The Communication COMPASS


Managing and Leading Multicultural Workforces: The Communication Compass

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It is a cliché to claim we are global citizens; offsprings and stakeholders of the watershed phenomenon of globalisation. Google the word ‘globalisation’ and more than 20 million websites would pop up defining it as any type of change in any given realm of human life. Globalisation is also of the conviction that we are all moving towards a homogenised lifestyle and culture. However, it is an everyday reality that the contrary of this is true. The more and more globalised we become, our behaviour accentuates a local fervour that is unprecedented. Set in this context, how do we, as leaders and managers, globetrotting businessmen and negotiators, communicate without misunderstanding or without being misunderstood? A million-dollar proposition!

As a member of the multicultural world, the ability to successfully engage in intercultural communication maybe one of the most important skills we may have to develop. For now, more than ever before, we are being challenged by a future in which we will interact with people from a wide range of dissimilar cultural backgrounds. Those people may range from a neighbour who speaks a foreign accent, someone a thousand miles away considers us unfriendly, or our new employer whose company is headquartered in another country.

At the outset, let’s explore the rationale behind the need to focus on effective communication in multicultural or intercultural or crosscultural context. The prefixes here to the word ‘cultural’ are considered to be synonymous, though we need to duly acknowledge the subtle shades of differences between one another. In the broad context of cultural contacts, what can be the Oh-no moments? Why do we have to undertake this voyage and how can the communication compass guide us?


In other words, how can this subject be a vital determining factor in our everyday life? With theoretical interrogations aside, globalisation is a realtime phenomenon and is here to stay. It is bringing nations together for reasons both imaginable and unimaginable – be it political alignment or peace negotiation at one extreme and for trading purposes on the more pragmatic level. Companies merge, expand, open overseas branches, make geographic shifts and when we say company, we are actually referring to individuals, not mere buildings or currencies. We are at the crossroads of managing, supervising, briefing and living with cultures totally alien to us. Globalisation is thus forging a new, emerging world order in the domain of culture and communication and these two forces are unmistakably game-changing. As the global community integrates all of us, willingly or unwillingly we must learn to deal with a social order characterised by escalating levels of contact and communication with people of other cultures.

Defining Intercultural Communication

Fundamentally, intercultural communication occurs whenever a person from one culture sends a message to be processed by a person from a different culture. Though this may seem fairly simple and unchallenging, it actually requires a thorough understanding of two key ingredients – communication and culture. Assuming, we have read and accumulated adequate know-hows of communication and throwing light on the other parameter, namely, culture – it unfolds to be a complex web of layered ideas.



John Hooker, in his Intercultural Communication, A Reader, facilitates our understanding of it by offering a more pragmatic and simplified definition. Stop for a minute and think about the word ‘football.’ What mental picture comes to your mind?

Most U.S. Americans will envision two teams of 11 men each in helmets and pads, but someone in Montreal, Canada would imagine 12 men per team. A resident of Sydney, Australia may think of two 18 man teams in shorts and jerseys competing to kick an oblong ball, while a young woman in Sao Paulo, Brazil would probably picture two opposing teams of 11 men or women attempting to kick the ball into a net. In each case, the context is referred to as football, but the playing fields, equipment and the rules of each game are different.

Our wonderment of learning the mechanisms of using chopsticks is counter-effective in the same manner in which a Chinese would be puzzled at the logical order of a South Indian vegetarian buffet. Similarly, pizza, sushi, tacos and naan have gone global but not without the initial shock and hesitation. These are general examples to illustrate the bewilderments caused at the contact zone of different cultures. To rephrase it, these are just the tips of an iceberg. Culture can be compared to an iceberg, where the visible manifestations represent only a portion of those ideals, behaviours, norms, etc. that constitutes the culture’s way of life. The majority of cultural variations lie beneath the surface, out of sight and awareness. Getting more specific to the topic in discussion, intercultural communication does not refer only to the matters of language, customs or etiquette of a particular country.


Our understanding should also explicate the underlying cultural values, beliefs and assumptions which actually shape the visible cultural manifestations. We need to be fluent in the ‘cultural grammar’ to be truly competent in another culture. Understanding another culture involves understanding its belief system, not just the others’ spoken language.

Checkpoints of Intercultural Communication

Communication as an activity begins in our brain, but it is manifested in our behaviours, both verbal and non-verbal. Understanding difficulties one encounters when an intercultural partner uses a different verbal and non-verbal coding system. Let us take a look at how verbal idiosyncracies and distinctions influence problem-solving, speaking, perception and understanding. Non-verbal symbols in movements, facial expressions, gestures, eye contact, silence, space and time also creates an impact. It is generally perceived that most clashes occur in intercultural communication between the West and the East. Owing to their vastly differing worldviews – cosmological and spiritual the West and the East are positioned at different trajectories. However, it should also be noted that the West or the East are not just indistinct conglomerates of standardised cultures but house in themselves divergent cultural intricacies.

