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6.2: Professional and Institutional Contexts

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    Business and organizational contexts

    Different perceptions of time, in particular scheduling and punctuality, can be important factors in international business. Differences in time perception can also affect negotiations of agreements or contracts. Business people from M-time cultures are likely to have pre-determined deadlines, either fixed mentally or in writing. This may be problematic if dealing with a P-time culture in which negotiations are seen as taking whatever time is needed for completion. There are likely to be significant differences among business cultures in the framework for negotiating or building business relationships. In low-context cultures, like northern Europe, the businesses are likely to have a preference for beginning substantive conversations immediately. In other cultures, especially in high-context cultures, such as China, the Middle East, or Latin America, there may be a desire to establish first a personal relationship between the parties involved, before beginning serious business conversations. This might involve informal "small talk" unconnected to business or getting together socially, for a meal or drinks. Only after confidence in the other party, along with a certain degree of familiarity, are established will a business relationship be possible.

    In general, business and other professional cultures mirror the values and behaviors of the mainstream culture of the country. In high power distance cultures, hierarchies are expected and accepted, with clear divisions and privileges accorded to individuals depending on their social rank, status, or background. This will typically be reflected in the business culture, which will be status conscious with top-down communications and decision-making. In contrast, in small power distance cultures, like the US, there's likely to be a more participatory style of management, with employees being asked their opinion on work-related issues. Communication styles used in business transactions mirror as well predominate patterns in the culture at large. Business people from India and the US, for example, are likely to use quite different verbal styles. The US representatives are likely to be direct, addressing issues forthrightly. If there is a problem or contentious issue, the Americans will expect an open and detailed discussion. Indians might well be more circumspect, preferring an indirect style in which disagreements are glossed over or postponed for discussion at a later time.

    Within businesses or other organizations there is likely to be a system of shared values which determine how people behave within the organization. This "organizational culture" reflects the culture at large, but at the same time may vary depending on the type and size of the organization, the location of its home-office, and the type of activity business in which they engage. The organizational culture of a small NGO (non-governmental organization) will likely be quite different from that of a large multinational company. Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner (1997) developed a framework for characterizing organizational cultures, based on a large-scale survey involving employees from 43 countries. The model of cultural differences they developed has five dimensions for how people interact, plus one dealing with time (sequential versus synchronic) and one dealing with the environment (interior versus exterior control):

    Individualism versus communitarianism

    Generally, communitarian organizations make decisions through group consensus, with more attention paid to teamwork and social cohesiveness. Organizations from individualistic cultures, on the other hand seek out and reward individual performance and high achievers.

    Universalism versus particularism

    Universalists deploy the same ideas and practices everywhere, while particularists adjust to context and circumstances. Organizational cultures with high particularism such as China place a greater emphasis on developing relationships.

    Neutral versus emotional

    Neutral cultures hold emotions in check (in Japan, for example), while high emotion cultures (Mexico, Israel) expect emotions to be displayed openly and fully, including in business contexts.

    Specific versus diffuse

    This dimension deals with the question of whether organizational roles and titles continue to play out on the outside (high-diffuse cultures) or whether individuals are treated differently in public and private spheres (specific cultures). See the sidebar for an example.

    Achievement versus ascription

    In ascription cultures, respect and success may be accorded based on birth or kinship, while in achievement cultures, the basis for judgment is hard work and individual success.

    As always with such broad categories, these too need to be viewed as patterns, not absolutes. Organizations may well embrace different values from the surrounding cultures for a variety of reasons, such as marketing (counter-cultural hipness), the personal views of the owners (fundamentalist Christian values) or due to the size or diversity of the organizational members. The effects of globalization have had a varied impact on organizational cultures. In some instances national or regional organizational cultures have converged with Anglo-American practices, while in other cases forces of nationalism and independence (patriotism, historical traditions, economic self-sufficiency, political considerations) result in a rejection of imported organizational ideas and practices.

    "Herr Professor Doktor Schmidt" or "Bob"?

    An example of these specific and diffuse cultural dimensions is provided by the United States and Germany. A U.S. professor, such as Robert Smith, PhD, generally would be called “Doctor Smith” by students when at his U.S. university. When shopping, however, he might be referred to by the store clerk as “Bob,” and he might even ask the clerk’s advice regarding some of his intended purchases. When golfing, Bob might just be one of the guys, even to a golf partner who happens to be a graduate student in his department. The reason for these changes in status is that, with the specific U.S. cultural values, people have large public spaces and often conduct themselves differently depending on their public role. At the same time, however, Bob has private space that is off-limits to the students who must call him “Doctor Smith” in class. In high-diffuse cultures, on the other hand, a person’s public life and private life often are similar. Therefore, in Germany, Herr Professor Doktor Schmidt would be referred to that way at the university, local market, and bowling alley—and even his wife might address him formally in public.

