Intercultural communication: when I first started working in Ireland, I had no real understanding of the subtleties of this kind of communication. But, as I quickly learned, what you don’t know can hurt you.
Imagine your boss says to you, ‘I would appreciate you working on a task when you have a moment.’ If you’re like me in my first international business experience, you might think you could work on it later because the way I was used to it from my previous professional experience in Germany was: 'You must do this now immediately’.
Don’t worry! I am not going to bother you with complex intercultural theory. Let’s start with gaining a working understanding so that you can start taking action and being better in your business dealings right away.
“Culture does not only identify groups, it also distinguishes between them.” (1)
In other words people you share the same education, attitudes to family life, greeting, language, values and beliefs, attitudes to time, religion, etc. which define one group or one culture.
For example I went to Ireland to work some time abroad I had a medium level of English and managed to get around. I thought I would get on easily in my job. But once I arrived in Dublin and started working I noticed that there is much more to it. The way English was spoken in Ireland was completely different from what I learnt at school. People didn’t pronounce the th, had an intonation I had hardly ever come across before. They also had a way of saying ‘sorry’ all the time without meaning it. Saying ‘sorry’ all the time when you get in someone’s way seemed to be completely unnecessary for me.
I wasn’t used to it because in my culture group we don’t apologise all the time for ‘minor’ things. We also don‘t queue, have a more direct way of saying no, are punctual and when I say I’ll ring you up I would really do it.
English the way it was spoken in Ireland seemed to be a completely different language from what I had learned at school. Not to mention the English spoken in business – in the office with my colleagues, clients, bosses etc. It all seemed rather relaxed, easy-going and informal from the outside. In fact, there was so much subtle information I was missing!
What does Intercultural Communication look like in different parts of the world?
From my point of view it is the way people from different cultural groups communicate with each other. Which means not the language as such but the way the language is spoken. A good example is the English language. It is spoken as a native language by the British, Irish, Americans, Australians and parts of Canada. They all have a different way of speaking the language, different unwritten rules in business. As investigator in an American bank in Ireland, I got to observe some differences in intercultural communication first hand. My Irish colleagues sometimes used to complain about different work processes which were done in an American way. Your work was measured very much by numbers which made things more stressful and was alien to my Irish colleagues.
The Americans also had a tendency to speak a little more directly than the Irish which also made things stressful for the later. They considered it as a little rude way of communication.
It was also common to socialize in the pub after work on a Friday evening with your colleagues and bosses. This was rather embarrassing for me at the beginning because I wasn‘t used to hanging out with my boss in such informal surroundings. I felt awkward and didn‘t know at all what I should talk to my boss about.
I had never socialized with my boss before because it wasn’t common in Germany.
It also wasn’t very common in the US so my American bosses hardly ever went with us.
My advice to you: start working on your intercultural communication skills today.
When you work with colleagues or clients from different cultures it is important to be aware of the way English is spoken in their culture in business. Don’t worry you don’t need to get your head into lots of books and find out everything about different cultures.
Just get started by answering the following questions:
1. How would you greet your client?
2. Would you make small talk or get straight down to business?
3. In case you make small talk what would you talk about?
If you‘d like to check your answers to the questions with me please get in touch.
(1) „Intercultural competence in Business English“: Camerer/Mader p.12 , Cornelsen, Berlin 2012