Cross-cultural communication – 4 books to read before you go

22 August 2017

Ask any expat and they will no doubt be able to tell stories – some funny, some tragic, some simply embarrassing – of cultural misunderstandings. Whether it involves linguistic difficulties, misinterpretations of gestures, or simply failing to make oneself understood, communicating with those outside your home culture is difficult. Here a few reasons why it can be so tricky:

  • High-context cultures (e.g. Japan) differ from low-context cultures (e.g. Germany) because much communication is implied rather than communicated directly. Conversely, low-context cultures expect instructions to be explicit and detailed. When the two cultures meet, there is a risk of misunderstandings, especially in a business context.
  • Hand signals and gestures vary widely and what is commonplace in one country can be taboo in another. So it is worthwhile to investigate gestures in your destination country before you go.
  • A smile is not always as it seems. While Western cultures may interpret a smile as a sign of approachability, a few cultures may associate it with dishonesty and even a lack of intelligence.
  • Remembering to say please and thank you is highly important in some cultures, where direct instructions are considered rude and therefore need to be softened. But this same desire to avoid offense may lead to you being ignored if your audience is accustomed to more direct, less polite instruction.
  • Language is an obvious barrier to communication – but it is perhaps more important to know one’s limitations than to avoid trying to use a local language altogether. Indeed, making an effort to speak the local language in safe, social and non-technical environments is to pay a compliment to one’s hosts. Just be aware that an innocent slip of the tongue runs the risk of changing the meaning altogether, so keep a lookout for indications of confusion.
  • Even the distance that you stand from someone varies from country to country, as the concept of reasonable personal space varies throughout the world. A recent study showed, for example, that Argentines will typically stand 30% closer to a stranger than the British.
  • Of course there are subjects that are a minefield: raise the subject of religion and politics at your peril. The risk of misunderstanding and the likelihood of offense may simply be too high.

But what can expats do about it?

Cross-cultural training is available, and used by the more sophisticated global organisations (especially with senior assignments where the wrong turn of phrase can undermine months of planning and jeopardize crucial business relationships). But how can a single blog post hope to explain the complexities of cultural communication and the pitfalls that await the novice global assignee? It can’t – so we’ll leave it to the experts, and simply suggest four fascinating books that every expat (and global mobility department) should try to read.

1. The Hidden Dimension, Edward T Hall (1966)

Born in Missouri, Hall is the grandfather of intercultural communication. Having spent years doing field work, living with different cultures from Europe to the Navajo and Hopi native American tribes in north-western Arizona, he was hired by the US government to teach inter-cultural communications skills to foreign service personnel. He is known for developing the concept of "high context culture" and "low context culture", and wrote several popular practical books on dealing with cross-cultural issues. His seminal work, The Hidden Dimension, is a detailed, but fascinating read.

2. Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind, Geert Hofstede (1993)

Professor Geert Hofstede paints a fairly bleak picture of our ability to understand other cultures. His analysis, based on years of first-hand research outlines ideas such as culture shock, ethnocentrism, stereotyping, and differences in language and humor. Yet, while he shows that we are a long way from appreciating differences in culture, he also explains how this is also a great opportunity for those willing to make the effort, and offers advice for how organizations and individuals can bridge the cultural divide to their advantage.

3. The Mobile Life: A New Approach to Moving Anywhere, Diane Lemieux & Anne Parker (2014)

Compared to the detail and academic thrust of the previous two titles, this invaluable book was created as a practical guide for those about to depart. Drawing a neat parallel with Sir Ernest Shackleton’s 1914 Antarctic expedition, it outlines a structured and innovative approach to relocating. Each chapter describes how expats can fit in with different cultures and environments, and explains the skills, tools and mindset that help you manage the transition to create a new life anywhere.

4. Cultural Misunderstandings: The French-American Experience, Raymonde Carroll (1990)

Written by a French anthropologist living in the USA, this book uses the specific example of French-American cultural differences to outline the wider difficulties of cross-cultural misunderstanding. A shorter and more accessible read than the other titles mentioned, it is nonetheless detailed and explains how issues surrounding money, friendships, families, parenting and even using the telephone differ hugely between two apparently similar cultures.

No time for extensive reading?

Gathering knowledge yourself takes time, even if you have an outstanding shortlist to start from. If time is a luxury you cannot afford, or reading is not your cup of tea, thorough training session by dedicated experts will be key., FAIM Affiliates are on hand to arrange cultural awareness training. Find one near you.

Pictures by Rathish Gandhi, Jakob Owens and Joseph Chan.

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