COMMUNICATING IN DIFFERENT CULTURES
Business etiquette and appropriate communication vary in different cultures. Be sure to research established business etiquette in a destination country. This might involve modifying dress, greeting people, and appropriate subjects to broach in a meeting.
When making contact, etiquette and communications skills are vital in the projection of a good first impression. Assessment starts at first contact, how you dress, grooming, body language, even the handshake, and the fluency of communications skills add to the image projected the value of the message being sent.
Words are never precise; all kinds of barriers are between those who are communicating, be it in professional or personal lives, and the receivers. The obstacles to communication must be overcome for the message to get through without distortion. This is especially true in business, in particular in international and transcultural communication where there may well also be the language barrier. Cultural intelligence governs social and business interaction in many high-context cultures, such as those found in the Middle East, for example.
What are the barriers?
- Hearing What We Want to Hear. Everybody will have a preconception about what is being said to them. It may not fit into their frame of reference, and individuals will adjust the discourse until it does.
- Ignoring Conflicting Information. It is natural to reject communication that conflicts with a belief. If it is not dismissed, it is modified to fit a preconception. If the information is inconsistent with what is already believed its validity is rejected by the listener.
- Perceptions about the Communicator. It is difficult to separate what is heard from what is known or thought is known about the person who says it. If a person is liked it is more likely that what that individual states will be accepted, right or wrong.
- Influence of the Group. An individual is more likely to accept the word of those with shared experiences, rather than from an outsider.
- Words Mean Different Things to Different People. Language is a method of using symbols to represent facts and emotions. Do not assume that because something has a meaning to you, it will mean the same to others.
- Non-Verbal Communication. Seek out other clues that convey meaning to what is being said. Form an impression of body language. Sometimes it means more about what is indeed being said than the words used. However, beware, there is scope for gross misinterpretation.
- Emotion. Emotions colour the ability to send and receive true messages.
- Noise. Much like a radio, interference, noise, literally or figuratively distracts or confuses information and distorts or obscures meaning.
- Size. The larger the organisation or group of people, the greater the problem of communication. The more levels of hierarchy or management, the greater the opportunity for distortion and misunderstanding.
Overcoming the barriers to communication:
- Adjust to the World of the Receiver. Attempt to predict the impact of the message on those receiving the message. Tailor the message to fit their vocabulary, interests, and values. Awareness is required on how information might be misinterpreted due to prejudices, the influence of others, or to reject a message that the receiver does not want to hear.
- Feedback. Get a message back from the receiver that confirms how much has been understood.
- Face-to-Face Communication. Wherever possible, talk rather than write. Feedback is instant, and messages can be adjusted according to reactions. It is also more human and understanding, as well as helping to overcome prejudices. Verbal criticism is more constructive than written reproof.
- Reinforcement. It may be necessary to present a message in different ways. Re-emphasize the essential points, and follow up.
- Direct Simple Language. It may be obvious, but many can confuse with jargon, complicated words, and elaborate sentences.
- Suit the Actions to the Word. Communications must be credible to be effective. Say what you do and do what you say.
- Different Channels. Supplement written communication with the spoken Conversely, a spoken message can be followed up in writing.
- Reduce Problems of Size. Encourage a reasonable degree of informality in communications, where possible reduce the levels of management.
Saving face is cultural intelligence that will preserve the honour of the group, not just individual integrity. Failure to understand this can cause a fissure in a relationship, although some individuals may have different viewpoints:
- Face can be given and taken away. Spend time on relationship-building.
- Read Between the Lines. Many cultures find it very difficult to say no as this can cause a loss of face. Listen carefully; “possibly”, or “we will let you know” or “maybe” are euphemisms for No!
- Do not Quibble. Discreetly suggest items that could be revised. This will save face.
- Never Lose your Temper or Become Frustrated. Shouting, being overly bureaucratic, or criticising a mistake, will cause a loss of face, for all concerned. Be polite and calm instead.
