An international perspective by Berlin based Monique Zytnik.
The most important skill to have, a diplomat recently told me, is to be able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes – to be able to see things from other people’s perspectives.
This means more than just recognising the difference.
Most misunderstandings come from underling differences in values says cultural consultant, Andrea Mendieta from intercultures in Berlin,Germany. Andrea is from Guatemala and has lived in Austria and Germany.
“People can be quick to judge others if they see them behaving differently from what they are used to,” Andrea said. “Often we don’t stop and ask ourselves why or try to discover the underlying reasons for the differences.”
The Dutch are direct and some people take offence. My Dutch cousin, who is very friendly and sweet, explained to me that being ‘fluffy’ and ‘nice’ and not getting to the point wastes time. Being direct means that problems are fixed quickly and you can get on with the work. From their perspective, it is not about being offensive. It is about being helpful. And, yes they know they are being direct.
Germans are also direct (perhaps a little less). There is an exact word for almost everything and little meaning is left to the context. If they don’t like something, you will be told. You will also be asked blunt questions. Many people I’ve met in Germany have expressed their frustration with the English, Australian or American way of being indirect and polite as it is seen as confusing. Phrases such as ‘Would it be possible if…’ and ‘If you have time could you…’ are sometimes found conceptually challenging, just as the concept of small talk is. Enthusiasm without following through to seal the deal is also strongly disliked. This is seen mainly as an American trait but I am sure we have all been guilty of it.
Be careful of relying on literal translations for meaning. Recently some of my clients in Germany burst out laughing when they heard the phrase ‘I was wondering…’ as literally translated into German it means I was asking myself about what I was thinking. When I explained that it was just a polite phrase, there was first a look of disbelief, which was followed by accusations of trying to joke with them… something along the lines of the Vegemite and drop bear stories. Language and its use can give a great insight into a culture.
A contrast to Germany’s low context culture is China. A friend regularly does business in China and Hong Kong, where building relationships, establishing trust and using subtly is essential.
This is similar in Guatemala, another high context culture, Andrea reports. “It is really important to establish the relationship when doing business as there is more that matters to a Guatemalan than the qualifications or hard facts,” she said. “If there is no relationship, there won’t be any trust and a deal might not go ahead.”
As a result, Guatemalans can find it irritating when someone launches straight into business, she says. So start an email with a bit of friendly chit chat and then move onto business, and when you meet someone face to face, spend at least ten minutes talking about family or the weekend.
Laughing, Andrea said that foreigners are sometimes taken back by how intimate people from Guatemala can seem, where touching someone on the arm or shoulder shows enthusiasm for what they are saying (very different from China). And, don’t worry too much about turning up five to ten minutes late as it isn’t considered rude. The reason for this is because time is seen as flexible and fluid – the Guatemalan culture focuses more on relationships rather than holding onto schedules.
Contrast this to Germany where punctuality is a sign of respect in business. Local public transport systems broadcast profuse apologies over loud speakers if a train is running more than seven minutes late. I think I once patiently waited two hours for a bus in Cuba because the driver had stopped for a long lunch.
Communication is about people. The sender/ receiver model of communication is old fashioned. It implies separate stand points with the ‘communication’ going back and forwards directly between them. Technology and globalisation have made communication dynamic and interactive. The focus is now on engaging with others. Communication is perpetually in motion.
Good communication is only possible when people respect and value each other – this is the mantra of communication 2.0, for both internal and external communication, says organisational communication expert, Alejandro Formanchuk from Buenos Aires.
“When we work, we focus on people and not on tools. Our goals are to give long-lasting messages, to do believable actions, to have trusting conversations, to have welfare and to find professional and personal fulfilment,” wrote Alejandro. “We are still people who communicate with people.”
So, stay open minded, prepare yourself the best you can, try to understand your underlying values and those from others, and celebrate differences. Move. Step into someone else’s shoes. Cultural perspectives are just another element of communication in motion.
Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner developed a respected cross cultural communication model with dichotomies in a similar style to Myers Briggs (used for monoculture analysis). Books include Building Cross-Cultural Competence and 21 Leaders for the 21st Century.
Geert Hofstede developed a country based Power Distance Index and Edward Hall was the originator of the high and low context model related to communications.