cross-cultural communication

Before Hitting the Send Key

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What you Need to Know about Cross-Cultural Emailing

Cultural understanding can make or break any team, but especially an international one. Cultural misunderstandings can drive irreparable wedges in relationships. Not only is it important in avoiding potentially expensive and embarrassing blunders but it is also important in building cohesive teams.

When reading the emails of people from different cultures, we do not have the luxury of being able to read their body language as we do face-to-face; therefore the precise meaning of their words is extremely important. This difficulty is amplified when the emailer is from a culture different from your own. Understanding the cultural context of their words is essential to your overall understanding of intent.

How Email Varies from Country to Country

First, be aware that people differ—that we don‘t all have the same perspectives, nor the same assumptions about actions and behaviors. What is polite and assumed in one country isn’t necessarily so in another. For example, Americans generally shoot off many emails quickly and casually, and are generally straight to the point; however, in much of Africa and South America,  it would be considered rude not to add a personal touch and to get down to business right away. Additionally, in countries like Germany, there are clearly delineated formal rules for business emails.

Language Pitfalls

It is paramount to be mindful of potentially confusing idioms, jargon, or too much slang. For Americans, this might mean avoiding phrases like “bite the bullet,” which might be taken too literally by nonnative speakers.

Confusion can occur even between native English speakers from different countries. For example, in the U.K., “To table the discussion” in the parliamentary sense is to lay a topic on the speaker’s table for discussion, while in the U.S. “to table the discussion” means to postpone it until later.

Many countries — but not all — love to use sports references in business–everything will be a “homerun.” People from countries where sports analogies are not the norm may wonder why they have to run home or devine no meaning from a “sticky wicket” reference — it is all but meaningless to those unfamiliar with the sport of cricket.

Generally, to avoid language misunderstanding, make what you think is implicit explicit. Double-check your wording for idiomatic phrases that may not be universally understood.  Don’t assume that your reader understands your metaphors or analogies.

Differences in Culture

Of course language is just a manifestation of the differences in cultures. There are High and Low Context cultures. In High Context cultures, messages have very little meaning without an understanding of the surrounding context. France is very high context culture–you need to understand the culture in order to understand the intent. While a non-French speaker may think they are being friendly by putting “merci” at the end of their email, to a French speaker it is a passive aggressive “thank you–now go forth and do my bidding.”

On the other hand, in Low Context cultures the meaning lies mostly in the message itself. In many English speaking countries, for example, as well as countries like Germany, Norway, or Sweden there is less need to read between the lines, as from a young age they are taught to say what they mean and communicate directly. However, a “yes” in a high-context culture like Japan does not imply a firm commitment but generally means “Yes, I understand.”

If email is the only point of contact you have with someone, and they commit a cultural faux pas, it can be harder to overlook and overcome when all that is seen is the email address and not the person behind that address.

It’s important to know what is appropriate to say and do given a person’s position within the company. Integral to this understanding is Power Distance–which anthropologist Geert Hofstede defines as the extent to which the less powerful members of institutions and organizations within a country expect and accept that power is distributed unequally. In a Large Power Distance country, the distance between bosses and their subordinates is liable to be more significant, and must be especially observed.  For example, in many Asian cultures, subordinates are more deferential to their bosses and authority, so be careful not to address bosses in a too familiar manner.  On the other hand, in low distance countries like the Netherlands and the U.K., bosses are seen as more approachable “equals” and language may feel somewhat disrespectful or mutinous, if you are in a leadership position receiving communications, as it may be far less deferential than you may be accustomed to.

When emailing to Large Power Distance countries, bosses may need to give permission to subordinates, so they should not be contacted directly. At the very least, the supervisor should be CC’d in the email.

While acknowledging differences in manners and values be careful not to overgeneralize. These are people too, working within their own cultural context of assumptions and predispositions, just we as you are. Not all Americans eat fast food in the slowlane of the highway (credit: the late George Carlin). Be careful not to attribute one action of one person to an entire country.

To mitigate problems of traversing different cultures, be as overt as possible with your intentions. Assume benevolence and don’t assume that actions you find hostile to be ill-intended. Whenever possible ask for clarification! This is a trust building opportunity!

