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Inter-cultural Communication

1            Introduction

Human beings draw close to one another by their common nature, but habits and customs keep them apart[i].  Therefore, to recognize the importance of intercultural communication in an era of growing global marketplace and cultural diversity is essential for today・s organization for its effectiveness and efficiency.

1.1      Objectives

The objective of the report is to fully investigate how an understanding of intercultural communication affects an organization in its effectiveness and efficiency, specifically in relation to Mast Industries Limited.  The definition of intercultural communication will be established and then the results of survey and interview will be compared to the theoretical background of the subject.  Solutions to the problem will be recommended with conclusion.

1.2      Definition of Intercultural Communication

Intercultural communication refers to those occasions when a member of one culture produces a message for consumption by a member of another culture.  It is communication between people whose cultural perception and symbol systems are distinct enough to alter the communication event[ii].  Advances in transoceanic fiber optics and the satellite transmission of information encourage the development of global economy and link up different cultures.  Therefore, business people communicating with their counterparts in other culture need a broad understanding of their significant difference.

So what is .culture・?  Culture is a shared system of symbols, beliefs, attitudes, values, expectations, and norms for behavior.  All members of a culture have similar assumptions about how people should think, behave, communicate, and they all tend to act on those assumptions in much the same way[iii].  Today・s business people has to learn how to treat the others as individuals with their own personal qualities and avoid cultural stereotypes.  The way to achieve better communication with the people of the world is through knowledge, appreciation, and understanding of cultural differences.

1.3   Background of Selected Model

Mast Industries Limited (MIL) is one of the biggest garment trading company in Hong Kong.  The company size is almost 300 people, composed with different departments including merchandising, technical and quality control, shipping, finance and administration, and human resources.  Their mother company, Mast Industries Inc (MII), is located in New York and thus employees of MIL have daily communication with their counterparts.  The organization has timely meeting with MII in either Hong Kong or New York to review work progress.  On the other hand, MIL faces competition with other colleague Asian offices, which are also under the same mother company.  Employees・ ability to receive, evaluate, use, and pass on information will definitely affect the organization・s performance.

The routine work of the employees is to gather information from their counterparts and disseminate to the subcontractors in China production.  As one of the famous trading house in garment industry, MIL needs to ensure quick response and quality work to meet the frequent environment change.  Hence, effective communication is the important role of every employee in the organization. 

2      Methodology

This report is produced with research being undertaken in the area of intercultural communication and its impact if handle ineffectively.

2.1   Research

Primary sources of information were gained through:

A     employees・ survey (see appendix 1), which was conducted in the attempt to achieve findings of:

P      the level of understanding employees had in the barriers to effective intercultural communication.

P      the level of training employees had received in intercultural communication.

P      the existence of policies and guidelines implemented in intercultural communication.

P      the level of understanding employees had in the importance of learning other・s culture is vital to the success of communication.

B      employee・s interview which was conducted with Mary Wong, merchandising manager, to gain insight information.  The interview provided more valuable and in-depth resources on the problem in the organization.

Secondary sources of information were gained from books, journals and articles, and through the World Wide Web.  This supports the primary research with theoretical background.

2.2   Limitation

Intercultural communication is an interesting topic but its scope is too wide to demonstrate with word limits below 3,000 words.  Therefore, only those problems the selected model is encountering would be addressed.

3     Results

The findings of the survey and interview are summarized briefly in this section.  The survey results and interview notes are detailed in appendix 2, 3 and 4 respectively. 

3.1   Survey Results

A response rate of 80 percent was gained with 40 responses out of 50 surveys distributed.  75 percent of respondents are working in merchandising department and others are in administration areas.  Although it is a high percentage of respondents working in merchandising division, it can still reflect the accurate result as this team has frequent communication with their counterparts than the others.  Most respondents have been working with the company between 1-3 years.

Figure 1 illustrates the results to the question about which factor: language, culture difference, culture prejudice, all the said factors and others, that would consider as major barrier to intercultural communication.  A very high response rate of 74 percent chose language as they believed that they can perform better if they are native English speaker.  Only 13 percent of respondents believed that culture difference affects their ability to understand each other well and eventually jeopardize the smoothness of work.  5 percent of respondents had negative feeling to their counterparts and being frustrated to the situation not being understood.  5 percent of respondents believed all the factors caused the barrier to intercultural communication.  3 percent related to other barriers, which includes lack of management support and job nature does not require contacting their counterparts, etc.

Figure 2 illustrates the results to the question about which: oral, written or body language, that is the most difficult to manage.  It was found that 65 percent of respondents have difficulty in handling oral communication effectively.  25 percent of respondents felt written communication is more important than oral communication because their daily work is more on writing.  They believed that with effective writing skill is enough to tackle those issues to point.  Only 10 percent of respondents agreed body language is the most difficult language in the world.

