Understanding Cross-Cultural Differences between Foreign Societies (1/2)
When people from two different cultures try to deal with each other they are often confronted with misunderstandings. These misunderstandings are generally linked to cultural differences and to the simple fact that people are not aware that each country communicates through different cultural references.
In Business, this lack of awareness stems for instance from the following facts:
* Many business people are overconfident about the quality of their products/services: they are often convinced that their products are the best ones and therefore can be sold anywhere in the world. They also tend to believe that their selling techniques can be applied everywhere if they are efficient at home.
* The "globalization" of the economy, thanks to the World Trade Organization and to the growing number of free-trade areas which establish partnerships between foreign countries. Still, it is not because trade between foreign countries has been eased that cultural differences have disappeared.
I am publishing a couple of articles on how to understand cross-cultural differences, based on the extensive research I conducted on the subject. I thought it would be both useful and interesting to share this research with my fellow translators and language professionals.
This first article will be about how people communicate.
Next time, I will write about how to measure cultural differences between societies including how the notion of space and time differ from one country to another. Basically “a few little things” to definitely keep in mind when you are doing business - including selling translation services - with other countries.
PART 1 - How do people communicate ?
Misunderstandings between foreigners mainly originate from cultural differences: when people are unaware of these differences it leads to poor communication. Consequently, it is important to always bear in mind that people do not communicate the same way everywhere in the world.
1. Communicating properly through the use of language
This leads us to the another question: "What's a language ?"
As we can read in the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary (1989) a language is "a system of sounds, words, patterns, etc. used by humans to communicate thoughts and feelings" and "a system of signs, symbols, gestures, etc. used for conveying information".
Consequently we have many ways of communicating, both verbally and non-verbally (through behavior for example).
1.1. Verbal Language
1.1.1. The Western Conception vs. the Asian Conception
Since languages reflect cultures it is not surprising to discover that they are built differently according to the countries in which they are used. A verbal language reflects the speaker’s way of thinking.
* The Asian way of speaking is very allusive and answers are generally mixed: for instance in Japanese there are several words to say "no" but none is a clear one. Also, the verb is put at the end of the sentence so as to modify it according to the reactions of the listener.
* On the other hand Western languages are more binary. A Westerner generally expects a more direct answer than an Asian.
1.1.2. The Rhythm of Speech
In a conversation between two persons (A and B), the speaking time of each person varies according to the culture of the country they are from, for example:
1.1.3. The Use of Genders and the "Tu/Vous" distinction
* The use of feminine / masculine / neutral genders can reflect the importance of women in a society. In the English language there is no such distinction: this might be one of the reasons why in Anglo-Saxon countries the fight for equal rights between men and women is very acute and more advanced than in Latin cultures. The English language tries not to stereotype roles for men & women, and new words are coined to avoid sexism: for instance "postal worker" (instead of "mailman").
* The distinction between the "Tu" and "Vous" forms in French accounts for the perception of a country regarding power and for hierarchical distance. In Spanish 4 words (Tu, Usted, Vosotros, Ustedes) translate into the English "You", this might be why the hierarchical distance is long in Spain and Latin America, and why it is short in Anglo-Saxon countries.
1.2. Metacommunication: "The Silent Language"
The major means of communication with others is not verbally but through what Edward HALL calls the "Silent Language". It mostly refers to the body language/physical behavior and to the ways people organize space and time.
It is important to be aware of this other type of language because 50% to 90% of it are determined by the local culture. Therefore it is a means to access the hidden part of a culture, hence allowing a better communication with foreigners. This is a genuine advantage in business relations.
1.2.1. The Non-Verbal Language
This term refers to the hidden meaning of people's behavior. This includes:
•Gestures (for instance the way of giving one's business card is very important to a Japanese person: never put it on the table but give it directly to the person)
•Mimics & expressions on the face
•The position of the body
•The way of dressing
•The physical distance between people
1.2.2. The Organization of Space
This refers to the spatial environment where communication takes place. In the family circle, this can be the decoration of the house, where the furniture has been put, the choice of religious objects, etc...