Once you learn how other cultures interact, you’ll see how stereotypes about “rudeness” and other misunderstandings just melt away.

Readers: Please share any experiences you have had with emailing or communicating with people from cultures other than your own! Thank you!

Save Our InBoxes!

Email overload.  It’s getting out of hand.  We spend an alarming amount of time each and every day simply responding to email messages.

Why?  And, more importantly, What can we EACH do to reduce this problem?

For years, we have been coaching people, teams, and organizations on the importance of managing email.  We have helped countless groups establish protocols that have helped to increase productivity and to unchain people from their ever-growing inboxes.

But it’s not enough.  Current research has shown that the average amount of time that each person spends during their workday on email is growing.

We need to get the word out, and here’s an excellent resource that can help you today.

It’s called the Email Charter.

The core principle in action is that every single one of us has to take responsibility for reducing the amount of time spent on email by our colleagues.  Here’s problem, as viewed through this lens:

For each email that you write, you are creating “work” for others.  Our instincts tell us it takes longer to write than to read, so reading an email should take less time than it did to write it, right?  Wrong. It takes longer to respond to an email than it does to write.  Here’s why:

When you “check your mail”, your process is more apt to be like:  scan your inbox; decide what to open; open it; read it; think about whether you need to respond or not; compose the response; edit your response; send your response.

Every time you engage in this process, you are removing yourself from your flow of work, you are diverting your attention and it takes time to regain that rhythm.

Now, think about this — every time you compose an email message, you are creating the same interruption of work for someone else.  Here are some very common email “habits” that add to the overloading of our inboxes and unnecessary consumption of our collective time:

  • Open-ended questions that are time-consuming to answer.  For example, “What are your thoughts on this?”, “How do you think we should proceed?”  Quick to ask, not-so-quick to answer.
  • “CC” – so easy to click and add multiple recipients, but each additional recipient exponentially increases the amount of time your email is consuming.
  • “FW” – forwarding and/or cutting and pasting text from other resources creates an increasing burden of time as your recipient scrolls, reads, and sorts through to find the salient points.
  • Links and videos – easy to add, but each link and video can take minutes to view.

We love the internet.  We love our email.  It takes an iron will not to linger and peruse all the wonderful, distracting nuances of the world wide web, and to share our discoveries with others, and they with us.  “Just copy a link, paste, and send … and boom, the world’s cognitive capacity takes another hit!”

All of these things contribute to the massive consumption of our work week.  We need to get it under control and we need to do so now.  I don’t recall any of my job descriptions (ever) including “checking email” as a line item, and yet, when I’m not careful, it can consume my day.

Book Your Email Vacation Now!

Email ‘vacations’ decrease stress, increase concentration

UCI findings could boost on-the-job productivity

— Irvine, Calif., May 03, 2012 —

Being cut off from work email significantly reduces stress and allows employees to focus far better, according to a new study by UC Irvine and U.S. Army researchers.

Heart rate monitors were attached to computer users in a suburban office setting, while software sensors detected how often they switched windows. People who read email changed screens twice as often and were in a steady “high alert” state, with more constant heart rates. Those removed from email for five days experienced more natural, variable heart rates.

“We found that when you remove email from workers’ lives, they multitask less and experience less stress,” said UCI informatics professor Gloria Mark. She co-authored the study, “A Pace Not Dictated by Electrons,” with UCI assistant project scientist Stephen Voida and Army senior research scientist Armand Cardello. The UCI team will present the work Monday, May 7, at the Association for Computing Machinery’s Computer-Human Interaction Conference in Austin, Texas.

The study was funded by the Army and the National Science Foundation. Participants were computer-dependent civilian employees at the Army’s Natick Soldier Systems Center outside Boston. Those with no email reported feeling better able to do their jobs and stay on task, with fewer stressful and time-wasting interruptions.  Measurements bore that out, Mark said. People with email switched windows an average of 37 times per hour. Those without changed screens half as often – about 18 times in an hour.

She said the findings could be useful for boosting productivity and suggested that controlling email login times, batching messages or other strategies might be helpful. “Email vacations on the job may be a good idea,” she noted. “We need to experiment with that.”

