Chapter 6: Intercultural Communication in Organizations
- Describe some ways in which national culture affects organizational behavior.
- Describe the four dimensions of culture that are part of Hofstede’s framework.
In the United States, the workforce is becoming increasingly multicultural, with close to 16% of all employees being born outside the country. In addition, the world of work is becoming increasingly international. The world is going through a transformation in which China, India, and Brazil are emerging as major players in world economics. Companies are realizing that doing international business provides access to raw materials, resources, and a wider customer base. For many companies, international business is where most of the profits lie, such as for Intel Corporation, where 70% of all revenues come from outside the United States. International companies are also becoming major players within the United States. For example, China’s Lenovo acquired IBM’s personal computer business and became the world’s third largest computer manufacturer. As a result of these trends, understanding the role of national culture for organizational behavior may provide you with a competitive advantage in your career. In fact, sometime in your career, you may find yourself working as an expatriate. An expatriate is someone who is temporarily assigned to a position in a foreign country. Such an experience may be invaluable for your career and challenge you to increase your understanding and appreciation of differences across cultures.
Consider the following questions: How would you deal with Japanese customers? How would you behave when invited to dinner by a Moroccan customer? “, “Is there any kind of basic “international business behavior”? Would you be able to work for a German company? What about the American way of dealing with the working force? Any businessperson should have an answer for each one of these questions. Daily practice often shows professionals that working abroad or in an international setting is harder than expected beforehand and that academic contents do not seem basic in some specific situations, as in some of those expressed above. It is crucial to learn how to deal with difficult moments that many business people often have when working in an international setting.
In a world that is increasingly interconnected, the success of organizations and their people depends on effective intercultural communication. Research on the nature of linguistic and cultural similarities and differences can play a positive and constructive role. Lack of knowledge of another culture can lead, at the best, to embarrassing or amusing mistakes in communication. At the worst, such mistakes may confuse or even offend the people we wish to communicate with, making the conclusion of business deals or international agreements difficult or impossible. Donnell King of Pellissippi State Technical Community College provides some examples from the advertising world of how simply translating words is not enough—deeper understanding of the other culture is necessary to translate meaning effectively.
Products have failed overseas sometimes simply because a name may take on unanticipated meanings in translation:
- Pepsi Cola’s “Come Alive With Pepsi” campaign, when it was translated for the Taiwanese market, conveyed the unsettling news that, “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave.”
- Parker Pen could not advertise its famous “Jotter” ballpoint pen in some languages because the translation sounded like “jockstrap” pen.
- One American airline operating in Brazil advertised that it had plush “rendezvous lounges” on its jets, unaware that in Portuguese (the language of Brazil) “rendezvous” implies a special room for having sex.
- The Olympic copier Roto in Chile (roto in Spanish means ‘broken’)
- The Chevy Nova in Puerto Rico (no va means ‘doesn’t go’)
- A General Motors auto ad with “Body by Fisher” became “Corpse by Fisher” in Flemish.
- A Colgate-Palmolive toothpaste named “Cue” was advertised in France before anyone realized that Cue also happened to be the name of a widely circulated pornographic book about oral sex.
This type of mishap is not an American monopoly: A successful European chocolate and fruit product was introduced into the U.S. with the unfortunate name “Zit.”
Naming a product is communication at its simplest level. The overall implications of intercultural communication for global business are enormous. Take the case of Euro Disney, later renamed Disneyland Paris. For the year 1993, the theme park lost approximately US $1 billion. Losses were still at US $1 million a day in 1994-95. There were many reasons for this, including a recession in Europe, but intercultural insensitivity was also a very important factor. No attention was paid to the European context or to cultural differences in management practice, labor relations, or even such simple matters as preferred dining hours or availability of alcohol and tobacco. Euro Disney signals the danger for business practitioners immersed in financial forecasting, market studies and management models when they overlook how culture affects behavior. Few things are more important to conducting business on a global scale than skill in intercultural communication.
For all these reasons, communication is crucial to business. Specialized business knowledge is important, but not enough to guarantee success. Communication skills are vital.
So how do cultures differ from each other, and how might you move towards more effective intercultural communication when doing business? If you have ever visited a country different from your own, you probably have stories to tell about what aspects of the culture were different and which were similar. Maybe you have noticed that in many parts of the United States people routinely greet strangers with a smile when they step into an elevator or see them on the street, but the same behavior of saying hello and smiling at strangers would be considered odd in many parts of Europe. In India and other parts of Asia, traffic flows with rules of its own, with people disobeying red lights, stopping and loading passengers in highways, or honking continuously for no apparent reason. In fact, when it comes to culture, we are like fish in the sea: We may not realize how culture is shaping our behavior until we leave our own and go someplace else. Cultural differences may shape how people dress, how they act, how they form relationships, how they address each other, what they eat, and many other aspects of daily life. Of course, talking about national cultures does not mean that national cultures are uniform. In many countries, it is possible to talk about the existence of cultures based on region or geography. For example, in the United States, the southern, eastern, western, and midwestern regions of the country are associated with slightly different values.
Thinking about hundreds of different ways in which cultures may differ is not very practical when you are trying to understand how culture affects work behaviors. For this reason, the work of Geert Hofstede, a Dutch social scientist, is an important contribution to the literature. Hofstede studied IBM employees in 66 countries and showed that four dimensions of national culture explain an important source of variation among cultures. Research also shows that cultural variation with respect to these four dimensions influence employee job behaviors, attitudes, well-being, motivation, leadership, negotiations, and many other aspects of organizational behavior (Hofstede, 1980; Tsui, Nifadkar, & Ou, 2007).