Our cultural experiences are enshrined in our native tongues. When writer Eva Hoffman had to leave Poland with her parents as a teenager and landed in Vancouver, she felt that her personal identity had been left behind, embodied as it was in the Polish language. In English she was a different person. Eventually she absorbed her new language and culture and became a writer for the New Yorker.
In her memoir, Hoffman captured one of the biggest challenges for people who deal regularly with those whose native language is not English — understanding the culture that the language reflects. This has become a serious problem for businesspeople who work with speakers for whom English is a foreign language.
The issue is that both communication partners assume incorrectly that because they share a language, they understand each other’s intent. “The international language of choice for anyone who does technology or business is English, even if their native language is not English,” explains #b#Frederick Zarndt#/b#, owner of Global Connexions, a California-based training company in intercultural communications and global virtual teamwork, and contract content conversion specialist for three companies through Digital Divide Data. “The biggest problem in communicating is that everyone thinks they understand what the other person said, but because of cultural values that doesn’t happen very well.”
Zarndt will offer a workshop on “What Can People Do to Improve Their Ability to Communicate Effectively?” at the International Conference on Global Software Engineering on Monday, August 23, at 9 a.m.at the Nassau Inn. The conference runs from Monday through Thursday, August 26, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Keynoters include Len Bass of Carnegie Mellon University; Audris Mockus of Avaya Labs Research; and Elisabetta Di Nitto, associate professor at Politecnico di Milano in Italy. Cost: $1,175. Visit www.icgse.org, or call 732-465-7810.
Zarndt came to understand the challenges of intercultural communication through his own experiences on information technology projects with team members from multiple countries. When working on a project for a German and an Indian company that had entered a partnership agreement, for example, he observed that the two cultures viewed the relationship in very different ways. “For the Germans a partnership is a business arrangement. For the Indians you are part of the family, and you treat members of a family very differently than business associates,” says Zarndt. “This led to a number of misunderstandings.”
A surprising reality in cross-cultural conversations is that native English speakers have more difficulty communicating with someone who speaks English as a second language (ESL) than do two ESL speakers, who will communicate more effectively and with fewer misunderstandings. Why is this so? “People who speak English as a second language usually speak in simpler terms: they use simple, not complex sentences, and not big words, so they are easier to understand,” says Zarndt. Certainly more nuanced communication may be sacrificed, but what they do communicate is likely to be more straightforward.
If communication is difficult simply in terms of literally understanding what is said, taking into account cultural differences is a much more significant challenge. Cultural nuances may even interfere with communication between two native English speakers if they are from different countries.
“Cultures program Americans in one way and English speakers in Australia different ways,” says Zarndt. “If you assume that an Australian understands something you said in that same way that you understand it, especially if it is a complicated concept, it is not likely to be true.”
These miscommunications have nothing to do with how well people write or speak or how intellectual they are. “It has to do with the programming put in by your parents, teachers, and friends as you were growing up,” says Zarndt. “The neurons are programmed in a different way. Everybody understands all of the words, but they are interpreted in a different way, and sometimes the different interpretation leads to some interesting misunderstandings.”
So what is a businessperson to do to get through this thicket of cultural difference? Zarndt has a few suggestions:
#b#Read guidebooks#/b#. Companies like Proquest publish cultural profiles about different countries that teach some of the basics. For example, how long people spend on chitchat before they get down to work can vary by country. So can how much drinking precedes business. “In Russia, expect to sit down and share a bottle of vodka, and after it is half gone, then you start the business discussion,” says Zarndt.
#b#Be aware of your own cultural assumptions and values#/b#. This is where many people have difficulties. “Culture in this case is very much like the color of your skin,” says Zarndt. “You yourself probably don’t notice it very much, but everyone else notices it. You can’t see your own set of cultural values, but others can see them more clearly than you, especially others from another culture.”
