“Business is about persuasion and negotiation. It is also about identifying customers’ needs and satisfying them. All these objectives cannot be achieved without building trustworthy relationships with business partners and stakeholders, and there is no way to build this trust without being polite according to these people’s cultural expectations.”
Dr. Oksana Shkurska
All the cultures are traditionally divided into collectivistic and individualistic. As research shows, people in individualistic cultures prefer a low-context communication style and are more concerned with their own ‘face’. It means that they value direct and straightforward communication without being afraid to offend others. This low-context communication style is opposed to a high-context style in collectivistic cultures, where people are concerned with another people’s face more than with their own public self-image. As a result, they avoid direct confrontation and value indirectness in communication. In these societies, what is not said is more important than what is actually said, and nonverbal clues play a crucial role in communication, adding meaning to the conversation.
Are politeness strategies in contrasting cultures different?
The answer to this question is certainly yes. You may be surprised to know that a direct way of expressing your thoughts and feelings may be regarded as impoliteness by the representatives of high-context cultures who may think that you are rude and impatient. On the flip side, if you are from a low-context culture, you may feel uncomfortable while interacting with people from high-context cultures due to their extreme level of politeness. This type of politeness may be perceived as lack of honesty and sincerity, and as a result, instead of contributing to strengthening relationships, it may have the opposite effect.
How does understanding of politeness principles across cultures help us succeed in the business world?
Business is about persuasion and negotiation. It is also about identifying customers’ needs and satisfying them. All these objectives cannot be achieved without building trustworthy relationships with business partners and stakeholders, and there is no way to build this trust without being polite according to these people’s cultural expectations. You cannot get a better deal as a result of negotiations if you are perceived as arrogant, rude, or insincere. It is also impossible to gain new customers if your behaviour makes people think that you either do not care about their feelings (as you are too direct in communication), or they are afraid that you are hiding something because your extreme politeness makes them suspicious. Such misunderstandings due to the differences in perception are not rare, and they may cost companies millions of dollars.
You may wonder how people can reach mutual understanding if their cultural expectations regarding polite communication are different. Here are some tips for effective cross-cultural communication:
- Embrace cultural differences and recognize that politeness is perceived and expressed differently around the globe.
- Do research on cultural values in the target country to understand people’s expectations regarding each other’s behaviour.
- Be aware of other people’s preferred communication style. Do not wrongly assume that they are impolite if they prefer directness in communication or that they are not sincere if their level of politeness is significantly higher than yours.
- Pay attention to other people’s reaction to your communication style and be ready to adjust it according to the other party’s cultural expectations.
- Resist the temptation to make judgmental evaluations and hasty generalizations. Each person is unique though there are certain cultural expectations in each society.
Effective communication across cultures is impossible without taking into consideration differences in politeness strategies that are closely related to high-context versus low-context communication styles. Regular reflection on your own communicative behaviour, your preferred communication style, and other individuals’ reaction to your politeness or impoliteness strategies helps to avoid miscommunication as well as promotes mutual understanding and empathy. It certainly contributes to creating trustworthy relationships and allows achieving mutual benefits without significant losses and sacrifices.