As the American workplace has become increasingly multicultural and business more international, cross-cultural communications have become a big topic. Companies today must pay more attention to the dynamics of employees and colleagues of different national origins and ethnicities, especially because poor responses and lack of understanding can invite charges of harassment and discrimination. The health of your business may well depend on your ability to bridge cultural gaps.
In the changing American workplace, people of different national and ethnic origins play regular and important roles. Everyone brings skills and points of view, and at the same time, everyone in your operation has to adjust. A diverse workplace may mean different communication styles, expectations of behavior and approaches. Certainly foreigners must adjust to the generalized standards of the American workplace, but to some extent, workplaces have to adjust to incorporate new talent. This may include different ways of phrasing things, writing in clearer language or using more written communication to make up for a colleague’s speaking challenges.
A diverse population means adapting sales and marketing communications to the various populations that make up the United States. Many companies recognize that varying demographics in different cities, regions and even neighborhoods mean having to come up with different communication approaches. As a result, you may notice billboards in Spanish in some neighborhoods or a national retail chain using more television advertising in one region and more print ads in another.
Phrases and ideas don’t always translate. Numerous companies have found that selling their products in foreign markets has meant changing slogans and branding strategies to meet the tastes of a new target demographic. For example, in many third-world countries, fast-food restaurants are actually expensive to the local population. The low-cost and good value strategies often used in the United States have to be changed to present fast food as a premium product. In another example, products that may be sold with sexually themed or suggestive marketing in North America and European countries may have to be revamped for sales in Middle Eastern and Asian countries where such messages are offensive.
When conducting business internationally, entrepreneurs learn that cultures have different expectations and protocols when it comes to meetings and interpersonal discussions. Cultures such as those of Japan and China have strong power distance values, and much of the speaking and interaction is done by the most senior member of a group. In fact, it may be inappropriate for someone lower in your organization to speak to a leader in theirs. Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian cultures consider socialization and getting to know one another a very important part of in-person meetings. Therefore, the American standard of “getting down to business” may hit a wall with cultures that consider building trust between parties essential to the business process.
In a time of international corporations and foreign outsourcing, business teams are spanning continents. Employees in the Americas may find themselves working closely with people in India, Japan and France all at once. Finding common ways of working together can be challenging — especially when communication is primarily through email and occasional video conferences. Companies that elect to outsource and operate international offices have to consider guidelines, protocols and significant education on communication and working together. Otherwise, employees can easily find themselves struggling to work together, and productivity suffers.