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Multiculturalism in the Office
August 1st, 2010
In an increasingly globalized business world, the number of multinational enterprises is exponentially growing, reaching beyond 60,000 today. For these corporations and any company with a multicultural workforce, culture clashes within the office are becoming significantly more commonplace. Effective management and an understanding of a diverse range of backgrounds will go a long way in easing tensions among co-workers or in business deals.
Miscommunication due to language barriers is often at the root of a problem, and what many managers have not yet grasped is the fact that adapting to another way of life is a two-way-street. It is up to the manager to then bridge that gap by creating a positive learning environment for all parties. In the case of companies with workforces largely made up of immigrants, refugees, or foreign employees, language management is essential to the smooth flow of business.
Solely offering an English as a Second Language (ESL) course will only produce limited results, if any at all. The reason for this is that once the class ends, the learning process tends to shut down soon after. As Americans, we have limited patience with linguistically diverse populations and may even resent other employees receiving the special attention of the company. Once non-native speakers finish the ESL class, they are many times met with resistance or lofty expectations of their newly-gained language skills, and are given no leeway to make mistakes. Managers become frustrated after realizing the learning process is actually quite lengthy and can be a costly investment. To ameliorate these issues and truly change the office dynamics, managers need to have a deeper and more specialized understanding of the ESL process.
For one, a new language takes multiple years to learn, and even then, a non-native speaker may still falter with grammatical errors or in more colloquial discussions. Accents may become less apparent with time, but are difficult to transition out of, so managers must be able to accept the difference. Educating other employees in the workplace is a critical step to take in order to receive their cooperation. Trust is a central factor in improving the team ethic and bringing tension to a low among co-workers. With open communication and a sense of inclusivity, people will learn to rely upon and genuinely listen to each other. It is not only the responsibility of non-native speakers to practice the necessary language skills to operate in a company, it is also the duty of his or her colleagues and managers to foster an encouraging environment.
Establishing business communications on an international basis can be an aggravating experience without adopting a global mindset. Many multinationals in America continue to be fixed upon a U.S.-centric model, effectively alienating their international partners. The truth is, the rest of the world does not have the same behavioral patterns or customs and may even operate in exactly the opposite way as in the U.S. The most basic step one can take is to learn a few polite phrases in the other language, such as “Hello,” “Thank you,” and “Goodbye.” It will immediately create a friendly environment and a sense of trust in the relationship. Often, executives will misconstrue different communication styles as rude or inefficient, but are not aware of their own American-influenced tendencies.
One project manager left a Japanese business deal with a bad taste in his mouth, laying the blame on his foreign counterpart’s insincerity. When asked if he took the time to interact with the Japanese in their language, he replied that he did not need to because they spoke English. He also had no idea about Japanese holidays, social activities, or customs. It is easy to see why the Japanese executives would be disgruntled by this manager’s expectation that everything be done to accommodate his own style.
It just takes a small amount of time to learn a few foreign phrases or to research a country’s culture to impress one’s international associates. Send a card during your Indian partner’s Diwali Festival or acknowledge Japan’s Obon holiday season. A gift also goes a long way in establishing positive relationships. Kwintessential.com has great guides giving information on how to conduct business in a number of different countries: http://www.kwintessential.co.uk/resources/country-profiles.html.
Here are just a few insights into varied verbal and nonverbal communication styles:
- While Germany and the U.S. are very direct in their approach, Asia, the Middle East, and the U.K. are rather indirect. This may pose a potential problem, but asking for clarification and having patience will help reveal true intentions.
- To signal “yes” or agreement, Indians will tilt their heads from side-to-side, which is usually mistaken for a “no” to outsiders. In Bulgaria, a shake of the head means “yes,” while a nod is “no.”
- Americans are very friendly up front, which may catch foreigners off-guard. Speaking to strangers while waiting in line may seem normal here, but is considered strange in many other parts of the world. Even smiling to a passing pedestrian may be mistaken for flirtation, embarrassment, or condescension.
- In the U.S., high value is placed upon those with a strong sense of individuality, but in collectivist Asia, the team or family comes first. The strictly hierarchical Asian business model breeds formality, so American informality can be viewed as disrespectful.
- In France, business is run very slowly, according to the American viewpoint. They are very meticulous in their research and focus on solving all issues that arise, so be prepared for a longer process.
By spending time to understand different cultural norms, managers will be able to more effectively interact with a diverse range of people and improve communication dynamics across all levels.