How to Navigate Cross-Cultural Communication

Updated: Oct 21

I have been lucky enough to have traveled to many different countries. Traveling is one of my favorite things to do and also a good way to learn about different cultures. I have found that people, in general, are very happy to tell you about their customs and traditions. This knowledge may become important if you have to deal with that particular country in business. I encourage everyone to travel to different places whenever possible. It will broaden your perspective even if you never directly do business with that place.

As supply chain professionals, you may have to communicate with team members, customers, and suppliers from different parts of the world. In addition to language barriers, there are cultural preferences in how people interact with others. I will introduce two frameworks that can be used to guide your approach when dealing and communicating with people from different backgrounds. I have not included specific countries and data on them, you will have to research as the need arises. Studies on them should be readily available but you should also try to find recent studies because culture can evolve over time.

Cultural Dimensions Theory

One well-known model (at least among those interested in the topic) for understanding cultural differences is Geert Hofstede’s cultural dimensions theory. Hofstede categorized cultural values into 6 dimensions. Each dimension is measured on a scale and not binary. Keep in mind that an individual may not follow a particular culture’s patterns exactly, the study predicts a higher probability that a person will have preferences similar to their culture’s preference pattern.

  1. Power Distance Index – this factor measures the extent to which power is distributed and how members accept power concentration. A high index indicates a stronger hierarchy and a lower index indicates a tendency to challenge and distribute power.

  2. Individualism vs. Collectivism – measures the degree to which people are integrated into groups. In collectivistic societies, you may have to consider how a person’s in-group will react to your actions in addition to the individual you are interacting with.

  3. Uncertainty Avoidance – this factor is pretty self-explanatory. If there is a high uncertainty avoidance, interactions and decisions have to be made clear with little ambiguity and risks addressed. These societies also tend to have more rules and regulatory requirements to consider.

  4. Masculinity vs. Femininity – the name of this factor is not too politically correct these days (the model was developed in the late 60’s) but the traits studied can still be applicable. Masculine is characterized by a focus on achievement and assertiveness while feminine is by care and nurture. Masculine societies also tend to have stronger gender definitions and feminine tend to have more fluid societal roles.

  5. Long-term Orientation vs Short-term Orientation – Short-term orientated societies tend to focus on traditions (view change with suspicion) and long-term orientated societies prefer pragmatic problem solving (they use thrift and education to prepare for the future).

  6. Indulgence vs. Restraint - Indulgent societies allows for more gratification of human drives while restraint has more social norms that regulate these desires.

High Context Vs Low Context Communication

Another factor to consider is a culture's communication style. High context communicating cultures use more nuanced or implicit language to communicate. You will have to consider the context around the language. Context could include rank/position, background, history, environment, non-verbal/body language, and emotion. Low context communicating cultures use explicit and literal language to convey a message. People in low context communicating cultures may get frustrated if you are not direct and thorough with your communication. When the two communication styles interact but are not aware of this, there will be a high likelihood that miscommunication will occur.