates to “to stand by that which is decided.”

Inquisitorial systems derive from Napoleonic code in which the judge not the parties involved in a dispute determines the initiation, scope and extent of litigation.  As a result each case entering the court is unique and is not dependent upon the precedent of other similar cases.  In other words the concept of stare decisis that is so important in an adversarial system does has no part in an inquisitorial system yet both systems represent the rule of law.

The CEO’s apparently simple recommendation becomes complex when applied cross-culturally even if we found only potential business partners who said they understood the rule of law.  This complexity only amplifies when one considers working in a non-rule of law country i.e., where the enforcement model is personified in a supreme ruler (religious or state entity) where decision-making is strictly defined by religious, ideological or tribal source of law.  Cultural differences and how these cultures define risk aversion, power, orientation toward goal or environmental concerns, or individualism versus collectivism in decision-making must be understood to avoid serious misunderstandings.[ii]

Why is Understanding Cultural Differences So Important?

What is culture?  If understanding culture is imperative to working in a global environment then it is good to start with a basic definition. Livermore (2010) defines culture as “…any group of people who have a shared way of seeing and making sense of the world.[iii]

Defining culture this way allows us to consider the impact of organizational as well as national and ethnic cultures (or regional cultures).   Possessing the ability to adapt to various ways in which groups of people see and make sense of the world has specific benefits. Livermoore (2010) calls this adaptive ability “Cultural Intelligence” and notes that it is essential to:

  1. Understand customers – emerging markets (overseas markets) are expected to grow by an average of 30 to 50 percent over the next several years.
  2. Manage personnel – recognizing cultural differences and one’s own cultural assumptions enable leaders to achieve the right blend of flexibility and rigidity in managing operations.
  3. Recruit talent – organizations that practice cultural intelligence are more likely to recruit and retain talent that (a) understand the context and (b) interpret organizational values into various cultural contexts and vice verse.
  4. Adapt leadership style – regional, national and organizational cultures influence the kind of leadership that is acceptable and effective within specific cultural settings
  5. Communicate respect – respect or benevolence is critical to building trust and the commitment, contribution, confidence and conviction needed to secure superior employee engagement.

I have noted elsewhere that leaders must master communication. In its simplest form communication is the ability to outline the actions a team or group must take to carry out a task.  This sounds simple yet outlining actions also requires that a leader understand and outline their own values, expectations and the reason for the action and communicate this in light of the way values, expectations and reasons for action taken as understood from the cultural perspective of those who are listening.  In fact the greater the scope of leadership responsibility and the more diverse the cultural differences the more complex the layers of communication become so that verbal and symbolic multilayered communication is critical for the success of the organization.

How Do I Develop Cultural Intelligence?

Leaders who wish to avoid the trap of ethnocentrism (i.e., “evaluating other people and their culture by the standards of our own cultural preferences”) can start by following four simple steps.[iv]

First, see culture’s role in your own life as well as in other’s lives.  It helps to have a basic model of culture from which to assess your own perspectives and the perspectives of others. One way to start is to use Gert Hofstede’s cultural dimensions. These dimensions of culture include:

  • Power distance: the extent to which the less powerful members of organizations and institutions accept or expect that power be distributed unequally.  The basic problem involved is the degree of human inequality that underlies the function of each particular society.
  • Uncertainty avoidance: the extent to which a culture programs its members to feel either uncomfortable or comfortable in unstructured situations.  Unstructured situations are novel, unknown, surprising, and different from usual.  The basic problem involved is the degree to which a society tries to control the uncontrollable.
  • Individualism/collectivism: the degree to which people look after themselves or stay integrated into groups, usually around the family.  Positioning itself between these poles is a very basic problem all societies face.
  • Masculinity/femininity: refers to the distribution of emotional roles between the genders, which is another fundamental problem for any society to which a range of solutions are found; it opposes “tough” masculine to “tender” feminine societies.
  • Long-term/short-term orientation: refers to the extent to which a culture programs its members to accept delayed gratification of their material, social, and emotional needs.

