Within the workplace, multicultural teams have become the norm, with team members bringing different values, assumptions, and patterns of behavior to the group. To work effectively within such an environment, team members must understand and adapt to one another’s value systems and cultural differences.

On the surface, this might seem easy enough, and just a matter of accommodating things like religious holidays, worship schedules, and dietary requirements. But usually it’s not that simple, as these differences aren’t always clear.

Lost in translation

One of the key areas this applies to is language, where much can get lost in translation. While this can just stem from a basic lack of fluency, it can also be the result of cultural differences in communication styles. These have been characterized by researchers as direct or indirect, and high or low context, as well as various combinations of these.

Direct and indirect styles are just what they sound like: people either mean what they say or they don’t. Context, which is more complex, is what’s unspoken but understood based on group or cultural norms and relationships; it includes many subtle nonverbal factors such body language, tone of voice, age, gender, etc.

In countries with low context and highly direct cultures (Germany or the U.S. for example), saying “yes” or “no” often means just that, at least within a business setting. But in cultures and countries that are just the opposite (e.g., China and Japan), these statements can mean something else entirely. In Japan, for instance, where communication is very highly nuanced, it’s often considered rude to say no to someone’s face, so one may instead say yes, maybe, or nothing at all. In terms of context, factors such as age, gender, and social status can also impact how negatively a “no” is perceived.

It should also be noted that communication styles can vary by profession. Finance and engineering for instance, are often considered less contextual than, say, sales and human resources.

Keeping your distance, or not

Actions and behaviors are other areas where cultural differences can impact perception. Like language, we often view these through our own cultural lens, believing that something is a personality trait when it’s actually a cultural difference.

Consider, for example, the concept of personal space, which is the distance you’d ideally keep between yourself and an acquaintance while speaking face to face. In some cultures four feet is the norm, while in others it’s half that.

While cultural differences offer may ways to offend, this is one of the most common. Those from different cultures who aren’t aware of this can easily misinterpret the actions of another, believing him or her to be either too aloof and standoffish or too intrusive.

In addition to the above, there are many other areas where cultural differences can be misinterpreted. In a business setting, these include attitudes around work hours, open disagreement, socializing in the workplace, and last-minute changes.

Adaptation is key

As noted, the path to intercultural harmony lies in a willingness to understand and adapt to these and many other differences. It also includes showing respect and empathy, and acknowledging one’s own cultural assumptions.

Doing so can not only help team members become more culturally fluent, but will also enhance their ability to successfully accomplish their objectives.

Tag: Multicultural Teams