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interpreted differently by those who see events and people™s characteristics as prede-
termined. At the other extreme of the destiny orientation are those who believe in self-
determination “ the belief that their own actions determine outcomes.

Universalist orientation
A universalist believes that everyone should follow the rules, since the rules are meant
to apply to everyone, to the universe. The other end of the spectrum are the particular-
ists who care about the context of the rule infraction: perhaps it was a friend who broke
the rule; perhaps she was sick the day before. There are signi¬cant differences between
cultures on this dimension, as surveys repeatedly show. For example, in one study,6
subjects were told of a case of an under-performing employee who had already accrued
many years of excellent service to the company. Seventy-¬ve percent of Americans
and Canadians said to let her go, while only 20% of Singaporeans and Koreans did.
180 Managerial competency

Information processing orientation
Relatively new research demonstrates that there are important differences in the way that
Westerners and East Asians (Chinese, Japanese, Koreans) process information. This is
described in a very readable book by Richard Nisbett.7 Nisbett found that Asians tend
to see relationships while Westerners see categories and taxonomies. For example,
Japanese and American subjects were shown pictures of aquariums with ¬sh of vari-
ous sizes moving about, which were set in background of plants and rocks. The
Japanese recalled 60% more background elements than the Americans and were twice
as likely to recall relationships of background objects, such as the “little ¬sh was above
the pink rock.” The Americans were more likely to recall the objects themselves.

Does culture matter?

In the software world one comes across the entire range of responses to the question:
Does culture matter?
In one camp are those that were lucky and did not experience any cultural problems.
The project went smoothly. This does happen sometimes. It is likely that there were
some cross-cultural communication problems but they were attributed to something
else “ a dif¬cult piece of code, an impossible deadline, an e-mail message getting lost.

Denial: There is no cultural difference

Defense: Other cultures are inferior

Minimization 1: We™re all human

Minimization 2: The computer culture washes away differences

Acceptance: Differences deserve respect

Adaptation: Individuals and organization adapt to differences

Exhibit 9.1 Types of cultural acceptance and awareness.
Adapted from Bennett 8

There are those who make this point in a more generalized sense: that software engi-
neers are very much alike because of their common professional cultures, just like musi-
cians and doctors. After all, software professionals all belong to the computer subculture.
Software professionals, like engineers, place a high value on work and on achievement.
American software guru Larry Constantine9 maintains that the computer subculture is
stronger than the national culture and that, for example, the Indian programmer will have
more in common with an American programmer than, say, with an Indian government
of¬cial. Constantine would be in the “Minimization 2” type of Exhibit 9.1.
We believe, however, that culture matters. In global projects the successful software
engineers accept, respect, and adapt to cultural differences (these are represented by
the last two types in Exhibit 9.1).
181 Dealing with cross-cultural issues

Examples of failure in cross-cultural communication
Examples of failures in communication across cultures are nearly endless. Nearly everyone
who has worked across cultures has such stories. In perspective, these communication
failures are not unique to cross national boundaries, since failures of communication
occur between husband and wife, parent and child, employee and supervisor.
Given the importance of India as an offshore destination, these examples are about
the Indian culture:10
— Indians are less likely to engage in small talk than most of their Western counter-

parts, as opposed to the British, who are said to “feel the terror of silence” in an
elevator. The lack of small talk is interpreted as unfriendly. To make matters worse,
some Indian providers train their employees not to ask personal questions to avoid
a cross-cultural embarrassment such as: “Are you married?” No, “Why not.”
— Indians tend to be too optimistic about times and schedules. If an Indian is asked

how much travel time is needed to reach a certain destination, the answer is
probably inaccurate and will not include the possibility of encountering traf¬c
jams. This may stem from wanting to give a friendly impression. In work, this
creates dif¬culties across cultures. Potential problems or delays are not considered.
We heard a jest on this from an Indian cultural trainer: “When an Indian
programmer says the work will be ¬nished tomorrow, it only means it will not be
ready today.” With experience, one can anticipate this, by asking probing questions
to ¬nd out which issues have been overlooked. Over time, and based on
experience, you will able to calculate this “Indian factor”.
— Indians, particularly from South India, have a perplexing habit, as they listen to