    Luthans & Doh (2012), pp. 126–127

    Equity and ethics

    An area where divergence is evident is in the role and treatment of women in professional settings. Some cultures, maintain the traditional roles of women as housewives and mothers, with women working predominantly in "nurturing" professions such as healthcare and education. Worldwide, women are underrepresented in leadership and management roles in both the business and political arenas. In some countries, this is recognized as a major problem, given the injustice of the situation and the practical result of eliminating half the population from consideration for playing important societal roles. Entrenched centers of power ("old boys networks") tend to perpetuate the status quo. In some European countries, this has led to legislation which institutes quotas for women in positions of authority, such as members of the legislature or on corporate governing boards.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Women in leadership roles is rarely seen in many cultures.

    Some issues of equality and ethical behavior in professional interactions may be settled by law. Many more, however, are not legislated, but are the products of custom and tradition, and are regulated informally within communities. One practice which differs across cultures is gift giving in business settings. In many cultures, it is an accepted and expected behavior to offer or exchange gifts. This may be a token gift of little monetary value, such as a branded or traditional item or culinary specialty from one's home country or region. Difficulties might arise if items have unintended cultural values in the other's home culture, such as a symbolic value attached to a color, number, item of clothing, or food. Certain items may run counter to cultural taboos — a bottle of wine, for example, or a food item containing pork or beef. Including gifts for family members may be seen as a friendly attempt at building a relationship, but could run into difficulty if cultural norms see family members as a private sphere, not to be brought in to interactions with strangers.

    Potentially more problematic are situations in which expectations go beyond simple gift giving to receiving bribes. In some parts of the world, giving and receiving bribes is a normal part of conducting business, as it is a fact of everyday life for inhabitants of that country. Foreign business people may run into difficulties in this area for a number of reasons. They may be personally and ethically opposed to bribery, seeing it as a form of corruption that rewards those already privileged in the society. Even if they want to pay, it may be difficult to negotiate a reasonable amount if one is not conversant with the local norms and practices. Payment of bribes may also not be permitted by company policy or may be forbidden by law. US business people, for example, must observe the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act of 1977.

    On the other hand, large, powerful multinational corporation's may not act fairly when conducting business in foreign countries. US companies have been especially guilty of exploiting workers and resources in developing economies. While especially egregious cases occurred in the 19th and 20th centuries by fruit companies doing business in Latin America, today Western companies continue to exploit workers in garment, electronics, and other industries. The US government itself has been guilty of fostering projects that enrich the wealthy rather than helping the poor. Rogers and Steinfatt (1999) catalog how many USID projects of the 20th century fit that pattern. In fact, the recognition of the need for greater cross-cultural understanding on the part of employees of the US Department of State. Sustainable development projects can only be successful if they take into account local cultural values and social structures.

    The Importance of Names

    An important issue in establishing good relations cross-culturally is to use appropriate forms of address. This is as prominent an issue in business and professional settings as it is in personal relationships. In the US, informality guides modes of address. In university settings, sometimes students are invited to address their professors using first names. In business, it is not uncommon for subordinates to be on a first name basis with their bosses. In setting up new business relationships, US business people are likely to prefer moving to a first name basis as quickly as possible. That may be considered inappropriate and discourteous in other cultures. There may be an expectation not only to use a more formal mode of address, but also to include titles or honorifics, as appropriate. Mexicans, for example, make heavy use of honorific titles to show respect. New acquaintances met at a party are addressed as señor, señora, and señorita. In business, people address managers with titles like director, doctor, ingeniero (engineer), or licienciado (someone who has a higher education degree).

    Pronouncing the counterpart's name correctly can be important as well. That might prove problematic depending on ones knowledge of the language involved. That's likely to be the case for honorifics as well, especially in cultures such as Korea. Getting the name right might be difficult in countries like Russia, where names are grammatically inflected, along with all nouns, and where patronymics are widely used. The knowledge of the language of one's business partner can of course be crucially important, depending on the linguistic ability of the partner, as well as the availability of a lingua franca such as English.

    How one addresses counterparts and, in fact, how the relationship develops may relate to both the formality of a given culture and the degree of importance of social hierarchies, i.e. the extent to which it is a high power distance culture. In cultures that subscribe to a hierarchical view of social status, status is normally ascribed by birth, appointment, or age. Differences in status are made obvious through protocols that govern many interpersonal and organizational activities. In a business setting, problematic relations can quickly develop if the participants adhere to conflicting views on egalitarianism and hierarchy. The behaviors and actions of representatives from hierarchical cultures are frequently dictated by culture-bound rules relating to status. Recognizing the possible differences in this area can be crucially important in establishing effective relationships.

