keskiviikko 9. joulukuuta 2015

Communication challenges in a multicultural virtual working environment

Blog post outlines the energy and the amount of consideration language and cultural differences take when the working environment is virtual.

language, communication, virtual working

This blog post is my personal investigation and real life example of working in an organisation with more than one native language and virtual co-operation. At university level, we all know that language and communication is challenging when you don’t share the same native language. But when you take the discussion in virtual environment and have it by writing in chat or calling virtual phone calls over Skype, things demand even more consideration. Welcome to read my experiences.

I work in a digital advertising agency. Our organisation is a middle sized Finnish company operating physically in Finland, and our customers and target markets are Germany, the Nordics and Finland. We have employees in two native languages, Finnish and Swedish, who all speak fluent English and also several other languages. We work in two offices in Finland and, occasionally, all over the world. Wherever you have a good enough internet connection.

We communicate with our clients in four languages at the moment: Finnish, Swedish, English and German. There is a lot of virtual and non-virtual communication at the office: video conferences, phone calls, email and face-to-face. The language in many meetings is English. There are lots of challenges between several languages and cultures, and possibilities for misunderstanding.

I did a small academic research to get some proper references before I tell you my thoughts.
       Serçe et al (2011, 498) emphasize that communication skills, language and culture are deeply intertwined.
       Mukherjee (2012, 276, 279), while defining culture as a part of social features, highlights the complexity the different cultures bring to communication and knowledge sharing. According to him, in virtual teams the cultural differences require more active construction of good relations and their maintenance (Mukherjee 2012, 281).
       Crampton (2011, 346, 357-9) discusses the perceiving in virtual team communication between cultures, and finds the biggest challenges in understanding priorities, knowing did the message got across and interpreting silence during the virtual discussion. In the virtual communication you are missing facial expressions, tone of voice and body language, and every interpretation depends on the recipient.
       Crampton (2011, 359) especially underlines interpreting silence. He means the moments you are waiting for the confirmation email, the silent nodding or thinking yep. Silence can be interpreted in totally yes – or no.

With this setup there is quite a lot to do for us Finns. I have noticed the communication challenges with cultural dimensions: way of expressing things, the compliments and small talk, and interpretation of small talk in messages. Especially Finnish language is plain and rude in the eyes of other language speakers, and the messages sound like demanding commands. It’s not that we are rude, but it’s a cultural matter. Once I explained to our customer, why there is no “please” and “thank you” words in the Finnish translation. I had to think about the explanation.

When I write a chat message or email to a familiar colleague, all these misunderstandings are smaller and more easily avoided. So if I know the person, it is easier since I know something about the other person’s way of communicating. When the receiver is unfamiliar, every character matters. It is really easy to sound impolite for example in email. I have also noticed that people withdraw easily when they are misunderstood once. The problem is that excessive caution does not take the message across at all.

The awkward silence when one specific word from your vocabulary is missing is better to fill with small talk or explanation of what is in your mind – the silence makes the message interpretation a lottery. Keeping this in mind, is sending email easier than direct chatting or Skype calls? It leaves a bit time to read and understand the message. Depending on personality, it also can avoid making too hasty conclusions. I feel that in virtual discussion the biggest misunderstandings come from quick conclusions and unasked questions. You don’t want to seem stupid by asking too many questions – it is easy and quick to say ‘Yes ok, I get it’.

From the reference articles I did pick up one important thought for this blog post. Martins (2004, 815) wrote that it is more important to believe in the matter of what you’re doing: productive virtual teams communicate more but in less official ways. When you care, you ask the questions because you are interested. This leads to successful communication in any language and culture. So, more is really more.

As a conclusion for this blog post of communicating in a multicultural virtual environment the main findings are actually pretty pleasant.
       Get to know people you work with. Have a party, meet your clients.
       Writing business correspondence letters at university is not stupid. It makes sense.
       Do what you like and believe in what you do. Care.

And I think it is fair for humankind to use some emojis in written communication. :)

Few further reading about the subject:


Cramton, C.D. (2001). The mutual knowledge problem and its consequences for dispersed collaboration. Organization Science, Vol. 12, No. 3, pp. 346–371.

Martins, L.L., Gilson, L.L. & Maynard, M.T. (2004). Virtual teams: what do we know and where do we go from here? Journal of Management, Vol. 30, No. 6, pp. 805–835.

Mukherjee, D., Lahiri, S., Mukherjee, D. & Billing, T.K. (2012). Leading virtual teams: how do social, cognitive, and behavioral capabilities matter? Management Decision, Vol. 50, No. 2, pp. 273–290.

Serçe, F.C., Swigger, K., Alpaslan, F.N., Brazile, R., Dafoulas, G. & Lopez, V. (2011).
Online collaboration: collaborative behavior patterns and factors affecting globally
distributed team performance. Computers in Human Behavior, Vol. 27, pp. 490–503.

Text by Kaisu Koskiaho, a student of Independent Study in English course

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