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International business and cultural diversity

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Cultural Studies
Wordcount: 5268 words Published: 20th Apr 2017

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Cultural Diversity in its varying forms, undoubtedly plays a distinct role in the success or failure of interaction in the work place, these often come from impassive behavioural judgements, programmed values or peer understanding (Briley and Aaker, 2006). Diversity can be viewed from a variety of perspectives and effective communication in this respect can be actively moulded to formulate an outcome if an understanding is learned or developed before or during this interaction. This essay then aims to discuss the impacts of cultural diversity in the work environment, with focus on how communication is affected both positively and negatively and the degree to which cultural diversity as an explanation of this is a precursor to successful deliberation.

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So what is culture? Culture is an inherently difficult idea, arguably without distinct definition. Hall (1959: 52) argues that culture “is a mold in which we all are cast, and it controls our lives in many unsuspected ways.” Hofstede (1980: 45) maintains that culture is “the collective programming of the mind, which distinguishes the members of one human group from another.” Trompenaars (1994) views culture as the way that a group of people solved the problems that afflicted their society. The successful solutions were then adopted as being normal behaviour or accepted standards and were gradually incorporated to become a part of acceptable culture. This suggests that culture is capable of change and that change is constant (Olivas-Lujan, Harzing, and McCoy, 2004). The concept of culture incorporates a system of shared meanings or values that can exert a strong influence on the objects, events, and ideas to which people attend and toward which they act and attribute value (Liu, Furrer, and Sudharshan 2001; Trompenaars 1994; Watkins and Liu 1996). People from different cultures are often expected to choose different groups, messages, and methods to affect communication (Chow, Deng, and Ho 2000; Kale 1991) in business this is often reflected at the initial point of exposure but developed over time.

Types of cultural diversity are well documented. In business, the work of Varner (2000) suggests a theory of transactional culture, the idea that diversity is learned or altered depending upon the situation. This theory is justified by Hofstede (1980) who states often the interaction between cultures establishes the idea of professional culture, the idea of a single mutual culture fed by both identities. Gagliardi (1986: 124) claims that a “common culture strengthens cohesion and improves the ability to communicate,” indeed, in the workplace this ideology is apparent when discussing the ways in which diversity plays a role in business interaction. Positively, evidence suggests the addition of multicultural entities to an organisation provides a varied number of successful responses (Source) indeed with the rise in globalisation; the increase in a multicultural workforce is inevitable both internally and externally. This reason justifies the need to understand, facilitate if not promote cultural recognition throughout the business not just at a managerial but personal level.

Depending upon the level of interaction, the methods of communication as highlighted by Beamer, (1995) are based on a learned environment, a training culture that aids in the understanding of both the foreign and native diversity. Cultures are often categorised as a means of predicting behaviour, clarification, and standardization as a means of finding unity. To do this, variations among cultural groups are often discussed in terms of geography, gender, age, and class, as well as other variables. Hofstede (1980) formulates these variations into three distinct classes, organizational, occupational and national, but also promotes the idea of cultural dimensions to illustrate similarities between nations. Each of these higher level classifications contain sub-references to the type of culture such as linear active, multi active or reactive and incorporates layers of culture including national, regional, generation and societal groups. Incorrect understanding of these can lead to difficulties as the acceptable or expected behaviours. In this respect it is necessary to observe that the nature of communication in the workplace is based on the ability to recognise cultural variation and adapt to the changing situation.

Nevertheless diversity in the workplace provides differentiated service range, increased market potential and the possibility of higher efficiency (Poniatowski n.d). It is this benefit to businesses that pushes the need to generate active participation and increased awareness of cultural differences (Structural Integration). Poniatowski, (n.d) discusses approaches to cultural diversity in an organisation and suggests that it can be thought of as, cultural relativism, absolutism or pluralism. These illustrate examples of closed, hierarchical, (Monolithic) or individualistic (pluralistic) based culture differences which and is useful as a base to assess the level of understanding in an organisation.