    Communicative genres

    The particular context and environment in which human speech occurs may determine parameters of what is said and how it is expressed. For particular occasions in a given location there may be culturally specific expectations for the language used, as well as for other actions, such as dress, affects displays, or body language. Günthner (2007) lists a number of such communicative genres in a range of situations from complaints and prayers to business negotiations and university lectures. In some contexts, there are conventional pre-patterned forms of language and behavior expected, which guide interactants' expectations. Communicative genres are “historically and culturally specific conventions and ideals according to which speakers compose talk or texts and recipients interpret it“ (Günthner, 2007, p. 129). They operate as orientation frames which limit the kind of speech used, helping speaker and audience by defining expectations and limiting interpretive possibilities. There may be situations which call for a particular genre. Kotthoff (1991) gives the example of toasts in Caucasian Georgia which use a limited canon of topics: "peace, the guests, the parents, the dead, the children, friendship, love, the women whose beauty embellishes the table" (p. 251). Foreigners unaware of the limited canon could cause in embarrassment to themselves and to their hosts by venturing outside that canon.

    Communicative genres are particularly salient in professional and institutional settings. Miller (1994) discusses business meetings from this perspective. For US business people, meetings are "thought to be the appropriate place in which to persuade people or try to change their minds" (p. 224). This is the venue for making business decisions and closing deals. Miller points out that this is quite different for what Japanese business people consider to be the purpose of meetings. For them consensus is reached before the actual meeting, through informal discussions, often taking place at bars or cafes. The meeting's purpose is to express formal acceptance of the results of the negotiations, decided on beforehand. Similarly, Li (1999) found that frustration between Chinese and Western European business people derived from different approaches to the genre of conducting business negotiations. For the Chinese, developing good interpersonal relationships was vital, while for the Europeans moving quickly and directly to negotiations was central. Not being aware of the different repertoires and expectations for a given communicative genre can generate misunderstandings or conflict.

    Aboriginals in court: An unfamiliar communicative genre

    Non-Aboriginal Australians are not familiar with the pronunciations, lexical and grammatical choices, and discourse and pragmatic conventions of Aboriginal Australians and the latter are unfamiliar with the conventions obtaining in mainstream institutions such as the court...The state imposes Standard English and there is a widely shared language ideology that Standard English is the ‘natural’ way of expressing oneself before a court. Coupled with Aboriginal people’s frequent ignorance of Standard English, this language ideology means that Aboriginal people before the law are oftentimes effectively barred from giving evidence, from presenting their character in a clear and detailed way, and generally from engaging in court proceedings as a meaningful interaction.

    Pillar (2017, p. 91)

    Günthner (2007) points out that cultural differences in genre related knowledge can have particularly unfortunate consequences if they their occur in "gate-keeping" institutional settings, for example, in education, healthcare, or legal matters. Scollon and Scollon (1981) provide examples of courtroom interactions in Alaska in which jail sentences are considerably longer for Alaskan Natives that for Whites. In studying court testimony, the authors found that Native Alaskans failed — in contrast to white defendants — to speak of positive plans for the future. This, however, is an expected behavior in US courts, namely that defendants commit themselves to self-improvement and social betterment. Pillar (2017) found a similar situation in relation to aboriginals in Australia (see sidebar).

    Translation and interpretation

    Issues of intercultural communication are likely to be raised in all professional contexts. In health care and legal environments, effective communication between parties can be of life or death importance. In both of these areas, translators and interpreters play major roles. Interpreters are concerned with spoken language, translators focus on the written word. While simultaneous interpreting (translated in tandem with the speaker) is used widely in international meetings or conferences, more common in work environments is sequential translation. This involves short translations after the speaker pauses. This is what is used most commonly in law courts and hospitals. In some healthcare contacts, as well as in other environments, chuchotage may be used, in which the interpreter whispers simultaneous translation to a single client.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): An interpreter for chess player Garry Kasparov using chuchotage

    Interpreters and translators typically translate into their mother tongue. Even so, the process is complex and difficult. One must not only remain faithful in terms of content, but is expected as well to invoke the same emotional response. This is difficult for interpreters who are asked to work impartially for two parties. The goal is to provide pragmatic equivalence in which the utterance is re-created with all the nuances of the source. This might involve departing substantially from the literal wording of the original. It necessitates on the part of the interpreter significant knowledge of how both languages are used in real conversations, i.e. a good command of language pragmatics.