- Do not Interrupt. In Iraq, for example, there is a strict hierarchy in meetings of who speaks. Due to the hierarchical nature of Iraqi culture, the leader of an Iraqi team does most of the talking for his company or department. Do not interrupt and contradict a speaker; this would be the cause of a loss of face, as well as embarrassing for others present. A relationship could be damaged. Typically, subordinates are there to corroborate information or to provide technical advice and counsel to the most senior Iraqi.
- Be Gracious at Meals. The culture of hospitality means Iraqis like to invite people to their homes. If you push food away without trying it, your host will lose face. Great hospitality to a visitor gives face, so show appreciation.
- Criticize with Care. Only ever criticise in private, but reinforce criticism with positive. Seek to work together to solve differences.
- Moderate Superior Knowledge. Do not cause a loss of face by openly demonstrating a more significant subject matter expertise. Be discreet in revealing this fact, and allow them to have their say.
- Make Concessions in Negotiations. Being intransigent on a point will cause the loss of face. Be prepared to make a concession to save face.
- Allow a White Lie. When observing simple body language and listening to tone, it is usually possible to tell when the speaker is not Do not openly challenge; merely move on.
Some useful knowledge about etiquette and communication in Iraq is as follows:
- Greeting. The standard greeting is the handshake with eye contact and a smile. The usual Arabic/Islamic greeting is “Salaam Alaikum” (“peace be with you”), to which the response is “Wa Alaikum Salaam” (“and peace be unto you”). Friends of the same gender often greet each other with a handshake and a kiss on each cheek, starting with the right.
- Gift Giving Etiquette. If you are invited to an Iraqi’s home, bring a box of cookies, pastries or a box of chocolates. A fruit basket is also appreciated. Flowers are being given more and more these days, but only to a hostess. If a man must provide a gift for a woman, it should be said that it is from the wife, mother, sister, or some other female relation. A small gift for children is always well received. Gifts are always given with both hands. Gifts are generally not opened when received.
- Dining Etiquette. If you are invited to a home, check to understand if you are required to remove your shoes. Always dress smartly and conservatively. Do not discuss business. Table manners in Iraq are formal, if the meal is on the floor, sit cross-legged or kneel. Never let feet touch the food mat. Always use the right hand when eating and It is polite to leave a little food on the plate once finished.
- Meeting and Greeting in Business. Iraqis are formal when dealing with business matters. Always start with the greeting and a handshake with direct eye contact. Handshakes can be prolonged; try not to be the first person to remove your hand, nor the person with the stronger grip. Men should wait to see if a woman extends her hand. Business cards are given out; it is useful to have one side of the business card translated into Arabic.
- Communication Styles. Observe the points about saving face, do not display anger, and only show disapproval in private. Always keep your word. Do not make a promise or guarantee that cannot be kept. Do not want to make assurances, employ terms such as “I will do my best,” “We will see,” or the local term “Insha-Allah” (God willing). Be aware that Iraqi businessmen are not afraid to ask direct questions about you, your company and intentions.
- Business Meetings. Typically, the leader of an Iraqi company will do most of the talking. Subordinates that are present will be there to corroborate information or to provide technical advice and counsel to the most senior Iraqi. Wherever possible write and send a meeting agenda in Arabic, in advance. This should include details of other colleagues who will be present, including their names, titles, and a brief business bio. All decisions are generally made at the top of an Iraqi company, but this will be based on recommendations from pertinent stakeholders and technical experts who sit in on meetings. Interruptions during meetings such as phone calls, or people entering the room on other matters should not be seen negatively; remain patient and wait for the situation to return to normal. Iraqis will often have many side discussions taking place during a meeting. It is likely that they will interrupt the speaker if they have something to add. These side meetings can be loud and forceful in getting their point of view across.
Proelium Law LLP recently announced launching a permanent presence In Iraq, providing focused legal advice and support in this complex jurisdiction. The aim is to support clients effectively as they pursue various business objectives in a high-risk environment. The pursuit of commercial benefit of the development opportunities arising out of the recent conflict is now supported by highly knowledgeable, in-country expertise.
For a no-obligation discussion about doing business in Iraq, please contact Adrian Powell: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Cultural differences between people in a company, or between the employees of two companies working together in a joint venture, can create difficulties in terms of communication, teamwork, motivation, or coordination, and the impact on performance can be significant.
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