Figure 3 illustrates the results to the questions if the respondents had any bad experience in understanding, expressing and translating problem in intercultural communication.  It was found that 50 percent of respondents had experience in misunderstanding or wrongly interpreting the words from their counterparts in verbal or nonverbal cases.  36 percent of respondents had bad experience in expressing themselves when talking technical issues or something not related to jobs.  14 percent of respondents experienced difficulty in translating technical issues or jargons.

It is surprising to find that only 55 percent of respondents agreed to the statement .learning other・s culture is vital to the success of intercultural communication・.  As the results shown as above figure 1, 2 and 3, most respondents believed language is the key to the failure.  The failure makes the employees being frustrated and lower productivity from back and forth clarification to gain mutual understanding.

3.2      Interview Results

The interview was conducted to examine the general information of the organization.  MIL has no polices and guidelines, or, education and training to assist employees in mastering good intercultural communication.  Some good examples of ineffective intercultural communication were collected from the interview as in appendix 4. 

3.3      Problem Encounter in the Selected Model

With the survey and interview results, it has identified the problems of the organization as following:

Language barrier.

Cultural difference.

Lack of management support.

Lack of policy and guidelines.

Lack of education and training.

In short, the organization is not sensitive that an understanding of other・s culture is essential in effective intercultural communication.

4            Discussion

Three main areas of intercultural communication will be discussed in this section.  First is the impact of ineffective intercultural communication.  Second is to look into the major components of culture making the difference.  Finally is to review the policies and guidelines to the success of intercultural communication.

4.1   Impact of Ineffective Intercultural Communication

There never were, in the world, two opinions alike, no more than two hairs, or two grains; the most universal quality is diversity[iv].  With the trend to establish offices around the world and create international ties through global partnerships, co-operative and affiliations, diversity is being cultivated as a national strength, not a detriment.

The impact of ineffective intercultural communication has some significant features[v], which has been briefly discussed in the following sections.

It may involve high levels of uncertainty for the participants.  Reactions are often unpredictable and intended meanings unclear.  Especially when culture values differ from those of the individual, .cultural shock・ may occur, uncertainty may lead to stress and anxiety. 

Many people lapse into ethnocentrism, the tendency to judge all other groups according to their own group・s standards, behaviors, and customs.  When they make such comparisons, they often decide their group is superior.  This may involve a mismatch in expectations about rules for interaction, social and professional roles.  It may exacerbate inequalities in the power relations of participants.

It may bring into playing cultural stereotypes held by the participants.  Ethnocentric people are often prone to stereotyping, which occurs when someone is identified with a group, or category, and then oversimplified attributes associated with the group or category are linked back to the individual.  Participants are likely to be seen as .cultural representatives・.  Eventually it may involve lack of understanding or misunderstanding, not only about .facts・ but also about values.  Often a participant will assume understanding when in fact there is none.

Direct translations problem is often happened in intercultural communication.  Words have more than one meaning and many words are culture-bound and have no direct translations.  Cultural orientations can render a direct translation into nonsense.  A culture may not have the experiential background to permit translation of experiences from other cultures.   Misunderstanding and frustration is therefore arisen.

All of the features may mentally tire and often frustrate both participants when they struggle to create a shared understanding.  Hostility environment may occur, communication may break down and the only result is hurting the individual and the organization・s effectiveness and efficiency.

4.2      Components of Culture

Language and culture are interwoven[vi].  Culture is defined, shaped, transmitted, and learned through communication, and in turn[vii].  Hence learning as much as possible about another culture will enhance the ability to communicate with its members.

Cultural differences show up in social values, ideas of status, decision-making habits, attitudes toward time, use of space, cultural context, body language, manners, and legal and ethical behavior[viii].  Some of MIL examples have been compared theoretically.

A     Social Values

The value system constitutes the foundation of a culture, and it provides guidelines for behavior.  That which is proper, acceptable, and significant in any culture is identified by its value system[ix].  The case about the employees of MIL considering that their counterparts is over goal-oriented and materialism rather than humanism is an example of different view on social values.

B      Roles and Status

Culture dictates the roles people play, including who communicates with whom, what they communicate[x].  Example can be represented by how the employees of MIL considering that it is a selfish manner when their counterparts do only their own thing.

C     Decision-Making Customs

In the goal-oriented, time-is-money culture of the United States, decisions are usually made and implemented as quickly and efficiently as possible.  Often this efficiency depends on the accepted strategy of delegation of authority[xi].  This can explain why MIL counterparts cannot tolerate the slow decision from the China subcontractors with decision from top down.