    There are ethical issues that arise in interpreting, namely to the extent that one functions as an advocate for a given client. Although impartiality is expected of court interpreters, the power, language, and culture divisions between a non-native client and the justice system make it difficult to work objectively, and not to offer clarifying or justifying insertions or asides. This might be all the more an issue with clients who are poor and illiterate, therefore unlikely to be able to express themselves effectively, even in their native language.

    Another temptation for interpreters is to serve in the role of institutional gatekeepers. This is especially the case in health care, where the interpreter might use his/her own judgment in not passing on to the physician all the information supplied by the client, viewing some statements as irrelevant. Professional training is needed to be able to carry out roles in legal and health care interpreting effectively. Unfortunately, in many cases the scarcity of professional interpreters leads to the use of untrained native speakers.


    In many countries, schools have become more diverse in their student populations, resulting in the need for intercultural communication competence among teachers and staff. Like business establishments, educational facilities reflect the cultures in which they are located. Prejudices and discrimination all too frequently follow children into the classroom. Children soak up cultural values around them and that includes the negative stereotypes they might hear from family members or other adults. The same kind of potential conflicts which may arise from mixing different ethnic, racial, religious groups in the culture at large can occur in schools as well. Since prejudices are formed early in life, it is important to counteract hatred and hostility in school environments.

    In multicultural classrooms, there is likely to be a mix of learning styles. Among educational theorists it's well-known that each student may have a preferred learning style, whether that be visual, auditory, or kinesthetic. Those learning styles may be culturally influenced. Particular characterizations are often associated with ethnic or national groups. Asian students, for example, are said to rely on rote memorization, exhibit passive behavior in the classroom, and be extrinsically motivated. Western learning, by contrast, tends to be learner-oriented, with an emphasis on the development of learner autonomy and on active, even assertive learning behaviors in the classroom. Often, these descriptions favor Western approaches to education and classroom behavior. Active learning is generally seen as preferable, with students pro-actively engaged in learning, through volunteering to answer questions or entering into dialogue with teacher and peers. Being quiet or reserved is seen as problematic (Hua, 2013). An additional dynamic in multicultural classrooms is the power differential between native and non-native speakers of the language of instruction. It is problematic to view generalizations about learning styles as applicable to every individual student. This results in students from minority/immigrant communities or non-native speakers being automatically relegated to an underachieving status and treated accordingly.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Multicultural school group in Paris

    An example in which a perceived Western educational practice has become normative is Kaplan's description of rhetorical styles. His mapping of how different ethnic groups write essays looks like this:

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Kaplan's description of rhetorical styles. Kaplan (1966), p. 14

    The Anglo-Saxon English approach is to get straight to the point, while Semitics zigzag, those from Romance and Russian languages go on tangents, and "Orientals" circle around the point. The characterizations are problematic for a variety of reasons, not just due to the inherent cultural caricatures. Kaplan draws his conclusions from essays written by ESL students in an academic setting, written in their second language. One analysis gives this summary:

    [Kaplan's descriptions] implicitly reinforced an image of the superiority of English rhetoric and a deterministic view of second language (particularly English) learners as individuals who inevitably transfer rhetorical patterns of their L1 in L2 writing. Furthermore, the binary images of rhetoric constructed by the field, i.e., English is linear, direct, and logical whereas other languages are circular, digressive, or non-logical, parallel colonial dichotomies between the colonizer and the colonized (Pennycook, 1998), suggesting the hidden political or ideological nature of the conventional knowledge created by contrastive rhetoric (Kubota & Lehner, 2004, p. 9).

    It happens seemingly inevitably that theories on cultural difference originating with Western scholars favor explicitly or implicitly Western approaches and behaviors.

    One of the conflicts which may arise in multicultural classrooms comes from parents of immigrant or minority communities who have views of teaching and learning different from the mainstream culture and therefore in conflict with how instruction is configured in schools. In some cases, there may be excessive pressure from parents for the children to achieve academically, with expectations that students spend all their free time studying, so as to perform well on exams. That behavior in the US is often associated with Asian-American families. At the other extreme are parents from lower socioeconomic backgrounds who themselves had scant or negative school experiences and who don't convey to their children the importance of doing well in school. Remland et al. (2015) gives the example of a Cambodian-American family in which the parents view the teacher as parental substitutes and therefore find it inappropriate for themselves to play an active role in school affairs. She mentions the role as well that religion may play in such a case. As Khmer Buddhists, the Cambodian family likely sees fate as a guiding principle in human development, thus making it superfluous for children to exert undue efforts to better themselves through study. In such a situation, teachers need to gain the knowledge and sensitivity to understand the issues arising and shape communicative strategies with the family accordingly.

    This page titled 6.2: Professional and Institutional Contexts is shared under a CC BY-NC license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Robert Godwin-Jones.

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