In business it is interesting to notice that the office of the C.E.O. is not located in the same place in every country.
1.2.3. The Organization of Time
This is for instance the choice of the right moment in a conversation to speak about such and such topic: in many cultures, touchy/important issues are not discussed at first but after having tea or some other ritual. In France the real purpose of a business lunch will generally be talked about at the end of the meal.
Generally, business people are not aware of this "Silent Language" or if they do, they tend to view it as an obstacle to solving problems rapidly and they may even perceive it as a waste of their time.
In fact they do not seem to always realize that the knowledge of this hidden language can help them know their foreign partners better. By trying to do things too fast, many business people are confronted with cultural misunderstandings that originate both from verbal and "Silent" languages.
These misunderstandings can be linked to linguistic problems, to misinterpretations and to preconceptions.
2. Bad Communication: Misunderstandings
The mental programming of the personality is acquired before the age of 3. Therefore a grown-up cannot fully learn a foreign culture even if the person stays in the foreign country for decades. Consequently, the risk of being confronted to cultural misunderstandings is rather large.
2.1. Misunderstandings linked to Language-related Problems
* The language of a country is part of its culture and reflects its natural and cultural environment.
For instance English comprises many words related to technology whereas the Eskimo language has close to 50 terms to describe the color of snow. This shows that sometimes some words exist in one language but do not have any equivalent in another language.
In Les Différences Culturelles dans le Management - Comment chaque pays gère-t-il ses hommes ?, Geert HOFSTEDE & Daniel BOLLINGER illustrate this idea (page 44):
“ Les traducteurs de textes américains font remarquer qu'en français et dans d'autres langues, il n'y a pas d'équivalent valable de l'anglais "achievement" (réalisation). Les Japonais n'ont pas de mot pour traduire l'expression "prise de décision".”
[Translators working on material in American English point out that in French and other languages there is no suitable equivalent to the word "achievement". The Japanese don't even have a word to translate the expression "decision-making"]
* Also, one word may exist in two languages but with different meanings or implications. For example the French word for crisis ("crise") conveys two ideas in Japanese: danger + opportunity.
* Therefore we understand that translators often face "translating dilemmas", which is why a poor translation can lead to misunderstandings. The best way to avoid them is to have "touchy" expressions or recurring key words explained by the speaker or someone from the same environment.
2.2. Misunderstandings linked to Interpretation of Situations
These misunderstandings stem from metacommunication ("Silent Language").
* It is the case of two persons having a different conception and value of time.
For instance Latin cultures do not give a high priority to time, this is why people from such cultures tend not phone when they are going to be late for an appointment. If the person who is waiting is an Anglo-Saxon, he or she will be offended and will consider the other person as disrespectful unless they are aware of this different conception of time.
* Other instances can be found in We Europeans by Richard HILL. Here is what he says about the Greeks (page 199):
“ They tilt their heads back rather than from side to side when saying "no" (…). And they say "né" when they mean "yes". No wonder the rest of us get confused. ”
* According to their culture, people either need a lot of information to communicate (like the French or the Asians) or very little (like the Americans or the Germans).
Therefore if an American is speaking to a Japanese, the latter will probably feel frustrated because he does not receive all the information he needs and might consider the American as too direct. On the other hand, the Japanese will be perceived as polite but not clear enough and slow.
2.3. Misunderstandings linked to Preconception
To Franck GAUTHEY & Dominique XARDEL (Le Management Interculturel, Collection "Que Sais-je ?" (1990, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1993, p 42), the obstacles to cross-cultural communication are:
•Lack of knowledge of one’s own cultures and values
•Lack of awareness of the implications of a culture
•Lack of knowledge of the other styles of management and of the cultural environment
•Lack of knowledge of the other cultures
•Fear of what’s foreign
•Difficulty to move out of their own referential
NEXT TIME: PART 2 - How to measure cultural differences between foreign societies?