Canadian Consulting Engineer

Cultural Divides

August 1, 2005
By Rosalind Cairncross, P.Eng

Every year Canadian companies send scores of people across geographical and cultural borders to do business abroad. Equipped with technical or other expertise, goods or services, they set off to reap...

Every year Canadian companies send scores of people across geographical and cultural borders to do business abroad. Equipped with technical or other expertise, goods or services, they set off to reap the benefits of globalization. The wise ones also equip themselves with some background about the country and the culture that they are about to enter. But many leave without a “ni how” or “buenos dias” to their name, let alone some understanding of the cultural rules of engagement at their destination.

Once they arrive, their cultural adaptability is soon put to the test. If the person does not speak the working language of the country, this lack will further complicate the assignment. While companies expect to spend considerable time and money in technical preparations for a project abroad, preparation in the country’s culture is not necessarily a budget item. Yet the way in which the company and its people cope with linguistic and cultural differences will affect the way in which the work gets done, the relationship with the local workforce and the efficiency and satisfaction of staff assigned abroad.

Over and above the technical and managerial requirements of an international project, it takes time, effort and money to establish effective communication across cultural boundaries. Loredana Bruni has recently returned from an assignment for the Kazakhstani partner of a Canadian oil company. Her experience provides insight into what happens when a company sends people to work in a different culture.

Loredana normally teaches English as a second language in Toronto but this assignment took her to an oilfield in Aktan, Kazakhstan. There she taught English to the local workers of the oil company, which has a complement of largely English-speaking management and Kazakh or Russian-speaking workers.

“Most upper-level management were English-speaking: British, Canadian, Australian or American,” says Loredana. “English was the dominant language. Few had any Kazakh or Russian.” Clearly this was not a situation conducive to giving instructions to the Kazakh workers. To breach the divide, a translator was assigned to each of the managers, someone who translated for the managers at work and for personal purposes. No need to learn any local language.

While the translators took care of language for the managers, the company also tried to close the communication gap with language training for the Kazakh staff. According to Loredana, they spent a considerable sum on culture and language training. Her own presence there was part of the company’s effort to improve communication by providing English instruction, but language was not the only barrier. The company also brought in someone to “explain” the foreign managers to the local workers. Loredana was there to help the company achieve one of their goals: preparing some of the local staff to take over managerial positions. English is a requirement for moving up the ladder.

When Canadian companies go abroad, they expect to face this kind of communication challenge. But they may face the same challenge even if they don’t leave home. The company may have a number of foreign-trained engineers and other professionals among its employees. They are working in an unfamiliar culture and English may not be their first language. Do Canadian companies help their foreign-trained staff to breach the communication gap?

Not surprisingly, when foreigners come to Canada to study, to settle or to do business, our expectations of them are quite different. The comments from a group of Chinese students in the MBA program at York University’s Schulich School of Business are telling. “When we come over here, we have to learn to do things that are polite here.” Yes, this is what we expect. But they continue, “We want business people who come to China to do things that are polite there.” There is the rub, the essential dilemma of communicating across cultures.

The things to learn about Canada are many and far from easy; the obstinate vagaries of the English language and, even more challenging, the different cultural norms that grease the wheels of social and business exchange. Culture becomes a factor even between English-speaking groups. While the differences between American, Canadian, British or Australian work and social culture may cause the occasional misunderstanding, for the foreigner whose first language is not English, the communication highway is strewn with obstacles.

Learning a new language well enough to function in it is difficult and native speakers of the language often don’t appreciate how difficult. There are strange new rules of grammar, strange new sounds to hear and imitate, a mountain of strange words and expressions to memorize. Beyond the difficulties inherent in English, like impossible rules of pronunciation and spelling, we often make things even more difficult for the person who is still learning the language. We speak too fast, we slur words, we use expressions and metaphors that mean nothing to people from other cultures.

For example, in North America, the language is littered with sports expressions, all waiting to trip up the person learning English and even the English speaker from another culture. How many times have we been asked to “step up to the plate,” or to “cover all bases,” or been told that something or someone was “far out in left field,” or were told “three strikes and you’re out”? These baseball expressions mean nothing to cultures that don’t play baseball, which is most of the rest of the world.

Switching to football doesn’t help either. Telling someone from an Asian culture to “run interference” for you may just have them running nowhere in particular. Nor may the person understand what you mean by telling them that they “fumbled the ball.” And the proverbial “size of a football field” may tell the person nothing about size. Watching your language by speaking clearly and a little more slowly, using simpler sentences, common words and understandable expressions, can help your foreign partners a great deal if English is not their first language.

If language is difficult, culture can be a worse problem because it is so deeply embedded in all of us. We are all moulded to our culture from birth by all the society’s institutions — family, schools, clubs, workplaces — modified by life experiences as we go. The result is our way of making sense of the world, its social rules, what is correct. And usually it’s as unconscious and automatic as breathing. After a lifetime of cultural training we are puzzled or irritated when others with different cultural training automatically do things differently.

Like the Chinese students above. What kinds of strange things must they learn about Canada? These are many and difficult. In professional settings, we ask them to use first names even for the boss and other strangers in positions of authority. We ask them to interrupt other participants in meetings. To be eligible for promotion, we require them to stand out as individuals, to be outstanding. All this is behaviour considered impolite in their culture and in many other cultures.

And what are the things to learn about China? At a basic level, say table manners, can a Canadian slurp his or her noodles noisily and burp, as is required of a polite dinner guest in China? The disapproving internal voice of the person’s mother silently rebuking this rude behaviour makes it very uncomfortable for the Canadian to do so. And yet we ask other people to do things they consider “rude” all the time. No slurping or burping at table for the Chinese students, for example. Yet they must struggle with the internal voice of their mothers too.

Anthropologist Edward T. Hall, divides the world of cultures broadly in two: low context cultures and high context cultures, with variations in between. Low context cultures favour direct communication forms, individualism and linear logic. They emphasize detailed messages, stress words and technical signs, and perceive highly verbal people favourably. High cont
ext cultures favour communication embedded in the sociological context. They value the collective over the individual, emphasize spiral logic, value indirect verbal interaction, frown on highly verbal people. No prizes for guessing into which group North American culture falls. According to Hall’s classification, most native English speakers, Scandinavians and Germans live in a low context culture while the rest of the world lives in a high context culture. These classifications are broad and there are certainly cultures that have a mixture of the characteristics. The characteristics of individuals within a culture may also owe more to personality than nationality. Still, it is not difficult to see how things can go wrong when the communication highway crosses our cultural boundaries.

There are no easy answers to the challenge of effectively communicating across cultural boundaries but awareness of the profound effect of culture on all human interactions is a good start. With some help, the effectiveness of companies working abroad can improve, and the experience of personnel working in a foreign culture can be richer. Working abroad without learning something about the cultural rules that grease the wheels of social interaction in the target country should be as unthinkable as delivering machinery without lubricant.

Rosalind Cairncross, P.Eng. is a contributing editor to Canadian Consulting Engineer. This article is based on a workshop she presented to faculty at the Integrated Learning Centre, Faculty of Applied Science, Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario in April 2005.


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