In industry, often the first issue to understanding and a stunt to effective communication is undoubtedly one of several factors. These include, language, environment/technology, social organization, contexting, authority, non- verbal behaviour, and conceptions of time (Victor 1992). At first glance, the initial interaction between cultures formulate an underlying set of psychological challenges (Mak, West- wood, Ishiyama, & Barker, 1999; Sanchez, Spector, & Cooper, 2000). Not only in a business context, this can often create (performance) anxiety (Stajkovic & Luthans, 1998; Wood & Bandura, 1989) and perhaps embarrassment (Keltner & Buswell, 1997), in front of a critical, evaluative audience from the native culture (Edmondson, 1999). The required/expected behaviour in the foreign setting may also conflict with an individual’s deeply ingrained values and beliefs, resulting in psychological distress, expressed in perspiration, nervousness and feelings of helplessness (Leong & Ward, 2000; Sanchez et al., 2000; Ward & Searle,1991). Cox (1993) discusses the physical association between appearance, language and perception of identity to others and this dance with personal pressure, individual identification and understanding of others perceptions. This could and sometimes does illustrate communication problems through misunderstanding or something that may not be directly recognised as being culturally linked. It is often in this stage, or the first encounter, that prejudices start and can be illustrated through unpredicted behaviour such as an English person for instance speaking Hebrew in France, to the observer this wouldn’t be normal or the perceived norm for a French person, highlighting not only the individual expectations based on explicit variables of appearance etc. but stereotypical views of national culture (Larkey 1996).

Language is often seen as a variable to cultural identity and can be viewed as an example of explicit culture or observable reality (Hampden-Turner et al 2002). Beamer (1995) approaches this with the concept of schemata. This describes the idea of pre-existing mental structure that allow someone to make sense of information. With regards to cross cultural schemata this calls for a so-called alignment of thought processes referred to as mutual expectation (Hampden- Turner et al 2002) and is often difficult to achieve. The next step in this is the relation between the language and the tones of the dialect in its portrayal of ideas or concepts. As suggested by Tannen (1998) conversation is a mixture of engagement and a consistent pattern of constants and constraints, this can illustrated by the French or Italians for example, who use language dialogue as tools of elegance. Not only this but the subtle use of body language as an indication of expression. Meanings through language can be interpreted in a variety of ways. In many countries the use of silence can show understanding and appreciation even respect but this can also create misunderstanding not only of expression but intent. Language can also be regarded upon reflection of Maltz and Borker’s (1982) work as an example of the gender-as-culture hypothesis, explaining differences in male and female language use and societal roles. They observed that children learn much complex social and communicative behaviour through interactions with same-sex peer groups this is then carried on throughout life. These social contexts not only promote gender-specific language styles and norms, but also reinforce gender-specific cultures, thus justifying personality trait theories such as those proposed by Smith, Dugan & Trompenaars (1997) and underpinning the social prejudice work of Aldrich, (1999). More recently, Mulac, Bradac, and Gibbons (2001) observed that although men and women may speak the same language; they speak it differently.(Tannen) Similarly, Jameson (2007) suggests the cultural impact on emotion. “People have positive, negative, neutral, or ambivalent feelings not only about race but also about other components of cultural identity. For instance, a particular individual may feel positive about her gender, negative about her economic class, neutral about her nationality, and ambivalent about her ethnicity,” (Jameson 2007:25). This justifies the linguistic hurdles that belay intercultural communication even before conversion starts. The understanding then of language as expression and a projection of national character comes hand in hand with listening. As communication is a two way process, the listener or audience must respect the listening patterns and differences in the nature of conversation. It is important to recognise that communication is not simply restricted to verbal interaction. In modern society, the use of technology as management of teams and communication has provided varied challenges in dealing with understanding globally. The increased use of virtual teams on widespread projects means there is a need to both get to grips with the advantages of the technology such as “ frequent, easy, low-cost, around the clock communication and collaboration” (Duarte & Snyder 1999: 24) but also to be sensitive to the audience, the levels of formality in an organisation, language and to have awareness of values and beliefs, communication styles, and approaches to decision making, problem solving, and conflict resolution when relying on non- face to face contact.