Mark said it was hard to recruit volunteers for the study, but “participants loved being without email, especially if their manager said it was OK. In general, they were much happier to interact in person.”

Getting up and walking to someone’s desk offered physical relief too, she said. Other research has shown that people with steady “high alert” heart rates have more cortisol, a hormone linked to stress. Stress on the job, in turn, has been linked to a variety of health problems.

Study subjects worked in a variety of positions and were evenly split between women and men. The only downside to the experience was that the individuals without email reported feeling somewhat isolated. But they were able to garner critical information from colleagues who did have email.

The Army is examining use of smartphones and such applications as email for soldiers on battlefields, said David Accetta, spokesman for the Natick facility’s research and development section. “This data may very well prove helpful,” he said.

About the University of California, Irvine: Founded in 1965, UCI is a top-ranked university dedicated to research, scholarship and community service. Led by Chancellor Michael Drake since 2005, UCI is among the most dynamic campuses in the University of California system, with nearly 28,000 undergraduate and graduate students, 1,100 faculty and 9,000 staff. Orange County’s second-largest employer, UCI contributes an annual economic impact of $4 billion. For more UCI news, visitwww.today.uci.edu.

Review: The Power of Reputation

The Power of Reputation by Chris Komisarjevksy, Amazon, 224 pages, $16.50

Here is a book review by Brianna Snyder of Women@Work.

Reputation Matters

How to manage your most important brand – you!

By Brianna Snyder/Women@Work

We’ve all been in the business of reputation management since middle and high school. Back when we were concerned with popularity and how we were received at the dance, at gym, at the cafeteria, we were all — some more clumsily than others — learning how to navigate the choppy and awkward waters of social interaction and public persona. We know now how crucial those lessons were to how we became grownups.

What Chris Komisarjevsky explores in his book The Power of Reputation is the importance of reputation to your business and your career. Reputation, he says, is trickily personal andprofessional — “One thing is for sure: there really isn’t any distinction between our personal and our professional reputations,” he says — which brings the challenge of figuring out what’s sharable in the workplace and what’s best kept at home.

The key, says Komisarjevsky, is to be genuine. In other words, be your engaged, interested, competent and sincere self. The writer shares anecdotes throughout the book (both personal and from colleagues and friends) to reinforce the idea that a reputation is the soul of a career. The writer breaks down what a reputation is and means, how it’s built on caring and respect, values and good communication. He incorporates the still-new challenges of social media and managing your online reputation and emphasizes the need to be mindful of the consequences of Facebook and blogs. He calls this “the double-edged sword of the digital world” — you can use these digital places to enhance an already-good reputation or watch in disbelief as these same places dismantle it.

We all know what makes our mechanic the best mechanic, our dentist or lawyer the best dentists and lawyers — these are the people we trust not just to be honest with us (though that’s infinitely valuable) but to do a good job. We trust that they know how to do their work, that they’re well-practiced and careful, and that they care about their jobs and us, whether they’re mending a tooth or a flat tire. They value our time and they do their jobs well. That alone is enough of a foundation for a great reputation.

Notable Quote:

“We are in an era in which the demand for candor, understanding and clarity of purpose is greater than ever before. Transparency creates confidence and underscores authenticity.”

Instant Recall:

  • Research what you’re selling — whether it’s you or your product — “to the point at which you believe there is nothing better out there.”
  • Talk to people. Let them know you care about them and their needs. Listen to them.
  • Respect your clients and your colleagues. The more you give, the more you get.
  • Be personal and personable at work; share your interests, passions and ideas.

Read this book if…

You’re just starting a new job or business, or even if you’re beginning to think about who you are in your career, what your personal “brand” might be.

Toxic Texting

Recently, a client confided that his staff’s texting habits are beyond frustrating for him; that staff members “whip” out their cell phones and begin texting at any time, and at all times!

Sound familiar? Is this disrespectful or efficient?

This client assumed these texts were of a personal nature and he wondered why he was paying people to have personal conversations on his dime. Would these same people answer a personal phone call in the middle of a work conversation or meeting?

When is it okay to text at work?

Each of us is likely to have a different answer to that question, based on our generation, industry, function, economic status, and perhaps even where we live.