Understanding the non-verbal cues of body language

The most commonly mistaken body language is the ubiquitous handshake. Handshakes are generally not used in Asian cultures.



In countries like Japan and China, people tend to bow. In countries like Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Japan, people bow or press there palms together like our Namaste followed by a deep bow corresponding to the dignity and importance of the person on the opposite side. When men from Western countries extend their hands to Asian men and women, their handshakes are generally not so strong and a strong handshake can be considered rude. Though the trend has been changing gradually, it is always better to be diligent and sensitive to such issues. On the contrary, in Western countries, the dead-fish handshake or the finger-tip handshake is a sign of weakness and lack of confidence and sometimes even sends out a negative signal. Both men and women equally use strong handshakes to establish respective degrees of authority and credibility. Though a firm grip gives out assertiveness, we can choose how people should think about us especially in business situations. West African countries like Mali kiss each other’s hand after their handshakes, while shaking hands is way of bargaining in Turkey.

Using fingers to communicate is innate in each one us from the time of origin of communication. No textbook teaches it, but everyone uses it effortlessly. The following discussion will warn us on how to be careful while wielding such non-verbal communicative practices. The thumbs up sign has become a part and parcel of our life propagated by leaders and sports champions. We see so much of it around us, that to say the truth, it has entered the domain of formal non-verbal communication. Though it generally sends out a signal of ‘Great!’ in some middle-east countries like Iraq, it is considered to be an insult. So think twice before you show it in a business meet. An equally significant gesture is the V sign.


In Asian countries like Korea the sign is used while posing for pictures while many other countries use as the popular victory sign. However, in UK, this symbol has derogatory connotations and is considered an insult. Using fingers to point someone even in a formal communication with no negative motives is considered rude. Using the hand with all fingers pointing to someone is accepted. So is using your index finger to call someone near – it is rude, but beckoning somebody with all your fingers grouped is fine.

Another popular symbol we use is the OK sign, made by rounding the thumb and index finger and spreading out the other three fingers. Though it means OK in many countries, in France, it means that the other person is worthless, while in Japan it means money. To show that somebody is crazy, we usually circle our index finger near our forehead. In Japan and other nearby countries, a counterclockwise movement shows that the person is stupid, but a clockwise movement means the person is extraordinarily smart. So, next time watch the way your fingers move.

Using your left hand to give something important can be a point of irritation for people from countries of the East. The right hand is mostly appropriate and the left hand is reserved for other purposes. Similarly, it is considered an insult to accept somebody’s business card and put it in the pocket in front of them. It may send signals that you actually don’t care. Put it in your wallet or an important file. Chewing gum and talking is looked down upon in some European countries. Blowing your nose in a handkerchief and putting it back into your pocket is considered mannerless. Use a paper tissue for such occasions.


Sticking to time is another tricky concern. They say you can set your watch by Swiss trains. However, this is an anti concept in a country like ours. Such cultural anomalies should be taken care of while dealing with international clients. In France, stick to your clock for a business lunch as the French take their food very seriously. To be late for lunch or dinner is to disrespect food in their perception. However, in certain other countries turning up too early may denote that you are greedy and may be looked at with suspicion. The American concept of ‘Time is money’ may be wise enough but in China or Korea, expressing impatience for a meeting to start can be dangerous.

In Germany, cars are matters of great pride. Even a minor scratch while parking can be taken very seriously. The French have a carefree attitude, but it all depends on the individual. The English believe it’s a slur on your host’s food if you don’t clear your plate. Whereas the Chinese feel that you are questioning the host’s generosity if you do the same. Table manners and etiquette are another territory of minesweeper game, where every movement has to be cautiously done. While silence during eating is appreciated in many Eastern countries, European countries find it embarrassing.

Paying compliments and greeting also have their own codes. While Americans say hello with a smile even to strangers, Koreans and Japanese find it redundant. To tell a lady she is looking round and healthy referring to her weight may be unwelcome in many countries. However, in African countries, referring to an increase in her weight is actually a compliment. It is best to be very cautious while discussing women in Arab countries.


Along with other intelligence quotients required for surviving the 21st century, cultural intelligence is an emerging but determining factor. It is clear that minor variations in speech rhythms, body language can cause mistrust and misunderstanding among crosscultural parties. As a final word of caution, the following points have to be kept in mind.

"Using your left hand to give something important can be a point of irritation for people from countries of the East. The right hand is mostly appropriate and the left hand is reserved for other purposes."

  • Develop a culturally sensitive disposition
  • Anticipate the meaning the receiver can decode
  • Diligent encoding
  • Avoid slangs, regionally flavoured speech habits
  • Enhance listening and observational skills


To be a successful and strategic intercultural manager and to lead through communication, we must be open to new and different communicative experiences and also show empathy towards other cultures. We also need to develop a universalistic, realistic worldview and be tolerant of views that are different from our own. Our ability to change, to make adjustments in our communicative patterns and habits also give us the edge over others in intercultural communication.


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Author:  buddingmanagers
Posted On:  Saturday, 16 August, 2014 - 13:13

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