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Elephant in the room – Bloopers in Intercultural communication

We are excited to announce our next series of blogposts. This time it is a look at intercultural bloopers in business communication.

Intercultural communication is like walking on thin ice. You take deliberate steps as you don’t wish to slip and fall; especially during critical business meetings. You don’t want to be saddled with an elephant in the room.

Communication bloopers often lead to embarrassing situations; situations that are difficult to explain.

In his book Language Shock, Michael Agar says that culture is

“…what happens to you when you encounter differences, become aware of something in yourself, and work to figure out why the differences appeared.”

If we look at intercultural learning from the perspective of a child growing up, we might have a more empathetic approach to understand reactions to cultural differences.

In this series we have invited guest bloggers, both Indian and non-Indian, to share their experiences. We hope you will find these blogposts interesting as well as educative.

We hope that these posts will help us understand at least a few of these cultural differences we often encounter in today’s global workplace.

Snippets of our personal experiences….

Lalitha’s story…

During a business lunch somewhere in the UK, an Indian software engineer (let’s call him Sameer) was attending a team lunch in a French restaurant. This was Sameer’s first trip outside India, and being new to the team, he was being extra careful. When the menu was placed before him, he couldn’t understand what the dishes contained. He called the waiter and requested him to point to the vegetarian dishes as he did not eat any kind of meat. The waiter discreetly pointed out a few dishes out of which Sameer picked two. To his horror, both the dishes were made of potatoes and two huge plates of potatoes were placed before him. With great difficulty he finished his lunch. The client sitting beside him was a tall , strapping American. Not understanding the problem, he remarked with a hearty laugh, “If you eat potatoes like this, you will become like me.”

Dolon’s narrative…

I was called to conduct a culture training session for a team based in Netherlands. A new manager, from India, had taken over as leader of the team. On digging deeper, I found a disgruntled team as well as a disgruntled manager.

The complaint of the manager was that despite his best efforts to support and help, the team was not cooperating. During meetings, they challenged the decisions he had taken after careful deliberation. When he dropped by to check on team members to see if anyone needed help (which he did multiple times a day despite a heavy schedule), they seemed to ignore him.

The complaint of most of the team members was that their manager was rigid and authoritarian. He did not consult them before taking decisions and seemed impatient when asked questions. On top of that, he did not trust them to complete assigned tasks responsibly and competently. He tried to micro-manage by constantly scrutinizing ongoing work.

The room was obviously peopled by elephants, assumptions and blinkered perceptions. Every “May I help?” from the manager was perceived as a direct assault on the team member’s competency, while every “Please could you clarify why we have taken this approach?” was perceived as insubordination by the manager. Working styles clashed resulting in each stakeholder taking offence where none was intended.

Ishita’s experience……

“You’re an Indian? Why aren’t you wearing feathers?”

“Do you travel 9 hours every day to come to teach us?”

These were some questions from the first “foreign” people I encountered – children. The child who asked me the first question confused me for an indigenous American, when I introduced myself as “Indian”. The second one, a reaction to the statement that it took me nine hours to fly from Delhi to Paris.

How did I react to these questions? I mostly laughed at first. This was my first job outside India. I was an English language teacher in three primary schools in a town in central France called Montluçon.

The discussions that followed these questions were some of the most intriguing I have ever had. I shared stories about the context I came from, how it might seem different from what they saw as “normal”, how we felt about these differences and so on.

In intercultural communication, we are all children when we start off. We might ask the “silliest” questions, laugh at things that are beyond our understanding. It is only because we haven’t experienced them before. And in most cases, no one really means any harm.

If we look at intercultural learning from the perspective of a child growing up, we might have a more empathetic approach to understand reactions to cultural differences.

Shweta’s take…

I used to work for an MNC in a team which was required to interact with a team in the US on a daily basis. We also had, what we called back then, Ex-pats visiting us. I was, more often than not, the mediator/translator/interpreter on the account of me being more aware of American lingo and culture (thanks to summers spent reading Archie Digests and watching a lot of HBO and Star Movies). It’s not that my colleagues in the India office didn’t speak English, they did. But their English was different from the English the Americans spoke. For ex: Curds = yogurt, cilantro = coriander, or saying “I have a question” instead of “I have a doubt” and so on.

I was often told that my English was “so good” and that my colleagues/seniors in the US had no trouble understanding me. But was that really it? Or was it that I was able to channelize my awareness of the American Culture in my communication and therefore successfully avoid any miscommunication that could’ve arise? Over the years, I’ve had many such experiences where I’ve played mediator and also observed communications breaking down due to crossed cultural wires.

Hence, The Elephant in the Room blog series: EiR(as we have named it) is an experimental series where we look at the role cultural awareness plays in business communication with English as the common language spoken by both the parties in question.

We are quite looking forward to reading the anecdotes shared by fellow professionals. This is going to be so interesting!

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