Second, review the basic cultural systems – gain a familiarity with the culture’s economic, marriage and family, political, religious, legal, and artistic systems.  Talk with several people who are part of the culture in which you intend to work.  Ask why at least five times and of different people.  Asking “why” more than once gets past surface level responses to the deeper assumptions of the culture. This assumes that (a) you have done some research or reading about the culture and its worldview and (b) you spend time in the culture. I call this:  getting three blocks in.  One of my first cross-cultural adventures started at a port in the Middle East. I noticed that things seemed somewhat familiar to me until I walked about three blocks off the water front.  It was there that I entered a completely different world and felt altogether disoriented.  Embrace that sense of disorientation and loss of control.  It is part of gaining cultural intelligence.

Third, learn the core cultural values of the culture in which you intend to work.  Be aware of the reality that values defined by a cultural mentor may not correspond with how people actually act.  Argyris and Schön define this paradox as the difference between espoused theories and theories in use.  Hofstede calls this the distinction between desired behaviors and desirable behaviors.  The distinction is important to recognize the difference between actions (the desired that indicates values in action on the basis of the person and the situation) and words (which provides the ideal [desirable] that is held as a standard for determining action. The tension between the desired and the desirable is found in every culture. The point is that to understand culture it is imperative to see both aspects of what leads to action and decision-making.

Fourth, understand the different languages.  Ideally working in a cross-cultural capacity leads to learning a second language and becoming proficient in conversation. In many business environments today however business people spend very little time and may cross multiple cultures. Even in this case learning the basics of language in light of the cultural dimensions identified by Hofstede make the difference between being successful in forming business alliances or failing altogether. One need not be a linguist to learn a second language.  One of my first international assignments found me working with leaders from Latin America.  So, I determined to become at least somewhat functional in conversational Spanish.  I told my secretary of this goal. She said, “Are you sure?” “Then I will only use Spanish when I talk with you so that you practice and learn to speak Spanish.”  These were the last words she said to me in English.

After a week of frustration and growing agitation on my part she asked me a rhetorical question in English.  “Ray, did you arrive from your mother’s womb speaking perfect English?  No, you cooed and mimicked and practiced sounds until you began to put together sounds with objects. No one understood you at first and you did not understand them but still you made noise.  What makes you think you can learn Spanish as an adult?  Become a child again or you will never learn how to think and see in Spanish and so you will never speak it.”  Learning requires that one embrace the awkwardness of curiosity.  Without the commitment to be curious like a child the odds of developing cultural intelligence greatly diminish.


As we prepare to launch a new global initiative these lessons revolve around in my head.  Like others I don’t like feeling less than competent or out of control yet without feeling these emotions I know that I have not yet begun to move from an ethnocentric view to one that grows in cultural intelligence.

Developing cultural intelligence requires a commitment to learning.  Anyone can develop cultural intelligence. However, not everyone will. Learning cultural intelligence provides a clear advantage in the global market place and it has the less obvious benefit of gaining an ability to read every cultural (or political) situation with greater insight into how decisions are made. This benefit is significant for emerging leaders as it minimizes the risk of political missteps within one’s own organization and cross-cultural gaffes in the global market place.   If you are a leader learning to work in the global market place tells me how these lessons resonate.  What have you learned along the way?  What faux pas did you stumble into?  Don’t keep the wisdom to yourself help all of us by sharing your experience.

[i] John C. Tobin. “The Legal Implications of Cross-cultural Leadership and Trade” in Contemporary Leadership and Intercultural Competence ed. Michael A. Moodian (Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications, 2009), 66.

[ii] Gert Hofstede. Culture’s Consequences in Work Related Values (Beverly Hills, CA: Sage, 1980).

[iii] David Livermore. Leading with Cultural Intelligence: the New Secret to Success (New York, NY: American Management Association, 2010), 13.

[iv] Livermore, 64.

7 Replies to “Cross-Cultural Communication – Check Your Assumptions”

  1. […] My point in the discussion above is to show; (1) that cross-cultural understanding is possible; (2) that one understands in degree or layers not in whole so that (3) continuous learning is necessary to succeed well in communication across cultures. As noted previously one must engage in language learning to be effective in the global market. (See, […]

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