Communication skills are considered fundamental in the workplace; but let’s take this a step further and consider the implications of applying these skills in a cross-cultural setting, and doing so ethically.
Effective communication involves expressing oneself clearly, being a good listener, using appropriate body language, and how a message is delivered and received. It is inherently a two way process. Communication operates through a system of customs and principles that are essentially determined by people’s culture. When the communicators don’t share these principles, a communication breakdown, or miscommunication, will typically occur. Of course there are various types of communication in the workplace: face-to-face, email, phone, etc. and for each of these the style of communicating will vary according to culture.
Webster’s Dictionary defines ethical as “conforming to an accepted standard of good behavior” and the Oxford Dictionary defines ethics as “a set of moral principles or code”. Consequently, when we speak of ethical communication in the global workplace we see that cultural customs and principles affect both the communication style and the definition of what is considered ethical.
Let’s look at three areas where communication styles differ across cultures and how we can overcome some of the challenges presented and still ensure we maintain an ethical approach.
- Explicit Vs Implicit
Most Western cultures, especially Anglo, Germanic and Scandinavian groups, will communicate explicitly, that is, almost all important information is communicated in a direct and unambiguous manner. This style also reflects our ethics, which is to communicate clearly and truthfully without being vague or misleading. Such cultures as Asian, Middle Eastern and Latin American tend to communicate implicitly; they rely on the context to communicate the most important information, and may take relationships and setting into account, resulting in an indirect and ambiguous style. Ethics in these groups require that politeness and avoiding embarrassment take precedence over truth; in fact, for many of these cultures there is no absolute truth. The avoidance of saying ‘no’ in some Asian cultures is an example how these two styles can threaten communication.
So how can we ensure we are not offending by being too direct, and conversely, determine what is being conveyed in a vague response? Simply being aware of the situation certainly helps. Making others feel comfortable and relaxed can override what you say, and I would encourage the listener to ask open-ended questions to clarify vague answers. Being aware of your own values and principles, and not judging the other party by your standards can alleviate a lot of frustration.
We use several non-verbal signals when we communicate such as touching, facial expressions, gestures, body positioning, eye contact, speech volume and tone, physical distance etc. These can have different meanings across cultures. Another major difference is the use of silence. Most Western cultures tend to want to fill long silences, and this can be perceived as arrogant by cultures where silence is interpreted as a sign of respect. We may interpret avoidance of eye contact as an indication of dishonesty or lack of sincerity, whereas in many African cultures it is considered respectful.
In the global workplace it is best to observe, and then modify our non-verbal communication signals to reflect those of the other party where possible. I am not suggesting to completely mirror these signals, but things such as avoiding touching when it creates discomfort is an easy adjustment to make. Also, don’t make assumptions based on your own non-verbal communication style and rely more on verbal clarification. A smile is sometimes used to hide anger so you may want to make sure you have understood correctly by verifying the meaning verbally.
One of the reasons English has become the lingua franca of the business world is because of its richness, directness and precision. The Thesaurus exists only in English, and there are about 200,000 commonly used words in English (whereas French, for example has 100,000). Some speakers of English as a second language, especially those from cultures that don’t want to lose face, pretend they understand when they really do not. On the other hand, pretending not to understand when in fact they do is a negotiation technique used by some others. Unfortunately we now have the phenomenon where two communicators are often both non-native speakers of English, adding another dimension to the challenge of global communication.
Language is fraught with difficulties such as idioms, slang, jargon and euphemisms; these should be avoided when communicating ethically with a non-native speaker. Keep it simple, clear and use standard language. Clarify what you are saying and offer the other party the opportunity to do the same.
In concluding we can see that this is an extremely complex issue, but to begin the process of communicating ethically in the global workplace we should build awareness so we can anticipate the differences, and then observe and adapt, while still maintaining our own values and ethics. In fact, one could say that taking into consideration both your own and the other party’s cultural factors when communicating, in itself constitutes ethical behavior.