Knowing basic greetings in a foreign language are a great way to be polite when communicating interculturally, however, to fully communicate across cultures you need to be aware of the differences between each culture represented. Culture is much more than simply art or music; it is a deeply held set of beliefs, values, and expectations within a group that differentiates it from other groups (Hofstede, 1991). Culture impacts many of the tasks we undertake every day, and many actions that we do out of habit in the United States are conducted differently elsewhere. For example, in an American business meeting it is considered efficient and polite to get right to business. Taking ten minutes to see how everyone is doing may be seen as a waste of time. Meanwhile, in Pakistan it is considered impolite to begin this way, and meetings are opened with brief conversations asking about people’s family, friends, etc.
Intercultural Communication (IC) is concerned with the ways individuals, organizations, and groups interact across cultural differences. We work in a world where corporate and non-profit organizations are moving toward transnational status at an ever-increasing pace. IC is a sub-field of technical communication and focuses on how we can communicate between culturally varied groups while still adhering to each one’s social nuances and expectations. As technical communicators, our responsibility includes acknowledging easy-to-see cultural differences (e.g., do I bow or shake hands?) as well as those that are more subtle (e.g., how do I work on an intercultural team in a way that doesn’t offend someone’s values?).
Since so many of the decisions made in IC emphasize cultural values writers dealing with IC often encounter matters of ethics. Two very important pitfalls that writers need to overcome are ethnocentrism and xenophobia. Ethnocentrism occurs when we consider our own culture to be of the highest importance and, in turn, judge all other groups in relation to our own standards (Dong, Day, and Collaco, 2008). Comparing all other cultural norms to our own devalues the other culture instead of appreciating it. Xenophobia takes this a step further, as a person is actually fearful of a new or unknown culture. Such reactions to cultures can lead to stereotyping and alienation. When working on a cross-cultural team or with an international client, it’s important that all involved acknowledge each other’s cultural differences and work respectfully within those parameters. Being ethnocentric or xenophobic in our communication makes us unable to build strong relationships or work cohesively within a cross-cultural group.
What does unethical IC look like?
Unethical or ineffective IC can ruin a professional relationship. In 2013, a group of native English speakers in Japan were hired as communication consultants for a Tokyo-based human resources company. The company wanted its English-speaking presentation materials to be clear and the Japanese presenters to improve their English speaking skills. The company clarified with the consulting team that it was not concerned with the Japanese presenters’ ability to function in an American, Australian, or British boardroom—just to be easily understood.
One of the American consultants took an ethnocentric approach to these consultations and repeatedly corrected the presenters on matters of culture (e.g., telling presenters to add humor to a presentation) and not following the agreed-upon strategy. Furthermore, the consultant routinely skipped over the company’s established hierarchy and emailed supervisors with questions and concerns instead of addressing these issues with the team’s appointed liaison. As a result of this ethnocentrism, the company did not receive the results it wanted from the consulting sessions, and the supervisors and liaison were insulted. Consequently, the consultant was fired.
In this situation, the consultant was convinced that the presenters needed to work within an American cultural frame, and therefore ignored the needs of the Japanese company. In order to meet the goals of the consultations, the consultant needed to first be aware of the Japanese presentation style and how this differed from American style. Additionally, since professional hierarchy is very important in Japanese business, the consultant was expected to operate within that framework.
Should I be concerned with the role of my own culture?
The short answer is yes. While it is important for a technical communicator to acknowledge and respect the variances of culture in the workplace, his or her own culture should be respected as well.
For example, in the United States and many other Western countries, it is important to recognize authorship when conducting research. We do this through a variety of citation styles and consider intellectual property important enough to be written into law. Copyright law and the elements associated with it (plagiarism, piracy, etc.), however, do not translate into all cultures.
In giftcultures, common in Asian and African societies, the role of copyright differs from that of the West. Some Asian cultures have traditionally viewed plagiarism in a much different light, and in China, for example, it’s not uncommon for published work to be considered free to use at will (Wan, 2008). While not adhering to Western cultural norms like citation can cause an ethical problem, it can also lead the Western-based technical communicator into legal issues.
How do we practice ethical IC?
While it can be difficult to prepare for all IC circumstances, discussing specific strategies can help prepare you as an Intercultural Technical Communicator. Consider the following scenarios and come up with ethical ways to manage these situations:
- You’re working on an international team to develop a feasibility report on water distribution. The report is due in one week, but half of the team will be celebrating a religious holiday for three of those days. How do you ensure the report meets the deadline?
- You receive an email from a client regarding a project you’ve been assigned. The email is very abrupt and difficult to understand due to errors in English. You’re not sure what the client is asking. How do you respond?
- Halfway through a project, you realize that the task would require you to infringe upon the intellectual property laws of your country, but not of the client’s country. How do you proceed?
Dong, Q., Day, K., & Collaco, C. (2008) Overcoming Ethnocentrism through Developing Intercultural Communication Sensitivity and Multiculturalism.Human Communication,11, 27-38.
Hofstede, G. (1991).Cultures and organizations: Software of the mind. London: McGraw-Hill.
Wan, C. (2008). Creative Commons License: An Alternative Solution to Copyright in the New Media Arena.Trans. Array Copyright Law, Digital Content and the Internet in the Asia-Pacific(). Sydney, AU: Sydney University Press.