Cross-Cultural Communication

Although we have built communication bridges across the ocean, the cultural differences in our adaptation remain unique in each cultural context.  Accommodating these barriers has proven to be one of the most difficult and complex tasks I have encountered.

I enjoyed looking at the different emails given by Barry Thatcher to the team in Mexico (Spilka, 2010, pp. 172-173).  It is evident that the emails are much more formal in Mexico than in the USA for business relations.  Beyond formalities, it is evident that the revised email follows some cultural process that just doesn’t exist in our culture.  Re-introducing myself in an email to someone would feel very awkward, especially if we’ve been communicating for a while.


Several times I have been in charge of managing an offshore team.  Many of the areas we have employed the teams from have very different “hierarchical and interpersonal values” (Spilka, 2010, p. 170).  Depending on the culture, the workers may be either too proud or too scared to communicate effectively.  When email is one of the main forms of communication, this can be very problematic.  The biggest issue I encounter is that questions that should be asked are not asked.  Sometimes I will need to take Barry Thatcher’s approach by formalizing an email that shows respect.  Other times I will need to show that I am approachable and accessible for them to communicate as a peer rather than a manager.  If we do have someone from the same cultural background locally we will sometimes employ them to help build the relationship.

I have travelled to meet the offshore team a few times.  It’s funny that even though technology has given us so much, travelling to meet and break some bread with offshore teams builds this relationship better than any email has ever done.  Even communicating with team mates across the USA is helped by being able to put a face to a name.  Bernadette Longo states that “People value human relations” (Spilka, 2010, p. 156).  This is evident in this case.

Barry Thatcher also examines cultural differences in layout and composition of a website.  Almost a decade ago I studied abroad in South Korea.  I remember trying to navigate the websites there and it was almost impossible.  Even if I was able to translate the page, the cultural differences in layout and process were much different.  I had also wanted to use the popular social media site, Cyworld, but was quickly denied because it required a Korean Social Security number.  Finding the correct websites were also difficult without the ability to read or write in Korean.  Although Google could bring up some results, the cultural knowledge was mostly inaccessible.

To try to accommodate communication gaps across cultures, my company has its own CMS specifically for different cultures.  Each user will have their own culture profile configured, and when they look up templates for documents, they will be specific to the region they are located in.  If they are creating a document to be distributed in a different country, they can retrieve the document for that specified culture.  This approach seems to embrace the fact that we all have different approaches to how we communicate digitally.  At the same time, I cannot imagine having to maintain that system.  Possibly, it may also create a sense of exclusion rather than inclusion for certain contexts.

Right now, the solution for cultural divides seem more human than machine.  I can’t really see this changing either, as cultural understanding requires empathy, and is a dynamic being.


11/16/2017 Edit:

Attaching some examples of emails from other cultures. The one on the left is an email to my husband from some Brazilian Vendors, and the one on the right is from Spanish vendors. It’s interesting to note the formality differences in the messages. 

Posted on November 12, 2017, in Digital, Literacy, Social Media, Society. Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. Does this mean that the CMS itself localizes the different versions of documents, or does it just make it possible to easily create the different versions? Looking at the two different emails in the article, it is hard to imagine the localization process being totally automated. I can’t help wondering whether we’ll get better and better at localization or we’ll make more and more compromises until we settle on very basic, just-the-facts type communication, making localization less necessary. In other words, will culture change communication, or will communication change culture (or both)?

    • I have a similar question, Miriam. You say “my company has its own CMS specifically for different cultures. Each user will have their own culture profile configured, and when they look up templates for documents, they will be specific to the region they are located in,” so do you have multiple profiles across these CMSs? If so, how do you keep up/remember the nuances of each? Is there training or a best practices/FAQ doc for each?

      • Correct, we can have multiple profiles, so I can create one for Korea and under a certain product line. This takes away some of the effort on my part to know about the Korean culture and process. At the same time, without knowing anything it is still difficult to navigate.

        We have all received about a days worth of training for this system, but I’m still not sure that it is enough. It’s one of the more complex systems so only a few people are tasked with retrieving the necessary documents. We then end up linking to these documents so we don’t all have to know how to navigate it.

    • The CMS supports different cultures in your profile. So this means that all documents can be categorized for certain profiles and they will appear when you search using the system. This can be helpful when looking up the templates for documents because you don’t have to sift through irrelevant types of documents. There are thousands of different documents under different product lines per culture, as well as custom product lines etc. This is definitely not automated, making the ordeal of creating and maintaining the content a full time job for multiple people.

      Interesting question. I want to say it’s both but I feel like it’s going to sway more one way than another. I think right now culture is swaying technical communication. I mostly think this because when we create a technical version of a previously “manual” process we try to make it as familiar as possible.

  2. “Cultural understanding requires empathy”– this statement is so true (especially in today’s world)! Understanding audiences and accommodating their needs is essential in order to communicate effectively. “Audience in this new age of digital literacy is not something anyone can simplify or treat only as an abstraction. Digital audiences are complex, requiring processes of analysis and accommodation that embrace and take full account of this complexity” (Blakeslee, 2010, pg. 223).

  3. That’s a really interesting idea how different email responses are in Mexico. I actually like the idea of the formality. Too often I find some responses from coworkers miss answering all questions or it’s hard to decipher their meaning. Sometimes it’s nice to have the formality and have professional and complete answers in writing.

    • Very true. My husband works with different cultural vendors over email, and he says he finds them so different than emails from fellow Americans. They are very formal and respectful. He feels like their level of professionalism is much higher than the average one even he sends out. I’ll attach a couple samples to my post.

      When I really think about it I do take different tones in my emails with different people. I always try to say thank you if it makes sense. I also will try to say things like “hope your weekend went well. .” I feel like this would be seen as casual, but I try to be respectful.

  4. Thanks for sharing your experiences, Miriam. I agree it’s always great to put a face with the voice, especially when you’ve worked with someone for a while. For exercise planning, we have several planning conferences. A week of working face-to-face with people is way more productive than exchanging e-mails.

    It’s a good thing your company values that and sets aside money in your budget for you to travel. It’s also smart they maintain a database of cultural information. My co-workers have to make “trip books” whenever the admiral travels, so he has the latest news and culture for the country.

    I enjoyed reading your thoughts!

    Jennifer R.

    • Trip books sound like a great idea. I have mostly used the internet and word of mouth to try to prepare myself. For example I like to cross my legs when I sit, but I found that I should avoid showing the soles of my feet in Thailand because it’s viewed as extremely rude. Thanks for all the responses this semester!

  5. Hello Miriam,
    I seem drawn to your insights and ideas. Thank you for that.
    As I, too, have been involved in trans-national teams, from as diverse areas as Indonesia to Germany.But for all of the word-smithing and deference to other cultures. I completely agree with you that nothing substitutes for human contact.

    Put in a positive framework, it’s so much easier and satisfying to work with someone that you have connected a name with a face with a voice.

    • David, we are definitely on the same page. I think on this note, it’s very important for company’s to continue to hold social events like holiday parties or to financially support meeting team members offshore. We should not forget that there is a human on the other side of the monitor!

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