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Published by: sueern on Jun 15, 2009
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An analysis of intercultural organizationalcommunication in multinational corporations
Bertha DLL-Babcock & Richard D. Babcock
As the world economy moves towardglobalization, individuals who speak differentlanguages and who come from different cultural backgrounds need to develop mutualunderstanding and skills to communicate effectively with one another. Terpstra (1991)states that the multiplicity of language use and the diversity of cultures in the worldeconomy have a constraininginfluence on the operation of international business. Toa large degree, international business depends on communication, and language, ofcourse, is the key component of communication. Although the accurate use oflinguistic form is essential for effective communication, in most communicativesituations, there must be familiarity with the culture of the communicator’s language.In other words, miscommunication can occur if the communicators do not possesssome awareness of culture differences. As cultural distance increases, communicationbecomes more different. Where there is a cultural gap, communication problems canbe greatly compounded.Even though there is widespread awareness that knowledge of the language andculture is an essential prerequisite for efficient communication in the internationalbusiness practice,systematic knowledge correlati ng anguage proficiency, culturalawareness and skill level is still not readily available. The purpose of this paper is toexamine intercultural organizational communication, and specifically, how expatriatemanagers with various levels of second (Chinese) language proficiency communicatewith local Chinese personnel and the ways and methods these expatriate adapted inorder to communicate more effectively and efficiently.Taiwan’s Business EnvironmentTaiwan’s economygrew rapidly and becameglobalized during the 1960's when thecountry opened up for foreign manufacturers to enjoy its cheap labor in assemblingproducts for re-export in specifically established Processing Zones. This developmentcreated situations where foreig (Western) expatriates needed to communicate withlocal Chinese personnel. With the constraint of English language education in whichstudents take English as a subject in junior high and high schools and perhaps the firstyear of college,the overall English proficiency levels are much lower than incomparable countries such as Hong Kong or Singapore.Taiwan is a country where most Western expatriate managers must make a consciouseffort to adjust their communication styles and methods in order to compensate for the
lack of English language proficiency of local Chinese personnel. In terms of the joint-venture or multinational corporations, these Western expatriates typically have onlylimited Chinese language speaking abilities, and the local Chinese have varying levelsof second language (English) capabilities.In addition, Chinese culture is verydifferent from Western culture. Given that the local Chinese employees have some butnot high second-language proficiency, the expatriate managers can still communicatein English without the use of translators. Yet these expatriates must adjust their stylesand methods of communication. In such a language-deficient and culturally divergentenvironment, expatriate managers face a communication challenge that is significantlydifferent from that of a home country environment in which their native language isthe dominant communication medium.
Focus and organization
This paper focuses onthe adjustments expatriate managers make in theircommunication styles and methods and the ways in which the local Chinese respondto these adjustments. The adjustments vary accordin g to the expatriates’ languageskills and their cultural knowledge. Bygrouping the expatriates based on theirChinese language proficiency levels, three distinct “communication zones” areidentified (see exhibit 1 for details). The communication process was found to bedistinctively different in these zones, and different factors contributed to or retardedcommunication effectiveness in each zone. The paper is organized as follows: (a)background information on communication, language, and culture, (b) descriptions ofa research project that examines expatriate-Chinese communication patterns in eightmultinational corporations (MNCs) operating in Taiwan, @ analysis of thecommunication patterns in the three zones, and (d) generalizations and comparisons.Communication in organizationsCornrnunication in an organization involves two overlapping areas: interpersonalcommunication and organizational communication. Interpersonal communication isthe exchange of information between two individuals, whereas organizationalcommunication is the pattern of communication between groups and individuals in theorganization. In multiple-language use and in a culturally divergent businessenvironment such as in Taiwan's MNCs, both language and cultural factors impact oninterpersonal and organizational communication.Interpersonal communication has been described in a general model that traces theflow of information between two individuals (Adler, 1991). Language and culturalfactors impact on all the dimensions and phases of the communication process. Thus,international communication can suffer in the multicultural business environment.Common sense supported by the communication literature (for example, Harnzah-
Sendut, Madsen & E’ Thong, 1989) indicate that limited language proficiencychanges the dynamics of the communication process. Both speed and accuracy areaffected. The communication process must be slowed down and simplified in order tocomplete the interchange of information between sender and receiver.Status, hierarchy, and power always affect organizational communication. In thisstudy, most of the expatriates assumed upper-level positions in the corporation. Thisadds to the lack of English language competence and the tendency to respect theauthorities’status and power, in compoundingthe communication difficulty.Consequently, information loss would always occur as information is filtered upthrough the organizational levels even though information loss is considered a widelyaccepted organizational phenomenon.Cultural difference is also a factor that affects the communication process andindividual communication styles. According to Hall (1976), individuals from differentsocieties and cultures communicate differently. He developed a comparative modelthat is directly related to interpersonal communication and that has contrasting polardimensions, namely, high-context communication versus low-context communication.In a high-context environment, more of the information lies either within the contextor within the counterparts who are parts of the interaction. Less of the meaning of amessage is provided in the coded, explicitly transmitted part of the total message. Incontrast, in low-context cultures, the verbal part of the message itself contains more ofthe information and the majority of the transmitted information is vested in explicitcodes.In a low-context Western culture, the prime responsibility lies with the sender toencode a clear and understandable message. Verbal messages are extremely importantsince people do not look in the environment for information. The messages areusually explicitly coded unless they pertain to relatively sensitive issues. Once themessage is encoded and sent, the receiver has the responsibility to ask for clarificationof the communicated message if the message is unclear. Direct feedback is an integralpart of the communication process. In contrast, in the high-context Chinese culture adifferent flow of information is created and different responsibilities between thesender and receiver are expected. In a high-context cultural environment like that ofTaiwan, the sender firstly assesses the communication environment or context andthen encodes the verbal message. Once the message is sent, the receiver also assessesthe communication environment before interpreting the meaning of words in theverbal message. The syntax, taken by itself, may be vague and indirect, especiallywhen dealing with sensitive interpersonal issues. Interlocutors instinctively receivecontextual or environmental variables as part of the message. As a result, what mightbe considered incomplete or vague becomes complete by adding the contextdimension to the communication process in high-context communication. During thecommunication process, immediate feedback and asking for clarification may notalways be an integral part of the communication process in a high-context culture.

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