21 Mar 2018

Cross-cultural Communication: What can go wrong?

Cross-cultural communication can literally make or break a team. In a workplace without borders, increasingly every function in a large organisation has a global team. Large US corporations have a back-end team in Europe. European organisations may be working simultaneously with the US and India. And some may have a team that consists of members from China, India, Germany and the US. While on the face of it, it would mean great expertise coming together, it could also mean ground for equally great misunderstandings.

Let’s take a hypothetical example of a team comprising of managers from US and India. So here are three (of the many) things that can go horribly wrong in a cross-cultural team.

Time Management

While Indians have moved to global standards most Indians do not get time the way many from other countries do. Case in point here is the US. Ross and Raj are colleagues working on a project. To make Raj feel welcome to his country, Ross decides to call Raj over to his house for dinner.

Raj: Thank you for the invitation Ross. My wife and I will be delighted to come over. What time did you say we should be there?

Ross: Say 8? Does that work for you? 

Raj: Of course. See you on Saturday.

Come Saturday 8 pm and Raj and his wife are not there. They arrive much later at around 8:30. to a reasonably irritated host and wife. What annoys Ross even more that Raj has not offered even an apology for being late.

The truth is that according to the Indian norm, going for dinner absolutely on time would be misconstrued as being overeager. And therefore Raj has probably timed himself to be ‘fashionably late’ – the accepted norm being about half an hour. While Ross is seething through dinner Raj keeps thinking something is wrong but cannot place his finger on it.

What really went wrong?

Managing Feedback

In a large meeting with senior stakeholders, Ross and Raj are presenting a series of numbers on the current project they are working on. At some point Ross gets questioned on the ROI of their spends and not knowing the correct answer proceeds to give a reasonably satisfactory answer. He look towards Raj for help but Raj simply looks down and does not offer much help. Later on while having coffee together he tells Ross what he should have said. “But why didn’t you say so in the meeting?!”, exclaims Ross. And Raj shakes his head, saying he just couldn’t.


Sharing Ideas

Raj and Ross are called in for a meeting with some senior stakeholders. During the meeting, an open discussion is held on a better way to manage the sales cycle and the Customer Relationship Interface. Most of the people around the table offer suggestions. After the meeting is over, Raj tells Ross he has an idea that could may be work. Ross hears him out and thinks the idea is brilliant. But why did Raj not share this in the forum?


So here are the explanations and the workarounds. In the dinner invitation it would have made sense for both Raj and Ross to have understood each other’s social norms. That would have made a difference and maybe Ross could have then emphasised to Raj that in the US guests do arrive on time without any social stigma.

In the second case, Raj would not have corrected Ross because that would mean to insult Ross. Ross on the other hand would have thought that Raj was not a fair team player. But had Raj known that in the egalitarian society like the US all voices are accepted as equal, and no one would have been offended if he had spoken, he would perhaps spoken. This would have made his speak in the third case too.

Cross-cultural communication is largely a matter of understanding

Sometimes it just helps to step back and understand what the other culture is like and what nuances of behaviour to expect. Understanding a colleague’s culture, accepted behaviour patterns and norms would make a big difference in creating an air of camaraderie, trust and teamwork.

Which means both cultures come halfway to create a common ground of understanding and make work happen. And this is where understanding cross-cultural communication can help.

To know more about our cross-culture workshops that help foster great team work, click here

To get to know more about cross culture communication and how we can help, write to me at vaishakhi@abacusyellow.com