We know that some, perhaps many, of your texts are legitimate, work-related messages. Texting can be a quick and efficient way to have a work question answered, to find out where the meeting was re-located to, or to find out where a co-worker is if you need to find them.

Ask yourself:

What is your body language when you text? How do others interpret that? If you are smiling and chuckling, does that tell people around you that you’re having a personal conversation? If you look serious or are frowning, will other’s think your text is work-related?

What about if you are working independently in your cube or even in a group setting, what assumptions might people make when they walk by and see you texting?

Next time your phone alerts you to a new text, stop and consider what is going on around you.  Are you in a setting with other people who are expecting you to pay attention, to be engaged with them? If so, how are they likely to interpret your actions if you are distracted with texting? What do you suppose they are thinking about you and your commitment to the task at hand? No matter how discreet you believe you are being, everyone around you is aware that you are texting.

Why does it matter, anyway? We live in a society where texting is fast becoming the go-to mode of communication. Even my 72-year-old mother has a smartphone and sends me text messages. Who cares if I read it and respond during a part of a meeting in which I have nothing to contribute at that moment?

Therein lies the rub.

People do care, and they care a lot.

There are unintended consequences of allowing personal conversations to distract you from the work that you are being paid to do. Short of a bona-fide emergency, these distractions often make a person appear unprofessional to their peers and leaders. Just last week, two co-workers were clearly texting back and forth during a meeting and the presenter was distracted by their behavior. We wondered if they (the co-workers) thought that no one could figure out what they were doing or if they just didn’t care that they were acting like junior-high school students passing notes?

Are you a Toxic Texter?

TRY THIS — for the next two days, track how much time you spend engaging in personal text messages while at work. Include time spent reading, pondering, composing, sending, editing, and checking for a response.   Additionally, keep track of your work-related text messages.

Evaluate your results. It might be time to turn off texting while at work. If you’re not sure if your workplace is “text friendly”, ask! Having an explicit conversation about acceptable and unacceptable electronic behaviors can be relationship-building and help bridge distance.

Happy Holidays and thank you for reading!

Decoding Language in Virtual Teams

I read an interesting article by Lera Boroditsky (Lost in Translation) which suggests that languages shape people’s perception of space, causality and time. A Stanford University study found that Spanish and Japanese speakers are less likely to remember agents of accidental events than English speakers – that is, in English one would say “John broke the vase” whereas in Spanish it could be said “the vase broke itself”.

When working virtually, effective communication (speaking, listening, writing and reading) through language is critical because there is little or no opportunity to read non-verbal queues. The example of the vase highlights an important difference that may creep up in languages – that of expressing accountability of actions. Following the same example, a Spanish or Japanese speaker that is not fluent in English may sound like he/she evades responsibility if he/she committed a mistake. Similarly, he/she may appear to shy away from discussing the root cause of issues, which may not necessarily be the case.

These language barriers are likely be heightened in virtual teams. I have experienced having to wear different hats depending on what language I speak. This is not about one language being better than the other – they are just different. Boroditsky’s article described what multilingual speakers like me have probably noticed: there are subtleties that cannot be explained by a mere translation. Some things completely lose their essence in another language. Based on my own experience I would suggest the following:

  • Avoid acronyms and internet slang. I assume the average business email is not ladled with LOL however I have seen my fair share of emails that included acronyms like COB (close of business), sent by English language natives to Portuguese speakers. Such words can be lost to the receiver, and cause unnecessary confusion. Do not assume people who speak different languages know what you are talking about even if you think these acronyms are global. There are probably acronyms in different languages that you may not be aware of.
  • Consider what medium should be best used when. For example, to avoid chain emails and round robin replies by a large group, set up a teleconference or videoconference. The idea is to use the technology that will best convey the message to the receiver as well as the interpretation thereof.
  • Emails have the advantage in that readers can reread, look up definitions of unknown words and have time to respond. But the writer must keep the reader in mind – this email is about conveying a message that the reader is intended to understand.
  • Decode what words mean for different speakers. For example, the word “yes” may mean agreement or it may convey understanding without agreement.

Is it possible that over time languages will converge in a melting pot as a result of the surge in online conversation, and a universal language is created and used by many?

Please share your stories/ thoughts on how language affects remote teams working across different distances, cultures and languages.