Language and listening are related directly to methods of communication. As well as these, patterns of cross cultural business behaviour tend to stem from deal vs. relationship focus, informal vs. formal, rigid vs. fluid time and emotionally expressive vs. emotionally reserved cultures (Gesteland 2003). Again these interpretations like those of Hofstede (1980) etc. are relatively rigid in their attempts to justify differences, however they are useful in understanding a perspective pattern when dealing with communication. Deal focus cultures refers to task orientation whereby relationship focused are more people orientated. Similarly, those from egalitarian cultures differ with more formal counterparts from hierarchical societies, the perception of time is also fundamental in some cultures separating the lazy from the “arrogant martinets enslaved by clocks and arbitrary deadlines.” (Gesteland 2003:17). Those who exhibit an emotionally expressive nature communicate differently from those who are reserved, this resulting confusion can often be mistook for lack of understanding or effort thus creating a gap in negotiation of interaction management. Interpretation of body language also plays a significant aspect in the portrayal of the type of cultural pattern being displayed by those during interaction. The subtle differences in movements such as the head and eyes of the speaker, in cultures such as those of Spain or Greece is considered a reinforcement of position and a sign of respect, maintaining consistent eye contact for example, whereas in Japanese culture this same movement it is considered improper and rude. This type of behaviour is not uncommon to hierarchical cultures. Expressive features of the body also include the hands, used to emphasise a point. The notion of body language is a critical aspect in understanding the meaning of conversation sometimes not portrayed by the language, especially if the language is not native. Non- Verbal expressions then like language can effect communication unintentionally. Similarly, cognitive patterns formulate reasoning and approaches to interaction. In this, understanding variations in thought between cultures promotes correct verbal response and action. For instance, in Japanese- United States (U.S) business deals, those thought to be completed by US negotiators can often be re-opened by the Japanese, this can be frustrating for the U.S but a necessary aspect of understanding for the Japanese (McDaniel, 2000).

In addition to the levels and methods of interaction, both in the workplace and society, cultural identities are also thought to be associated with the idea of power positions, that some cultural groups have greater power, prestige, and status than others (Ridgeway and Berger, 1986; Nkomo, 1992; Ragins, 1997). In Western society there exists a predetermined cultural norm amongst a variety of groups. Many of these are becoming blurred but have been empirically proven by Alderfer (1987) as a residual cultural standard. This view of status is jointly underpinned by achievement vs. ascription cultures where a position is earned through education; such as a degree from a good school or attributes such as titles at birth. Not only this but also the idea of connections, status can be achieved through who you know ideology.

There is much support for the notion that paying attention to differences in power and status is critical for understanding diversity in organisations. In Alderfer’s (1987) theory of intergroup relations, for example, the distribution of power among cultural identity groups, both inside the organization and in the larger society, is key to how people think, feel, and behave at work. The power distance index given by Hofstede illustrates this gap and underpins Harbermas’ (1970) study of communicative distortion whereby the hierarchical relationships or norms for interaction in an organisation will limit the extent to which communication is freely given in a global context. There is then a standard norm for communication that transcends the gap of cultural similarity, an underlying base of do’s and don’ts or methods of conducting ones own behaviour during communication. Proponents of status characteristics theory (Ridgeway, 1988; 1991) argue that much of what we think of as the effects of membership in particular identity groups, such as race or sex, are in fact produced by the status value our society ascribes to those groups, so does this effect both our own personal rules for interaction, the rules dictated by the organisation or the expected rules of our culture?

It is important to understand that there is a difference between intercultural communication and intercultural business communication. In intercultural business communication, communication can often depend for example on the interaction style. This may change depending upon the context. In this the identity of the person changes depending on the environment. For example, professional, social and cultural identities would alter the style of verbal contact. A social business interaction would be different for some cultures than others. This reflects the work by Spencer- Oatley (2000), which discusses the idea of identity face, where a person can use multiple layers of identities at a given moment (Collier and Thomas 1988; Hecht et al., 1993). Fundamentally, in business communication both strategies, goals, objectives, and practices become an integral part of the communication process and help create a new environment out of the synergy of culture, communication and business. The work of Holtgraves (1997) examines how culture influences whether a person uses direct or indirect communication. He finds that Koreans are more likely to be indirect than are U.S. citizens in intercultural communication. Gudykunst, Matsumoto, and Ting-Toomey (1996) found that individual factors are better predictors of high and low-context communication styles than cultural values of individualism and collectivism. Hosftede’s (2001) work on inter cultural interaction highlights the differential value systems of countries, this justifies the notion of communication methods highlighted by Holtgraves. In this, the likelihood of successful interaction is either enhanced or reduced by the value set of a given culture. Based on the ideas of individualism, collectivism, power distance, masculinity, femininity, long term orientation and uncertainty avoidance (Hofstede 2001) it is necessary to alter ones cultural and business environment and create a new context (Bolten, 1999). More than this however, there is a need to understand the impact of key organizational concepts such as HR and promotion policies, decision-making, competitive environment, financial/business laws and governmental regulations on the intercultural business communication processes. Participants in interaction must understand the relationship of business and culture in a particular environment to create a common ground to base discussion.

