By: Josie Edwards
Teamwork is a part of life. So why do we dread it so much? Working as a part of a team requires individuals to confront different communication styles in order to work together. This is a challenge in itself. Now imagine trying to work as a team with people from different cultural backgrounds. Sounds intimidating, right?
Global communication is becoming more accessible and necessary. This means that there is an ever-growing need for knowledge on how to communicate with people from other cultural backgrounds. Communication in passing is one thing but having to communicate as interdependent team members working toward a common goal presents its own set of obstacles. To make these interactions successful, individuals must be ready to reach outside of their comfort zone in order to seek an understanding of team members.
In order to prepare to best approach these situations, we must understand the cultural differences that are at play and the best strategies to overcome these obstacles. The differences between cultures that tend to clash in communication are called cultural dialectic tensions. Dialectic tensions are opposing values or communication methods that conflict with one another.
A study done by Dr. Steven Levitt at the University of Texas at San Antonio explored how diversity impacted teamwork by identifying the specific cultural dialectic tensions that influenced communication and group dynamics. The study interviewed participants of a variety of cultural backgrounds and teamwork-driven roles. Participants were asked questions about team characteristics, factors that created struggles in communication and factors they found helpful.
The study identified multiple cultural dialectic tensions that influenced teamwork. One tension present in many intercultural interactions was direct communication versus indirect communication. Individuals using direct communication rely on the verbal message itself to communicate their thoughts. In contrast, individuals using indirect communication prefer to rely on nonverbal cues to convey their message. For example, in response to the study, a U.S. manager working in Turkey stated, “We [the U.S.] like to put everything in writing, make sure it is clear, there is no confusion, we know what we are getting, and it is all being spelled out, signed off… In that part of the world, they conduct their business mostly based on trust, handshake, relationship.” These differences in communication styles can easily cause confusion and frustration if an individual is not aware that this is happening.
The best way to ease these tensions is to begin by being aware that one’s own feelings of superiority and interpretations of behaviors are influenced by their culture. Starting with this introspective look at how we communicate can then allow us to realize that not everyone is the same as us and open us up to the differences of other communication styles, realizing that other styles may be just as valid as our own.
While intercultural conflict in teamwork at work can be difficult, we can find even more complex challenges in the teamwork context of intercultural marriages.
A study done by communication researchers Dr. Tiffany Tili at Liberty University and Dr. Gina Barker at Coastal Carolina University examined how the intersection of intercultural communication, marriage communication and conflict communication within a relationship presents a unique context for the development of communication and conflict management skills. The researchers wanted to learn more about how spouses perceived their communication differences and how they worked through both conflict management and intercultural communication within their relationship.
The study interviewed nine intercultural couples on their personal experiences. The researchers found that an overall theme of conflict in intercultural marriages was the intersection of high-context and low-context cultures.
Communication between high-context and low-context cultures is essentially synonymous with the communication between direct and indirect communicators. High-context cultures rely largely on nonverbal cues to communicate messages and meanings. High-context cultures, such as Asia, Mexico and Latin and South America, often use indirect communication. Low-context cultures, such as North America, Germany, and Canada, often use direct communication and rely on explicit verbal messages.
Many of the couples interviewed consisted of Caucasian-American and Asian-American spouses. The Caucasian-Americans often preferred low-context communication and expressed the desire for their spouse to directly express their ideas and opinions. On the contrary, the Asian-American spouses often preferred high-context communication and wanted their spouses to be able to figure out what they were trying to communicate through their use of nonverbals.
As we learned from handling dialectical tensions, successful communication between spouses relies on the individuals recognizing that they had differences in communication styles and understanding that each was a valid way to communicate.
In order to work through cultural differences, the study found that spouses needed to have high capabilities of self-awareness, open-mindedness, mindfulness, showing respect, self-disclosure, which is the act of sharing personal information with another, and face support, which is the ability to maintain the respect of each person in the interaction without causing them to be humiliated or look bad. One participant described this process, stating, “We work really hard when discussing not to blame the culture. It’s one thing to attribute it to the culture, but to blame or cut down and say something negative is something you have to work at not doing.” The participant’s statement highlights the importance of recognizing cultural communication differences as obstacles to work through as a team, rather than barriers that cannot be overcome.
With the right tools and understanding, it is possible to communicate successfully and positively. Most importantly, individuals must remember that cultural tensions are always going to be present in these types of interactions. Being honest with ourselves about our unique way of communication, realizing that it is largely influenced by our own culture, and being open to accepting other ways of communication will ensure that these interactions go smoothly.
Teamwork can be challenging, but intercultural teamwork can be a great eye-opening and learning experience when done right. By taking responsibility for one’s own communication style and cultural background, we can take steps toward becoming better intercultural communicators and team members.