you, of shaking the head in a manner that appears to be saying “no.” This is
labeled the Indian wiggle. But, it can have various meanings: “yes,” or “I am
listening,” or “I agree,” or “go on.”
— Like many other cultures, Indians are reluctant to say “no.” Indians may say

yes when they mean “no” and they do not want to tell bad news. This is called
a “wobbly” yes. For example: “Do you know ERP 4.5?” The Dutch engineer
will reply “No”; an American engineer will reply “No, but I would be happy
to learn”; and an Indian will reply with a “wobbly” yes. Again, probing further
may unravel the wobbly yes. And, creating an atmosphere of trust and informal
relationships will stimulate forthrightness.
— Making jokes can improve social interaction. However, what we consider

funny might not be the case in another culture. When somebody makes an
outstanding contribution to teamwork, the Dutch jokingly refer to such a person as
“the best horse in the stable”. A Dutch project leader used this phrase when
complimenting a talented Indian programmer in the team. Although it was
translated into English, the Indian programmer did not understand the positive
meaning of the remark. He did understand however that he was being linked to an
animal, and was deeply hurt.
182 Managerial competency

Table 9.3 What the English really mean11

What the English say What they mean What is understood

I hear what you say I disagree and do not wish He accepts my point
to discuss it any further of view

With the greatest respect I think you are wrong (or a fool) He is listening to me

Not bad Good or very good Poor or mediocre

Quite good A bit disappointing Quite good

Perhaps you would like to This is an order. Do it or Think about the idea but
think about/I would be prepared to justify do what you like
suggest/It would be nice if yourself

Oh by the way/incidentally This is the primary purpose This is not very important
of our discussion

I was a bit disappointed that/ I am most upset and cross It doesn™t really matter
It is a pity you

Very interesting I don™t agree/I don™t believe you They are impressed!

Could we consider some I don™t like your idea They have not yet
other options? decided

I will bear it in mind I will do nothing about it They will probably do it

Please think about that It is a bad idea. Don™t do it Good idea, keep
some more¦ developing it

I am sure it is my fault It is your fault! It was their fault

That is an original point of view You must be crazy They like my ideas

You must come to Not an invitation, I will receive an
dinner sometime just being polite invitation shortly

Examples of failure in language
It is very dif¬cult to understand what the British really mean, even for Americans. Given
that the UK is the largest user of offshore services in Europe, some potential misun-
derstandings of their language usage is given in Table 9.3. Of course, these are humor-
ous, but they contain a kernel of truth.
Americans, too, use deeply rooted linguistic code words. Most are not even aware
of this special language. Within the rich vocabulary of business-speak, perhaps the two
most important code words for cross-cultural software work are the words “challenge”
and “issue.” When an American says that the “interface of the G6 module is a challenge,”
she means that it is dif¬cult. She may also mean, depending on context, that the dif¬culty
may not make it worth doing and it should be dropped. When an American says that he
183 Dealing with cross-cultural issues

“has an issue with the interface of the G6 module,” then it means that he has a problem
with it. He may even mean that he does not like it. Americans do not like to use the words
problem or dif¬cult, though they do sometimes use these words. They soften these words
by speaking in code. Other cultures need to understand the true meaning of this code.
Johansson and colleagues12 discovered an interesting case of language failure in their
Swedish“Finnish student collaboration exercises. In one discussion a Finnish participant
proposed that problems in the software development process not be discussed in detail.
This would seem to be paradoxical since it is precisely the problems that should be dis-
cussed across distributed sites. However, it was discovered that the English word prob-
lem has two translations in Finnish: one is teht¤v¤™ meaning a task to be solved; the
other translation is ongelma, meaning trouble, with a suggestion that someone needs to
be blamed for it. Thus, the Finnish did not report problems because he saw it as ongelma
rather than teht¤v¤™.
In India, English is the national language of the educated class that participates in
globalized software work, an inheritance from the colonial past of the British Empire.
Many Indians do not speak English at home, however, but rather the local dialect, of
which there are hundreds. Thus, their English, though ¬‚uent, has some gaps. Indians
tend to speak English at fast but relatively even pace, with less intonation, and less
stressed words. Yet, emphasis is critical to communication. Indians tend to take longer
to explain things, which can be maddening to their impatient listeners from America or
Northern Europe. It is useful to know the lexicon of words not to use. Contractor, a
common term in the global business jargon, implying one who contracts for software,
may also be understood in India to mean one who cleans toilets. Also, vendor is not
always a respected term. So, use the term consultant instead.
Lu Ellen Schafer of Global Savvy shows the following e-mail message from India
to illustrate Indian English:

Hi Joe:
Let™s prepone our conference call because there are a lot of things to discuss.
Also, I have some good news for you. I found a rank holder to join our team
and think he will be a ¬ne addition. Having another person will help stop the
cribbing I have been hearing!
I do have a doubt about the project completion date.
Each of the underlined words is dif¬cult for non-Indians to decipher. Can you guess
their meaning? Prepone is to move to an earlier time. Rank holder is one at the top of
his/her class. Cribbing is complaining. Have a doubt suggests a tiny question rather
than a doubt of the goal.
Schafer also tells the following story: your Mexican offshore partner informs you on
the telephone that she will e-mail you the document now. But there are three words for
184 Managerial competency

“now” in Spanish: ahora, ahorita, and ya. Their practical meanings in this context,
respectively, are: by the end of the day, within an hour, within minutes.13
Even names can be confusing. Often, Europeans or Americans, when reading exotic
Indian or Chinese names, will not know if the name belongs to a man or a woman. It is
somewhat embarrassing if a foreign female programmer is being referred to as ˜Mr.™ at
the start of a project. And, many individuals like to be addressed using some name that
is not their of¬cial name: an American named William may want to be called Bill; an
Indian with a lengthy ¬rst name may ask to just use his last name in any communica-
tion. It is always a good habit to ask how someone wants to be addressed.

Technology and cultural differences

Much of our communications are conducted through the narrow pipelines of e-mail and
telephone. It is useful to understand how these media help and hinder cross-cultural com-
munications. Cultural and linguistic mistakes may be ampli¬ed because the communica-
tion cues are limited (see also the beginning of Chapter 8 on body language). Furthermore,
because of the narrow channel, the communicator does not have the full arsenal of com-
munications to soften a message, such as when discussing a dif¬cult personal issue but
smiling during the conversation. The “widest” channel is video-conferencing “ but beware
this technology across cultures! Due to different cultural orientations discussed earlier in
this chapter, video-conferencing introduces another layer of sensitivities.
Every culture encounters communication problems over distance. Distance ampli¬es
misperceptions. For example, Americans may be perceived as follows: rudely interrupt-
ing in video-conferencing meetings, since they tend to be more comfortable with quick,
abrupt interactions; too informal over e-mail since they may not exchange pleasantries,
use proper salutations, or may quickly sign with just the ¬rst name; impolite on e-mail,
since relative to some cultures, they are blunt; and argumentative, since they tend to dis-
cuss and air disagreements and opinions in the open. In fact, in a study by Massey and
colleagues14 Americans had an easier time conveying opinions with distant partners, but
a more dif¬cult time dealing with convergence: in other words, getting to an agreement.
When communicating, the Dutch want to be clear and direct. If something is wrong,
they will not hesitate to mention this. An Indian female programmer, who had recently
started to work in a project for a Dutch client, was found one morning crying in front of
her screen. She had just received an e-mail from the Dutch project leader, with a list of
what she had done wrong. For her, it was a very impolite and unfriendly message. For
the sender, it was just a number of topics which had to be corrected; it was de¬nitely not
meant personally. She would burst into tears on several more occasions over time, but
she is now almost used to the way of communication in Holland. She still hates it.
Fluent English readers have an enormous advantage with the massive amounts of
text that all must read: they can skim text quickly, hunting for key words or concepts;
185 Dealing with cross-cultural issues