In the work place certain predicated knowledge then can be detrimental to business relationships. The prejudices gained through peer interaction, value sets and indeed media interpretation learned or perceived through the process of “growing up,” all add to this vision of an outcome before any intercultural communication has taken place. It can often seem like a finite game of West vs. East ideology so often if these practices are used in organisations that use a monolithic approach this can have negative effects both economically for the business but make it even harder for employees to respond to change. In modern society there is a need to engage in cultural experimentation. The work by Lovett (1999) and Yan (1997) challenge the conservatism approach by presenting an argument based around the individual rather than culture, highlighting how interaction is formulated from an individual perspective. Simply, cultures don’t interact with each other individuals do. This sentiment puts forth the cognitive approach to interaction based both on the value set of the culture, the transactional culture created by the interaction and the contextual understanding of both parties, developing a value hierarchy for interaction. This however isn’t simplistic, unlike the linear, sender/receiver models such as those proposed by Limaye and Victor (1991), this could represent in itself a dominant personified role for either representative. Simple stated, communication and interaction between individuals is a product of the moment, the message is given but filtered before understood through these layers of culture as discussed in Lewis (2005 : p 44-45). Leininger (1997) suggests a more appropriate model for solving the issue of cultural understanding in methods of communication. She discusses presenting a relationship between business context and global strategies, the aims of each business; if these are clearly defined by both parties this systemic approach removes the necessity for traditional processional communication. Yet this model fails to reduce the gap between cultures, as highlighted by Fine (1996) perspective models often only gloss over practices but rarely alter the perception or differentials in neither organisation or individual, Walck (1995) agrees that such approaches would eliminate rather than manage diversity. So looking at the differences in cultural standards between two cultures, Fink et al (2007) would suggest that they are, “not necessarily the consequence of differences in a single cultural dimension (i.e., values). It can be safely assumed that contexts, choices, and decisions made within a society by groups or organizations and interactions among sets of values (combinations of values) can influence the emergence of specific cultural standards. Although these choices are based on values, different modes of behaviour may be relevant within different contexts.” (Fink et al. 2007:47)

From a personal perspective, the transition between cultural environments whether through businesses exchanges or geographical movement can be enough to generate an atmosphere of uncertainty, referred to by Lewis (2000) as Culture Shock. Culture shock is a multifaceted experience often felt by people whose opinion of normality is blurred in a foreign country. Whereby societal norms or traditional approaches alter and everything is different to what is expected. From this, one can experience a sudden loss of identity, different in regards to cultural identity, this is based on the individual and perception of ones self irrespective of the base culture. This can be a daunting period, developing in stage transitions, moving first from an initial apprehensive model through crisis and resolution. Despite this movement though, the process if often cyclic and the transition between each and even the return to the host culture can re-ignite this out of body experience (Winkelman 1994). For communication, culture shock can have negative effects with lack of enthusiasm, misunderstanding, and perhaps depression. But the individual needs to understand that despite culture requiring us to think and giving us metaphors, facts and norms it doesn’t tell us what to think. Based on this idea, Cohen (1989) argues that identity can be created through community, the idea of symbolic or imagined community in the host culture. This paints a pretty picture, but doesn’t solve the underlying problems of ethnomethodology, and people can sometimes fail pray to others definitions of their identity when maintaining extended periods in foreign environments, the idea of cultural Diaspora (Gilroy 1993, Jenkins 1996).

Critically for the success of business interaction, it is the ability to recognise ones own programming or the awareness of ones own metaphors for being that lays the foundation for communication. Yet at present even with a degree of understanding, there still remains an interactive gap between cultures. The idea that cultures stick together is prominent from the boardroom to the classroom. As discussed by Echenique et al (2007) the use of social networks can be used to both explain and or reduce this gap, currently a Spectral Segregation Index (SSI) has been used to measure the connectedness of individuals from a variety of backgrounds and makes it possible to compare the segregation between cultures. By using this information and the principle behind social networking, coupled with the studies of Hofstede, Trompenaars and others, it is possible to disperse knowledge about different cultures direct to applications in the office etc. before interaction as better or additional preparation before intercultural communication. So, by both recognising the initial difference in culture, understanding yourself and the importance of differences in dialect, movement and the type of culture set (Values etc.), you can then understand the perceptions of those you are in relations with. From this you can research and alter your approach to better suit the type of culture to limit the impact of intercultural interaction both during and after communication.


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