In today’s increasingly competitive, technological and interconnected business environment, global organisations rely heavily on virtual working to keep their operations running around the world. Conference calls, web meetings and emails are the cornerstone of international business interactions and enable us to communicate across borders with virtually no cost. When done effectively, virtual working helps to keep us informed, expedite work and bring together different perspectives and skills from around the world in an economic and environmentally friendly way.
Effective global virtual working can be a real challenge however for many modern companies, particularly when it involves members form different cultural backgrounds and geographical zones across the world. When members of a team work from different cultural sets, different communication styles and attitudes to key perceptions are not usually taken into consideration. Virtual working can quickly lead to misunderstandings, frustration, failed projects and important economical losses. Many virtual ways of communication must be implemented and communication strategies must vary accordingly. Thinking about writing an email, the most basic operation of virtual work, may help us understanding some of the levels where misunderstandings can arise if not effectively anticipated and managed.
Globish – the surface level
When working across cultures English is commonly the most used language in business. Unfortunately, we tend to forget that it might not be the mother tongue of many people we’re working with and that might cause significant misunderstandings. The use of idioms, subordinates, phrasal verbs or double negations when emailing a non-native speaker can cause miscommunication and ambiguity.
That is why Globish – a simplyfied version of native English – is generally preferred by people working internationally and has been used in publications and business courses. In addition, a great amount of the meaning is expressed by tone of voice or facial gestures, so goodwill and patience are often not enough to fully understand what something means when we lack non-verbal cues in virtual communication. Writers often overstimate their ability to communicate as readers overstimate their ability to decode messages. An inappropriate use of language may cause confusion and miscommunication, but many strategies can be carried out and developed by a team working together to make the most of a common language without losing anything along the way.
The communication stlye – how much do we say?
When considering the impact of culture on communication, Edward T. Hall’s theory of high and low context cultures may help us to get an insight into the huge differences people from different cultural backgrounds might experience.
High context cultures, including those in the Middle East, Asia, Africa and South America are generally relational, collectivist, intuitive and contemplative. In a business environment, their communication tends to be formal and indirect and is characterised by a flowery language. The burden of the meaning falls on the listener to understand and interpret the message. Quite the reverse, low context cultures such as those in North America and much of Western Europe are logical, individualistic and action-oriented; their way of communication in business is more concise, straight forward and aims to be efficient. The responsibility in this case falls on the speaker, who has to convey the meaning accurately.
It is not difficult to imagine what kind of situations and misunderstandings are likely to arise when counterparts from cultures showing differences in their communication styles try to communicate virtually. The reader’s interpretation of a given message might be quite different from the original writer’s intention. Directness can be interpreted as impoliteness and indirectness as vagueness or insecurity. An important amount of information can be missed when implicit or when one is not able to distinguish between different degrees of comittment.
Words run deep
Writers are often under pressure and deal with emails as though they were speaking to anyone in the office without thinking of how a person from another culture might percept or interpret their writing choices. That’s why many people think that paying attention to the process and being careful with what is being communicated might be a good solution. But even trying to make the writer read his emails from the recipient perspective can be tricky. Many of these problems have further implications: what is appropriate in one culture often is not in another. Different cultural values generate different attitudes towards factors affecting communication processes, such as for instance hierarchy, time or politeness, which complicates all kinds of communication and especially the communication by email.
For instance, in some places politeness is an essential requirement to make requests or give orders, but in others the usage of polite manners can be understood as irony or mockery, since willingnes to cooperate is implied in the communicative processes. Sentences like ‘as soon as possible’ may also be interpreted in many different ways according to the perception of time of the reader, and clashing attitudes towards hierarchy in a work team will probably make relationships between superiors and employees more difficult and less productive.
When these issues are not addressed properly, misunderstandings may be directly associated to the personal sphere. As a consequence, professional relationships can be seriously damaged by the rise of prejudices and the promotion of stereotype. Frustration and low performance will follow and the whole business can be seriously affected. Ensuring the effectivity of communication processes within a virtual team may therefore be crucial to guarantee the success of projects. Effective Global Virtual Working training programmes can help to make the most of a virtual team and report important benefits.
© Communicaid Group Ltd. 2012