D     Concepts of Time and personal space

Different perceptions of time and personal space are another factor that can lead to misunderstandings.  Americans always see time as money and this is understood that why they felt impatient when having long meeting with the China subcontractor without any results.  The employees of MIL also wonder why their counterparts being uncomfortable when dining in a small table sitting close together.

E      Cultural Context

Cultural context is the pattern of physical cues and implicit understanding that convey meaning between two members of the same culture[xii].  Appendix 5 has outlined the comparison of both contexts, which is important to intercultural communication.  Example from MIL is the case that the employee felt their counterparts always say something straight that they consider shouldn・t say.

F      Body Language

Gestures help members of a culture clarify confusing messages, but differences in body language are a major source of misunderstanding during intercultural communication[xiii].  Nonverbal communication is as important as language.  Misreading cultural cues can be as damaging as misunderstanding spoken or written words.

G     Social Behavior/Manners, Legal and Ethical Behavior

What is polite in one culture may be considered rude in another.  Also, what is considered legal and ethical behavior varies widely from culture to culture[xiv].

Cultural differences can affect the ability to send and receive messages.  However, only special training in recognizing cultural differences can enhance comfortable communication with someone from another culture.

4.3      Policies and guidelines

Successful intercultural communication cannot be achieved by superficial efforts.  Some American companies are realizing now that the costs of educating their employees in cultural differences and preparing them for culture shock will reap great rewards in the long run[xv].  To improve company wide communication, Levi-Strauss sponsors various training programs and special events that help employees learn about each other・s backgrounds and interests[xvi].  It can be seen that education and training with management support is so important in intercultural communication.

MIL should implement education and training to assist employees to remove the barriers to enhance effective intercultural communication.  The management support is important and it is recommended that MII should be involved and pay the same efforts as success is only based on two-way communication.  The criteria are elaborated in the following sections[xvii].

A     Accepting Cultural Difference

Employees should be educated to a nonjudgmental approach to recognize the difference between cultures and to seek out similarities and emphasizing these points of contact.  Greater cross-cultural awareness sensitivity can help to reduce the difficulties of communication and diversity.  Provide training to help employees to recognize and overcome ethnocentric reactions and stereotyping.

Guide against cultural shock by having employees to learn as much as possible about the other・s culture.  Provide books, articles, and videotapes on various cultures.  Encourage employees to read, talk with natives and those who have had experience in the culture.

Intercultural communication competence is the ability to negotiate shared interpersonal meaning in an intercultural setting.  Effective interpersonal contact in an intercultural or cross-cultural context between people from different cultures usually requires more patience, tolerance of ambiguity and regular perception checking.

Appendix 6 is a Checklist for Doing Business Abroad that is a very good guideline about in-depth questions in different culture components.

B      Handling Oral and Written Communications

English is the most prevalent language in international business, but it is a mistake to assume that everyone understands it.  Watch for clues to be sure that your message is getting through to people who don・t speak your language.  Avoid equating any language mistakes with lack of intelligence.  Avoid jokes and colloquial expressions because these are hard to translate and understand.  Aim for simplicity of expression.  Use visuals and other channels to reinforce messages.  Repeat essential information and summarize periodically to make sure that the audience isn・t lost.

A translation glossary of terms is critical to success.  Create a list of all acronyms and technical terms for the translators.  This list contributes to the translation glossary usually prepared before translation begins, and really helps with consistency issues.  Ask colleagues and professional contacts for recommendations regarding translation resources.

The organization may demonstrate the wrong way and then the right way when explaining a tool or a task.  Offer managers training in the language of the employees they supervise.  Also train employees in the language used by most people in the company.

C     Assessing how well the employees have been understood

Because communication is an activity that has a consequence, we must continually ask ourselves if we are behaving in a way that harms our communication partner or creates change in the culture he or she belong to.  Research the nonverbal reactions of other culture so that the employees can prepare to spot the more subtle signs of misunderstanding.  Teach employees to avoid negative evaluation of cultural differences, both verbally and nonverbally. 

Employees should learn to be awared of the cultural rules operating in any intercultural communication context.  Because sensitive to the rules that the other person is following.  Be careful not to assume that your rules are the only valid or logical ones.  When in doubt, ask.

Observe how employees use the information to do their jobs, and review any points that may have been misunderstood. 

D     Offering feedback to improve communication

The organization should focus on the positive by explaining what should be done rather than on the negative by discuss what shouldn・t be done.  Offer feedback in terms of behaviors and conditions, not judgments about the person.  The organization have to be supportive when giving feedback, and reassure people that their skills and contributions are important.

Arrange more functional or non-functional meetings among employees and their counterparts.  Face-to-face communication can establish a personal relationship with people from other cultures and give the benefits of immediate feedback.