quickly determining what is and what is not important in that long e-mail message. But
many offshore partners cannot do this. They cannot skim and, thus, need more time to
comprehend a long design document or a busy web screen.
Nevertheless, technology can also ease cross-cultural communications. First, for
those who are non-¬‚uent English speakers, it is easier to read and write than to speak.
With e-mail they can read and write at their own (slower) pace than a native English
speaker. This is very important to explain to ¬‚uent English speakers. For example, one
American software architect we know has reduced his telephone interactions with his
Chinese team because they had hinted to him that it is easier for them to read detailed
speci¬cations than to discuss issues via telephone. Second, e-mail overcomes the dis-
comfort of understanding dif¬cult accents over the telephone. We have often hear from
Americans how dif¬cult it is to understand some of their Indian colleagues even
though they speak ¬‚uent English.
E-mail is preferred for other reasons. For example, in a Canadian“German software
“¦ many of the German participants reported a reluctance to engage in argu-
ment over the telephone. When technical or methodological debates arose [¦
the German participants] reported that they preferred to have the time to for-
mulate their position, write it down, check it, ensure that they were saying what
they meant to say, and ¬nally, send it off in an e-mail. While this addressed
their discomfort, it introduced the potential for misunderstanding and stretched
out the problem-solving exercise over an extended [back-and-forth via e-mail].”
And, by the way, this distributed project failed and management had to consolidate
development in one location.
E-mail is also effective for helping to break hierarchies (power orientation) by encour-
aging people to choose direct communication (lateral communication) without going
through the cumbersome hierarchy.
Social scientists are just beginning to understand the interactions of culture and tech-
nology. Sometimes they know the “what,” but not the much of the “why.” The diffusion of
telework is indicative.16 Telework is the extent to which employees work away from the
of¬ce (either partially or in full). One would expect Americans to be among the more
active teleworkers because of greater distances in America (they are). But the Dutch
living in greater density have roughly equal telework rates. The French and Spaniards,
on the other hand, have less than half the telework penetration of the Dutch.

Steps to improve cross-cultural communication

In this section we present a collection of recommendations, tactics, and tips for avoid-
ing cross-cultural miscommunications.
186 Managerial competency

Use of language across distance
Try to speak and write in International English, the common core of British

and American English, using simple sentences. For example, avoid phrasal
verbs: instead of “I suggest we wrap up the project by June,” say “I suggest we
complete the project by June.”
Become aware of slang, idioms, and acronyms in your speech, and try to eliminate

them. Sports metaphors need to be used carefully. Americans should not use
baseball metaphors, British should not use cricket examples, and so on.
Avoid contractions such as “can™t”.

Avoid yes/no questions.

Do not accessorize your sentences with synonyms (i.e. use the same word over

and over).
Be aware of words that have multiple or con¬‚icting meanings across borders. “To

table an issue” should never be used because it means the opposite to Brits and
Explicitly state the response you expect. “Finish by Close-of-Business today,” instead

of “ASAP.” “I will be arriving on July 23” instead of “I will be arriving soon.”
Keep e-mail messages short: one question, one response. Break up messages into

short paragraphs and bullet points. Keep all sentences short.
Use multiple channels to reduce miscommunication by repeating important

messages redundantly: interlace the same message through e-mail and telephone
and instant messaging (IM) and video-conferencing.
Standardized, formalized terms should be used in e-mail messages whenever possible.

Always remember the six ˜R™s:

“ Repeat. Go over it again
“ Reduce. Break it down
“ Rephrase. Be creative, use visuals
“ Reiterate. Emphasize the highlights
“ Review. Try to stimulate feedback
“ Recap. Summarize; in writing when necessary.

Inexpensive tactics for improving cross-cultural communication
Buy and read a book about cultural differences to augment this chapter; then buy

and read a book about the speci¬c culture with which you are working.17
Watch a good movie or read a good novel about the culture with which you are

working. The successful movie “Monsoon Wedding” and the award-winning novel
“The God of Small Things” are recommended for a better understanding of Indian
Talk to an expatriate at your of¬ce about the culture you work with. These people are

bi-cultural. They can help you understand how those of other cultures perceive you.
187 Dealing with cross-cultural issues

Somewhat more expensive tactics for improving cross-cultural communication
The most important tactic for improving cross-cultural communication is training.
These days, cultural training is easy to ¬nd. Numerous consultancies in every nation
offer half-day or one-day cross-cultural training that can be tailored to the client™s par-
ticular needs (e.g., how to work with Indians who are also engineers). Ideally, this
training should take place before the ¬rst offshore project takes place.
Generally, it is the responsibility of the offshore service provider to train its own
staff in dealing with the client™s national country. The major Indian providers typically
give their employees anywhere from 1 to 5 days of cultural training before they embark
on an engagement abroad.
On the American side such training is too often neglected. We heard of a major
New York ¬rm that was asked by its Indian provider to provide the arriving Indian IT
personnel with an orientation to the company, its culture, and the culture of New York

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