Becoming a Cultural Chameleon: Adaptability Skills Essential for Cross Cultural Success

Matthew MacLachlan

6 Apr 2010

Have you ever noticed how, in the many conversations you have with different people throughout a typical day, the topics of your conversations and your style of conversation change depending on who you’re speaking to?

If you were to pick a random topic, such as the weather or a recent film you have seen, and you discussed it casually with a few different people, you will most likely notice that even if your conversation covers the same topic, your style will vary depending on the other person’s position (your boss or work colleague), profession (lawyer, shopkeeper), relationship to you (relative, friend, someone you have just met on a street), age (a child, an older person) or culture (national, religious etc).

We tend to speak in different ways to different people, our work colleagues, family, friends or just strangers we meet on a street or in a supermarket. Our speech adapts and changes depending on our interlocutors. We may adapt our choice of language like the vocabulary or jargon we use, or our accent, dialect or intonation. At times you may find yourself imitating someone else’s accent or use of vocabulary to get closer to them and gain sympathy, especially when working across cultures. This is the central tenet of Communication Accommodation Theory, which was developed by professor of communication Howard Giles of the University of California Santa Barbara.

Practical examples of this are when, for instance, we speak slowly when communicating across cultures so that our international counterparts can understand us, or how we use grammatically simple language with children (baby talk). In the same way, you can strategically choose to speak with a certain accent or use certain expressions in order to emphasise your membership of a group, or conversely, distance yourself from another.

The principle also covers non-verbal aspects of communication, such as posture and eye contact, which are especially important aspects of cultural awareness. For example, when two people speak one may seek eye contact while the other may wish to avoid it. In that instant, almost unconscious negotiation takes place as one has to adapt to the style of the other.

Most of these verbal and non-verbal adjustments are psychologically motivated and common among all people around the world. What differs is how we accommodate our language and behaviour to communicate with others across cultures more effectively and gain their appreciation, trust or acceptance.

Adapting to another person can come naturally and often imperceptibly in a mono-cultural environment, but if the interaction spans different cultures a certain degree of uncertainty comes into play, as the parties involved will very likely have different expectations of how communication should unfold. Cultural awareness training can help reduce this element of uncertainty and ensure you have the right level of cross cultural skills to communicate effectively across cultures.

Understanding varying levels of eye contact is just one example of this theory in action. Broadly speaking, western individuals associate a lack of eye contact with insecurity and even untrustworthiness at times. When a German manager meets a new member of his team, he will look him straight in the eye, accommodation assures his gaze in turn will be met. All of his German counterparts know this shows both mutual respect and that the new team member is confident and ready to meet the challenges of the new assignment.

Things are different when doing business in Japan, where respect for your superiors should be shown by not meeting their gaze. Accommodation means that a Japanese junior member of staff will not look his boss in the eye when he or she talks to him, and know that by doing this all expectations are met.

What happens when business relations bring the German junior team member into contact with the Japanese manager? Who, if at all, will accommodate their communication style when doing business with the other? What are the consequences of this not happening?

One way to eliminate any uncertainty that arises from this scenario is through cultural awareness training. By providing insight into your own culture and communication style, as well as those of the host country you are doing business in, it is possible to develop a level of cross cultural awareness that will help you to make the necessary cultural adjustments that come so naturally when communicating with someone from your own culture.

Confidence, awareness of what to expect and skills to react appropriately, all developed through cultural awareness training, can eliminate at least part of the uncertainty inherent in international business relations and lead to more economic success.

 



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