Communication in a multicultural environment

September 26, 2022
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Elvire Jaspers
Communication in a multicultural environment

Master the art of multicultural communication in the global business landscape, navigating through cultural nuances to foster understanding and collaboration.

Key takeaways

  • Cultural Complexity: Understanding both surface and deep cultural elements is crucial for effective communication in a multicultural environment.
  • Meyer’s 8 Scales: Erin Meyer’s framework outlines essential aspects of multicultural communication, including communicating, evaluating, persuading, leading, deciding, trusting, disagreeing, and scheduling.
  • Low-context vs. High-context: Communication styles vary, with some cultures preferring direct and explicit messages, while others rely on context and indirect expressions.
  • Feedback and Persuasion: Approaches to feedback range from direct to indirect, and persuasion tactics can be principles-first or applications-first, differing across cultures.
  • Leadership and Decision-making: Egalitarian versus hierarchical leadership styles and consensual versus top-down decision-making processes reflect cultural variances in authority and consensus.
  • Building Trust: Trust can be task-based or relationship-based, emphasizing the importance of business activities or personal interactions.
  • Confronting Disagreements: Cultures differ in their approach to confrontation, with some addressing disagreements directly and others preferring to avoid them.
  • Time Perception: The understanding of time can be linear and punctual or flexible, impacting scheduling and deadlines.
  • Adapting Communication: Success in a multicultural environment hinges on recognizing these differences and adapting communication styles to bridge cultural gaps.

The role of culture

“If you go into every interaction assuming that culture doesn’t matter, your default mechanism will be to view others through your own cultural lens and to judge or misjudge them accordingly.”

Erin Meyer, The Culture Map

One of the biggest and growing challenges facing global businesses is how to effectively communicate with different cultures across an organisation. Cultural nuances exist within every nation, ethnicity, and culture. These are made even more apparent when a single organisation has operations in different geographies or employs people from various nationalities and cultures. 

Cultural and contextual misunderstandings can hinder a business when its cross-cultural collaboration is ineffective. Now that our interconnected global economy is in full swing, the need for international businesses to develop cultural literacy for effective communications is crucial. 

The Culture Map

In her fascinating book, The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business, INSEAD professor Erin Meyer describes the specific differences in how people from different cultures communicate and consider work ideas. 

Meyer outlines 8 criteria that form the basis of effective multicultural communication, which we will explore in this article.

But first, for us to understand how we can effectively communicate with people in a multicultural environment, let’s first consider the definition of ‘culture’.

What is ‘culture’ exactly?

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the term ‘culture’ is defined as:

  1. The customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group;
  2. The set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterise an institution or organisation;
  3. The set of values, conventions, or social practices associated with a particular field, activity, or societal characteristic

Additionally, we can categorise culture into 2 components: surface culture and deep culture

Surface culture refers to culturally specific foods, languages, art, literature, festivals, fashion, etc. Surface culture includes the obvious and most immediately recognisable aspects of a culture. 

Deep culture is a more nuanced understanding of culture and refers to body language, communication styles and rules, concepts of self and society, notions of manners, etc. Deep culture is often what people experience first-hand when visiting or having interpersonal interactions with a new culture.

When communicating in a multicultural environment, it is important to be mindful of a person’s surface and deep cultural specifications to successfully and respectfully engage in communication.

8 scales of communication in a multicultural environment 

Whether you need to motivate employees, delight clients, or simply organise a conference call among members of a cross-cultural team, Meyer’s 8 scales will help you improve your communication effectiveness. 

These scales help to improve relationships by considering where you and your international colleagues fall on each of these scales.

1. Communicating

Cultures communicate in either low-context or high-context styles. A low-context communication style is simple, explicit, and direct. Countries like Switzerland, Germany, USA, and UK prefer a low-context communication style.

A high-context communication style is implicit, indirect, and based on internalised rules. Countries like Japan, China, Thailand, and the UAE use a high-context communication style.

2. Evaluating

This involves providing direct negative feedback or indirect negative feedback. Commonly, Israelis, Dutch, and Russians are the most direct when it comes to negative feedback. This results in frank, blunt, and honest feedback. Japanese, on the other hand, are among the most indirect and will approach providing negative feedback softly and discreetly.

3. Persuading

This can be viewed as a principles-first vs. applications-first approach to communication. Some cultures like Italians and French use holistic arguments that focus on theories before presenting a fact or opinion. In other cultures, predominantly in the Commonwealth, people prefer arguments of logic before discussing a theory. 

4. Leading

The concept of leadership differs from culture to culture. Egalitarian vs. Hierarchical leadership styles are the most common. Egalitarian leadership prefers a flat organisational structure where bosses and workers are on a similar level of perception. Countries like Denmark and Sweden are quintessentially egalitarian in nature. In countries like Saudi Arabia and Korea, the hierarchical leadership style is preferred where the boss is viewed above all workers.

5. Deciding

Cultures have either a consensual or a top-down decision-making style. Countries such as Japan and the Netherlands adopt consensus-based decisions that take into account many perspectives to gauge how the collective feels. Countries like Nigeria and China prefer a top-down style which involves bosses and business owners making decisions on behalf of the entire organisation.

6. Trusting

There are 2 types of trust styles that cultures use: task-based and relationship-based. This asks the question of whether people base trust on how well they know each other, or how well they work together. In task-based cultures such as Australia and the USA, trust is built through business-related activities. In relationship-based cultures like India and China, trust is established through personal interactions and experience.

7. Disagreeing

Cultures have different styles of disagreement: confrontational or avoiding confrontation. Countries like Israel, France, and Germany prefer to tackle disagreements directly without allowing them to negatively affect the relationship. Alternatively, countries such as Thailand and Ghana tend to avoid confrontations and find them to be inappropriate in an organisational and/or team setting.

8. Scheduling

The concept of time differs drastically from culture to culture, and generally, the West adopts a Linear time style and the East prefers a flexible style. Germany and Switzerland are known for their absolute linear and precise concept of time, whereas India and most African countries perceive time as highly flexible.

Understanding builds harmony

Meyer’s 8 scales of cultural communication provide a unique insight into how we view the world and operate within it differently, according to geography and culture. The scales aren’t scored, the point is to highlight the differences and for global businesses to be aware of the various cultural contexts which shape a person’s perspective.

The key to unlocking effective multicultural communication across entire global organisations lies in understanding these contexts and adapting our personal styles when engaging with others.

Elvire Jaspers

Elvire is WeAreBrain’s CEO. She has worked in the tech industry for many years, successfully running and selling her own start-up in 2017. With a big passion for sailing, she's very keen on conquering the seas (besides the tech space).

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