50 shades of beige: Communicate with the "Cross-Cultural Advantage"

Date posted: January 10, 2020

Tina Varughese

Tina Varughese

The pork industry has a frontline view of the changing demographic of Canadian society. It is a globally connected industry these days and in many cases the labor force is made up of people who have moved here from other countries.

That is why Tina Varughese was such a popular speaker choice at the 2020 Banff Pork Seminar. The Indo-Canadian daughter of first generation East Indian parents finds the best of worlds and sheds light, knowledge and most importantly universal humor into the intercultural workplace.

She draws from her experiences as an entrepreneur, mother, daughter, wife, sister and friend when delivering keynotes on work-life balance and diversity and inclusion-topics. She does it with high energy and knowledge gained from 15 years of experience working with immigrants in her roles with the Province of Alberta's immigration office as well as running her own successful relocation and settlement firm.

Why this topic?

Successful organizations understand that being able to communicate cross-culturally in the workplace leads to enhanced productivity, performance and employee engagement, says Varughese. Managing diversity drives profitability, leads to innovation and promotes an inspiring workplace culture.

Within Canada's population, 20 percent are foreign born with the top source immigrant countries being India, China, Pakistan and the Philippines.

Individualists versus collectivists

Individualistic values reflect individual tastes, goals, achievements and accomplishments. Collectivist values reflect common values among families, tribes, work divisions, communities.

Every decision, conversation, and contribution is reflected in this value. The top collectivist countries in the world are Guatemala, Ecuador, Panama, Venezuela, Columbia and Indonesia. The top individualist countries in the world are the United States, Australia, United Kingdom, Netherlands, Hungary and Canada.

Performance feedback

There is a close link between performance feedback and indirect versus direct communicators. In North American cultures, the 'sandwich' approach is used to offer performance feedback. Deliver positive news, followed by constructive criticism, end with positive feedback.

Not all cultures will respond to the 'sandwich' technique. All cultures need praise. Ideally, offer specific praise - rather than positive or negative praise. Stating, "great job" will not provide enough feedback to model the behavior repeatedly. Offering specific, positive feedback will reinforce the behavior you are seeking i.e. "your spreadsheet was well done because it was so detailed, delivered on time and easy to navigate".

Direct communicators do not always give positive feedback as it's not part of their culture and doing good work is an expectation. This can be deflating for some and lead to employee disengagement. Indirect communicators need positive feedback but if they are collectivists the praise would be better offered in person rather than in a group setting. If offering specific, constructive, negative feedback, indirect communicators will not respond well if the entire team is present. This should be done behind closed doors or with a human resource professional present so that the indirect communicator, who may also be collectivist, recognizes their job is secure as hierarchy can also play a part.

Communication styles

One factor is different communications styles. Here are how Varughese categorizes them.

Reflexive. Will repeat parts of the conversation utilizing the same tone and intonation; reflexive speakers show respect and understanding by repeating the conversation.

Interruptive. Interrupt the conversation without necessarily knowing it. Collectivists are often 'interruptive' in nature given they are more family and community-oriented. Unless someone asks for clarification, continue the conversation.

Direct. Use fewer words and less non-verbal communication. Unfortunately, the perception of direct communicators is that they are rude, abrasive and arrogant which may or may not be the case. Perception is not necessarily reality. Is this a communication style indicative of culture?

Indirect. A yes may mean yes, no or maybe. Indirect communicators are often collectivists where group harmony is much more important than disagreeing with someone which may result in a 'loss of face'. With indirect speakers, ask clarifying questions and paraphrase.

Interaction at the workplace

There are three different ways to communication at the workplace; face to face, phone, email. There are differences between individualistic and collectivist cultures, particularly with interaction.

With collectivist cultures, chit chat is about relationship building hence depending on where someone is from may center around family, community, school, politics, sports whereas in Canada, chit chat centers around weather and traffic. If English is a second language, be aware of this during phone conversations. A helpful hint is to ask the employee/client to follow up with an email to ensure something was not 'lost in translation'. This assists if somebody has a strong accent and attributes to the concept of 'saving face'. Lastly, greetings may differ in written correspondence. In Canada, titles such as "Mr. and Mrs." are often used and even first names. This is not necessarily the case in most parts of the world where formality and hierarchy are important.

Non-Verbal communication

The written word accounts for 7 percent of communication whereas non-verbal communication such as tone, intonation, gestures, paralanguage, posture, eye contact, smell, silence and personal space account for the remaining 93 percent. First impressions are made within the first seven seconds of meeting someone often before someone opens their mouths.

Gestures can range from how handshakes differ around the world to something as simple as the 'thumbs up' sign being misconstrued for being offensive. In North America, direct eye contact is expected and respected, whereas, in many cultures, direct eye contact is seen as disrespectful. Some cultures will avert a direct gaze by looking down or even at someone's chin to avoid direct eye contact.

Bollywood dancing lessons

Bollywood dancing lessons

Paralanguage refers to the tone and intonation of which we use. Some cultures expect their leaders to have very loud voices. The louder the voice, often the leader is more respected. However, in some cultures, such as in the Japanese culture, a loud voice signals someone is 'out of control'.

In North America, if someone is 'silent' it can be misconstrued as lack of interest or lack of contribution. In North America, we are rewarded with being able to 'think quickly on our feet'. In many cultures, silence is considered to be a positive. It can mean that the person is reflecting upon what was actually said.

When in doubt, mirror the image, the gesture, or even tone of voice. Companies such as Nike, Kellogg's, Federal Express, Ikea and Ford have lost millions in revenues by not taking nonverbal communication into account.