Within the workplace, multicultural teams have become the norm, with team members bringing different values, assumptions, and patterns of behavior to the group. To work effectively within such an environment, team members must understand and adapt to one another’s value systems and cultural differences.
On the surface, this might seem easy enough, and just a matter of accommodating things like religious holidays, worship schedules, and dietary requirements. But usually it’s not that simple, as these differences aren’t always clear.
Lost in translation
One of the key areas this applies to is language, where much can get lost in translation. While this can just stem from a basic lack of fluency, it can also be the result of cultural differences in communication styles. These have been characterized by researchers as direct or indirect, and high or low context, as well as various combinations of these.
Direct and indirect styles are just what they sound like: people either mean what they say or they don’t. Context, which is more complex, is what’s unspoken but understood based on group or cultural norms and relationships; it includes many subtle nonverbal factors such body language, tone of voice, age, gender, etc.
In countries with low context and highly direct cultures (Germany or the U.S. for example), saying “yes” or “no” often means just that, at least within a business setting. But in cultures and countries that are just the opposite (e.g., China, India and Japan), these statements can mean something else entirely. In Japan, for instance, where communication is very highly nuanced, it’s often considered rude to say no to someone’s face, so one may instead say yes, maybe, or nothing at all. In terms of context, factors such as age, gender, and social status can also impact how negatively a “no” is perceived.