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Become a Global Communicator

October 1, 1997
Related Topics: Your HR Career, Featured Article
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You’re a U.S. business person who has just begun negotiations in Antwerp, a city in northern Belgium. Your Belgian counterparts have taken you to lunch at an outdoor cafe. When the food comes, one of them turns to you and says, "Have some of these french fries; they’re so much better than the terrible fries you have in America."

How do you respond? As business becomes more global, a greater and greater number of business people find themselves communicating internationally. For example, in 1995 at a U.S. insurance firm owned by a European alliance, nearly 20 percent of employees surveyed reported they communicate outside their continent more than once a month.

And HR professionals are certainly no exception. Whether you’re communicating with colleagues overseas yourself or directing the training and preparation for your expatriates, it’s a smart idea to invest some time in learning the dynamics of international communication.

When business people communicate across cultures, they bring to that communication their views of themselves and the world, or their own paradigms. Four such paradigms are prevalent in international business communication. By understanding the paradigms, and by recognizing them in ourselves and others, we can become more effective global communicators, helping ourselves and our organizations survive and thrive.

Acommunication matrix.
In his book "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People," Stephen R. Covey argues that all our interactions are colored by two things: the amount of courage we have to display our feelings and convictions and the amount of consideration we have for the feelings and convictions of others. He graphs these two variables against each other in a matrix that defines the four paradigms of human interaction.

Covey suggests that in low-courage, low-consideration transactions, both parties lose. By not having the courage to express our feelings and convictions, we don’t get what we want, and by not considering the feelings and convictions of others, we aren’t able to give them what they want.

Similarly, high-courage, low-consideration transactions are attempts at win/lose bargaining, and low-courage, high-consideration transactions are attempts at the reverse. Covey’s matrix shows that win/win transactions take place only when we adopt a paradigm of both high courage and high consideration.

Making the matrix international.
We have found that these same four paradigms dominate international business communication. So the same matrix can be used to define the four main kinds of international business communicators: isolationists, ugly tourists, gone natives and global communicators.

In the lower left cell of the matrix is the isolationist. Isolationists are low-courage communicators, bringing a low embodiment of their own cultural identity, feelings and convictions. They also bring a low consideration for the cultural identities of others. As a result, real communication never takes place.

In the lower right cell is the ugly tourist. The phrase is adapted from the title of William J. Lederer’s novel "The Ugly American." The book’s title has become a common phrase for a certain kind of American traveling overseas, one with a high assertion of his or her own culture but with a low consideration for the host culture -- complaining, loudly, for example, that "You can’t get a good hamburger in Tokyo." Our phrase, ugly tourist, reflects that such behavior isn’t restricted to Americans.

Far too many business people fall into the ugly tourist category. They work hard for a win, but by not allowing their international partners to win as well, they lose in the long run. They see the world through their own cultural filters, unaware the filters exist.

For example, we talked with a Canadian businesswoman who complained that the Dutch with whom she deals answer her questions with too much information. "When I ask what was the 1994 price, I expect to get the 1994 price, no more," she said. In the same interview, however, she called the European belief that North Americans are too literal "not a fair characterization."

In the upper left cell of the matrix is the paradigm we call gone native. The phrase likely originated in the days of the British Empire to describe a foreign-service officer who became so immersed in the local culture that he stopped being of service to the Crown.

The temptation to go native exists for the modern international businessperson as well. In any company, people with international interests tend to be attracted to international positions. Such positions, in any country’s corporations, are occupied by more than their share of Anglophiles, Francophiles or "Americophiles."

But when a communicator couples low embodiment of one’s own culture and one’s own interests with a high consideration for others’ cultures, the result is a lose/win bargain -- ultimately no bargain at all.

The global communicator.
We suggest, of course, that the most effective paradigm lies in the upper right cell of the matrix. We call this paradigm the global communicator: the business person who brings high courage for accepting his or her own culture and also high consideration for others’ cultures.

We interviewed such a global communicator recently. He’s a Portuguese businessman working in Amsterdam to create structures for sharing knowledge across a multinational company. This manager clearly asserted his own culture; he seems proud of being Portuguese as he speaks of his culture’s distinct characteristics. But he also speaks admiringly of the strengths of the other cultures represented in the company.

His high-courage, high-consideration paradigm emerged most clearly when we asked if he liked being greeted in Portuguese before switching to English, the working language of his company. "Yes," he said, "it’s a nice token gesture. But attitude is more important -- to be a joyful person, to be open-minded. And there are other ways to convey that attitude."Using the matrix.
So let’s go back to that Antwerp cafe and the french fries challenge. How do you respond? The matrix suggests four possible ways.

If you’re an isolationist, you ignore the challenge and say nothing. Perhaps you change the subject. Conflict is avoided, but communication doesn’t happen. The result is lose/lose.

If you’re an ugly tourist, you rise to the bait. "You call these french fries? In America, we wouldn’t feed these to a pig." In the right relationship, built over time, a good laugh may follow. But in most cases, the result will be win/lose. You’ve satisfied your offended honor, but lost a chance to build a relationship.

If you’ve gone native, you roll over and play dead. "You’re absolutely right," you say. "These are much better than we have in the States." You may have ingratiated yourself to your hosts, but you’ve probably diminished yourself in their eyes. The "lose/win" result has no long-term payoff.

But if you’re a global communicator, you say something like, "Ah, I’m sorry that you haven’t found good french fries in the United States. Next time you’re there, I hope you’ll let me take you where you can get some very good ones. Or better yet, I hope you’ll let me treat you to some more typically American food. But meanwhile, I certainly enjoy these fries; they’re very good indeed."

The result is win/win. You’ve shown the courage of your own convictions and a consideration for your host’s culture. More important, you’ve opened a door to furthering your relationship.

So give the matrix a try. Examine your international communication. With practice, you and your colleagues will become global communicators.

Kenneth W. Davis, Teun De Rycker and J. Piet Verckens have conducted communication training and consulting on four continents. They were part of a team that designed and taught the world’s first international course in global business communication in 1994 in Belgium, Finland and the United States. All are associates of Komei Inc., an international communication consulting and training company in Indianapolis. Davis is also a professor at Indianapolis-based Indiana University-Purdue University. De Rycker and Verckens are on the faculty of the Antwerp Business School in Belgium.

Global Workforce, October 1997, Vol. 2, No. 4, pp. 10-11.

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