5     Recommendations

This report has been able to outline how importance of intercultural communication is in MIL.  Due to the limit of this report, it was impossible to report all relationships, which may be evident in the data collected such as cross-referencing findings of the survey.  Hence, further research and analysis of the data gained in this report is recommended. 

This report has enabled to highlight that MIL is encountering problem in a lack of understanding the importance of intercultural communication.  This would affect the overall organization performance to meet the competitive advantage in the dynamic environment.  Emphasis of solution to the problem is through education and training because only attitude change can help in the area.  Therefore, implementation of the solutions, initiate education and training, and implement follow-up is benefit to MIL to the success of effectiveness and efficiency in intercultural communication.

Most organizations suffer the same mistake when dealing cultural diversity.  They only concentrate areas such as tariffs, import/export regulations, and international laws, but they often forgot to consider the cultural differences that can lead to communication breakdowns, in particular example of MIL.  MIL still has a long road to educate the employees to assume that differences exist and to then acknowledge, identify, understand, and accept these differences[xviii].

6     Conclusion

New technology, growth in the world・s population, and shifts in the global economic arena will continue to contribute to increased international contacts.  It is only most effective when employees learn to identify the differences between cultures and to accommodate those differences without expecting either culture to give up its own identity.  This report has given an insight into the importance of intercultural communication in today・s organizations, with a focus on MIL.

The belief that improvement in intercultural communication is possible is based on three assumption: (1) the brain is an open system, (2) we have free choice, and (3) our behavior influences other people.  It points out that the improvement all depends on one・s understanding and appreciation in another・s differences.  Within MIL, it is recommended that further studies should be done in order to design an proper education and training with follow-up action towards intercultural communication to improve its effectiveness, efficiency and positively.


[i] Confucian Saying, in Larry A Samovar & Richard E Porter (1991), Communication between Cultures, Wadsworth Inc, p 2.

[ii] Larry A Samovar & Richard E Porter (1991), Communication between Cultures, Wadsworth Inc, p 70.

[iii] Courtland L Bovee & John V Thill (1995), Business Communication Today, McGraw-Hill Inc, New York, p 58.

[iv] Montaigne, in Larry A Samovar & Richard E Porter (1991), Communication between Cultures, Wadsworth, Inc, p 102.

[v]Bovee, Courtland L and Thill, John V (1996), Excellence in Businiess Communication, McGraw-Hill, New York, pp 65-67; John R Schermerhorn Jr (1996), Management, 5th edition, John Wiley & Sons, Inc, Canada, p 374; Larry A Samovar & Richard E Porter (1991), Communicatin between Cultures, Wadsworth Inc, p 165; Peter Putnis & Roslyn Petelin (1996), Professional Communication - Principles and Applications, Prentice-Hall, Australia, p 59; Raymond J Stone (1998), Human Resource Management, 3rd edition, Jacaranda Wiley Ltd, Australia, p 669.

[vi] Deborah C Andrews & William D Andrews (1992), Business Communication, 2nd edition, Macmillan Publishing Company, New York, p 38.

[vii] Brent D Ruben (1992), Communication and Human Behaivor, 3rd edition, Prentice-Hall Inc, New Jersey, pp 418-419.

[viii] Courtland L Bovee & John V Thill (1995), Business communication Today, 4th edition, McGraw-Hill Inc, New York, p 60.

[ix] James M Lahiff & John M Penrose (1997), Business Communication V Strategies and Skills, Prentice-Hall Inc, New Jersey, p 50.

[x] Courtland L Bovee & John V Thill (1995), Business Communication Today, 4th edition, McGraw-Hill Inc, New York, p 61

[xi] James M Lahiff & John M Penrose (1997), Business Communication V Strategies and Skills, Prentice-Hall Inc, New Jersey, p 52.

[xii] Bovee, Courtland L and Thill, John V (1996), Excellence in Business Communication, McGraw-Hill, New York, p 43.

[xiii] Courtland L Bovee & John V Thill (1995), Business Communication Today, McGraw-Hill Inc, New York, p 63.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] Mary Cullinan (1989), Business Communication V Principles and Processes, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc, Orlando, p 613.

[xvi] Courtland L Bovee & John V Thill (1995), Business Communication Today, McGraw-Hill Inc, New York, p57.

[xvii] Courtland L Bovee & John V Thill (1995), Business Communication Today, 4the edition, McGraw-Hill Inc, New York, p 72; Joseph DeVito 1994 pp 442-443, in Brent D Ruben & Lea P Steward (1998), Communicatin and Human Behavior, 4th edition, Allyn & Bacons, U S A, p 352.

[xviii] Zane K Quible, Margaret H Johnson & Dennis L Mott (1996), Business Communication - Principles and Applications, Prentice-Hall Inc, New Jersey, p 408-409.

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