Suppose you observe someone running. That is a simple observation, but when you come to an interpretation of the whys and wherefores, you are imposing your own set of values. “Making an evaluation or judgment gets everyone into trouble, almost without exception,” says Zarndt. In reality, the person might be running because he is out for exercise, or he is late for an appointment, or simply because he likes to run. If you assume that because he is wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase, he is running because he is late, that is your own assumption and does not necessarily bear any relationship to the truth. “Those are your values, not his,” says Zarndt. “You can only understand what is going on in your mind, not his.”
#b#Keep it simple#/b#. “If you have a complex thing to communicate, say it as simply as you can — without saying any more or less than you have to,” says Zarndt.
#b#Listen carefully and repeat back what you thought you heard#/b#. “This is a good rule for a husband and wife and for business associates in the same country,” says Zarndt. “It is a simple rule that is almost universally ignored.”
In trying to communicate complex project requirements, he suggests, repeat them many times until everyone comes to a more or less common understanding. “As a speaker, it’s best to say the same thing in a couple of different ways,” he says. “Be sure to say what you said again, but use different words.”
#b#Respect yourself and the person you are talking to#/b#. Sometimes cultural biases can be hurtful, for example, those that devalue women. When Zarndt was working for the German and Indian partners, one of the German project managers was a woman who was technically very good. The Indian project managers, none of whom were female, were using the same software as the German woman, but not as adeptly. Yet when they needed help and reached her, they would always ask for her boss. “They were from a culture that didn’t place high value on women in business; they didn’t think women could understand the questions they were going to ask,” says Zarndt.
As a result, the woman in question felt that she was failing herself and the company. Zarndt counseled her, explaining, “These guys in India live in a male-oriented culture. It has nothing to do with you, only to do with your not being male.”
The take-home lesson is that people working in intercultural situations should not make their self-respect privy to others’ cultural expectations. “You have to realize that because someone doesn’t respect you doesn’t mean you are not worthy, only that the program in their head is ‘I can’t respect this person,’” he says.
Zarndt’s parents were farmers. He lived in Kalispell, Montana, through eighth grade, when his parents moved back near Bismarck, North Dakota, where they were born.
Zarndt studied physics and mathematics at Concordia College in Minnesota. He moved back to Montana because the state was giving away money to study alternative energy sources in the early 1970s after the Arab oil embargo, and earned a master’s in physics at Montana State University while studying the economic practicality of alternative energy. He also has a master of science in computer science from Brigham Young University.
Zarndt worked as an IT manager and programmer analyst for Western Energy in Montana and Texas and as software engineer for Raxco in Utah. Later he went to Europe, where he worked as a software engineer.
From 1989 through 2000, he worked for Novell in Provo, Utah, starting as a consulting engineer and then moving to manager of security development. He then served as chief technology officer and vice president of engineering for a startup application service provider, iArchives, and then became president of Planman Technologies, the North American business unit of an Indian consulting company.
The company for which he does work as a content conversion specialist, Digital Divide Data, is headquartered in New York. “It is a company with a social mission,” says Zandt. “They want to give opportunities to disadvantaged youth in Cambodia and Laos.” The company finds high school graduates who would not otherwise have opportunities for higher education; it trains them in computers and provides college scholarships. In return, the students are expected to work and do digital conversion.
Zarndt suggests that the potential for misunderstanding has increased drastically as electronic communication replaces in-person conversations. When speaking to another person, he says, only about 30 percent of that communication is done with words; the other 70 percent is through body language: gestures, tone of voice, and facial expressions. “When you’re talking on the phone, you have word and tone of voice; video helps, but it’s rather limited. If you take away voice and are writing an E-mail, all you have left is words,” he says. “Many E-mails are written very carelessly; often people don’t reread to see if they misspell, invert a word, or have typed the wrong word.”
In the end, the most effective way to quickly win someone’s trust and confidence is to meet face to face. “It’s not impossible to develop trust by E-mail or telephone, but it’s a whole lot harder,” says Zarndt. And that’s not even taking into account the potential missteps when different cultures are involved.