Culture in Business Communication

Beware of cultural assumptions when communicating with stakeholders.

There is no better arena for observing a culture in action than business. Cultures tend to reveal themselves in situations where much is as stake, [...] The same is true of business, because economic survival is at stake. Business practices are shaped by deeply-held cultural attitudes toward work, power, trust, wealth and communication. (J Hooker 2008)

Hooker states that the key to cross-cultural business is understanding one's business partners well enough to make cultural adjustments. At lot is at stake in business and lack of clarity in communication will negatively impact projects, stakeholder relations and organisations. Recently I was provided with a perfect example of the way we assume that stakeholders will understand cultural references. Often we are not even aware that we are using a phrase or principle that is specific to our culture.

I was attending a requirements gathering workshop with a major new Client. The HR manager was describing the need for some very simple instructions that supervisors and managers would use whenever they needed to follow a specific process for example, maternity or redundancy. A Six Sigma consultant was in the meeting and pushed for a precise description. The HR Manager responded slightly huffily:

"look I just want a Janet and John guide"

Being of a certain age and bought up in the English State School system I knew exactly what she meant. Janet and John are a series of story books designed to support children learning to read. The pages consist of only a few repetitive words and are accompanied by illustrations. They slowly fell out of favour in the 70s.

janet and john book cover - be careful of culture in business communications

In fact the only people who got the reference were myself the HR Manager and the IT Manager, all three of us British and the other side of 30. The remaining 6 people in the room looked totally blank. I looked around and realised the problem, of the 6 blank faces: 3 were British colleagues in their early 20s, 1 was South African and the other 2 were Dutch.

Once the HR Manager had finished exclaiming her surprise that nobody understood what she had said, she and the IT Manager spent a good 10 minutes trying to describe the 'Janet and John' books reciting:

"See the little dog, Janet"
"See the little dog, John"
"Come home, Janet"
"Come home, John"

(accompanied by giggling from the 20 something's).

Once everything had settled down we set to work on a definition that we all understood. By reviewing existing user manuals we agreed on a template and produced a prototype based on a real life process.

This anecdote illustrates the need to check our communication for cultural references. It also highlights how crucial it is that we involve stakeholders from every area that will be impacted by a project. Because the Client understood the importance of stakeholder engagement we were able to come up with a precise definition that would be understood by everyone involved. If the HR Manager had put the requirements together herself we would never have reached that level of clarity and the product definition would have remained unclear.

Notes: I understand the Janet and John books were revived in 2001 with a new series featuring modern themes, ethnic minority characters and contemporary styles of dress. Perhaps we will be able to safely reference them in a few years!

References - Culture in Business Communication

Hooker, J. (2008) Cultural Differences in Business Communication. [online] Tepper School of Business, Carnegie Mellon University. Available at: https://ba.gsia.cmu.edu/jnh/businesscommunication.pdf [Accessed 01 March 2013].
 
 
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