The Cultural Context in Business Communication, a Cross Country Comparison


One of the most effective ways to learn about oneself is by taking seriously the cultures of others. It forces you to pay attention to those details of life which differentiate them from you

- Edward T. Hall, The Silent Language -

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To continue with the topic of cross-cultural differences in outsourcing projects - covered in a previous article on cultural differences in IS offshoring arrangements between German clients and Indian vendors -, this week we’re going to talk about a research on "Inter-cultural problems of IT-services outsourcing from Sweden to India" for comparison purposes.

As highlighted in the the introductions to the Germanic- and the Nordic Europe clusters, both areas are home to low-context, monochronic, individualistic cultures, while the Indian society is high-context, polychronic, collectivist: perhaps unsurprisingly, there are significant commonalities between the approaches adopted by the German and the Swedish stakeholders in their interactions with Indian vendors, and between the challenges that arose in each scenario (mostly concerned with hierarchy/power dynamics, management styles, communication styles).

With regard to power dynamics, the research reports that "Indian workers would reply as ‘Yes’ where Scandinavians employees would say ‘Not sure’. For example, Indian software developers say ‘Yes’ to a query on the delivery date even when they are not sure of the possibility to meet the deadline. Indian developers may not understand a customer needs but would hesitate to ask detail from their customers.", a statement that matches the conclusions of the German stakeholders object of the first study: "In offshore outsourcing arrangements between German clients and Indian vendors, some German clients have observed that "on the working level—development, testing, etc.— you have to give very precise specifications. And they [Indian co-workers] will do exactly as prescribed. But if you don’t say ‘you should also consider this or that’, if you don’t specify in a clear way—that’s why you encounter a lot of problems in software development projects."

To put things in context, let’s briefly summarize how power dynamics work in the German, Scandinavian, and Indian society:
 

Germany - PD
 

Sweden - PD
 

India - PD
 

In terms of management styles, this is how power differentials impact the relationship between managers and employees in these three societies: 

- "Scandinavian managers would in general not ask frequent progress reports, since that would be considered as lack of trust on the employee. While in India, if the managers do not follow up frequently then the task itself would be perceived as an unimportant task. Scandinavian managers focus on outcome rather than behaviour while Indian manager focus on behavioural control.";

- "In offshore outsourcing arrangements between German clients and Indian vendors, some German clients have observed that Indian co-workers tend to keep to specifications, often unreflectedly, rather than actively contributing their own ideas".

On a related note, it must be mentioned that while the German society belongs to the group of "doing cultures", the Indian society classifies as a "being culture":
 

Germany - Doing
 

India - Being culture
 

Concerning time-management, the research claims that "Scandinavians are strict and obey time schedule and deadlines. Therefore, they take more risks and make reasonable assumptions before going ahead as it is considered better to deliver tasks on time with some errors than not meeting a deadline. But on the other side, Indians often wait till they perceive that everything is clear to them before handing over the task. Late delivery is assumed to be acceptable and no attention is given to deadline": here we are looking at the differences between monochronic and polychronic cultures, summarized below.
 


 

Monochronic

 

Polychronic


 

With regard to cross-cultural communication and misunderstandings, the studies report that:

- "Swedish people are often scared of conflicts and may therefore not communicate dissatisfaction to their Indian partners. The Indian partners take lake of negative feedback as a sign of satisfaction. Moreover, Indian companies have huge business to American clients who generally communicated their dissatisfaction very directly";

- "When I say something, it often involves personal criticism. For example, if I reprimand my German team or if I address an issue that didn’t work out the way it should have, then I am very direct in telling the team members in order to show them what went wrong. And I think that’s the way you have to do it in Germany, so they will understand for sure. You cannot act like this to somebody from Asia. You can’t, you must not simply blame someone from Asia and tell him it was his mistake." 

What’s interesting about the above statements is the mention of three low-context cultures - America, German, and Scandinavian - defined by two opposite communication styles: Americans and Germans tend to be direct and assertive, while Scandinavians prefer to avoid conflicts. 

In order to understand such difference, it’s important to highlight the fact that - according to Hofstede’s framework - both the American and the German culture are low-context and masculine, while Nordic cultures are low-context and feminine: the former value assertiveness and competitiveness, the latter value group harmony and cooperation.


 


 

Germany - MAS
 

Nordic - FEM
 

Finally, with respect to motivation, it must be noted that while in the Scandinavian and in the German culture the main tool of social control is guilt, the Indian society belongs to the group of honor-shame cultures: German and Indian employees will therefore have different reactions to criticism and negative feedback (research suggests that "in honor cultures people are more sensitive to threats to their moral reputation (e.g., being called a liar) than in dignity/guilt cultures").


 

Guilt Cultures
 



 

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SOURCES:

 

- Gul, A., & Zaib, A. (2010). "Inter-cultural problems of IT-services outsourcing from Sweden to India". Linnaeus University

- Hofstede, Geert H. (1997). "Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind (second ed.)". New York: McGraw-Hill

- House, R. J., Hanges, P. J., Javidan, M., Dorfman, P. W., & Gupta, V. (2004). "Culture, leadership, and organizations: The GLOBE study of 62 societies". CA: Thousand Oaks

- Winkler, Jessica & Dibbern, Jens & Heinzl, Armin. (2007). "The impact of cultural differences in offshore application development — Case study results from German-Indian projects". Wirtschaftsinformatik / Angewandte Informatik - WI. 49. 95-103

 

RECOMMENDED READINGS ON CULTURE AND LEADERSHIP:

 

- Bhagat, R. S., Triandis, H. C., & McDevitt, A. S. (2012). "Managing global organizations: A cultural perspective". Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar

- Hofstede, Geert H. (1997). "Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind (second ed.)". New York: McGraw-Hill

- House, R. J., Hanges, P. J., Javidan, M., Dorfman, P. W., & Gupta, V. (2004). "Culture, leadership, and organizations: The GLOBE study of 62 societies". CA: Thousand Oaks

- Kotler, P., Keller, K.L., Koshy, A., & Jha, M. (2009). "Marketing Management – a South Asian Perspective". Delhi, India: Prentice Hall

- Lewis, R. D. (1996). "When cultures collide: Managing successfully across cultures". London: N. Brealey Pub

- Orbe, M. (1998). "Constructing co cultural theory: An Explication of culture, power, and communication". Thousand Oaks, NJ: Sage Publications

- Steers, Richard & Nardon, Luciara & Sanchez-Runde, Carlos. (2016). "Management Across Cultures: Developing Global Competencies". Cambridge : Cambridge University Press

 

Disclosure: This section contains affiliate links. If you were to buy any of the books listed here, I would earn a small commission (at no additional cost to you).


 

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