Email, phone, or cup of tea?

31 01 2014

teach ESLPeople have varying kinds of friendships with documents. It may be because they are not confident with the local language (for me, English…well, American).  For others it may be a learning pattern, or an issue with eyesight.  Perhaps it stems from restlessness and distractability. But the reason may also be a cultural one.

To put it simply, some people prefer talking face to face rather than reading content on a page. They are strong on relationships. They excel at conversation. I remember many times in Kenya being embroiled in conversation with a Kenyan friend or even new acquaintance. The ability to recall details of an event, or to unfold a story, amazed me.

Such cultures are typically more community oriented. Time is taken to catch up on the extended family. Greetings often include a report on all the relatives and their well-being. If you walk into a meeting that is already in process, you will still quietly go around the table and shake hands with each person there.

I was raised in a different kind of culture, one that is more individualistic. This is more typical of Americans, at least those hailing from northern Europe stock. So when I introduce myself, I get right to the point. I don’t consider giving an update on my family. I give my title, my work, my city. Pretty soon, I’m getting to the point of the meeting –what I need or what I can offer. Communication is direct and speedy. Efficiency. That’s how I’m wired.

Bring these two cultural clusters into the context of a cross-cultural relationship, whether one-on-one or in an organizational setting. If I want to strengthen a relationship with the other person, I need to take a lot more time for relational updating than my internal time clock allows. If I’m conducting a meeting, a prompt start is not going to serve the group well. I need to hang loose and let people mingle and converse for a good 15 or 20 minutes (and not wear a scowl while checking my watch).

What else? Well, I need to be okay with the fact that some of the others do not feel comfortable with email communications. Maybe its the technology, or the language. Maybe its the impersonal nature of the method. Maybe its the cultural belief that if we’re friends we’ll make time to get together face to face and talk it through. Then the whole environment, the body language, the gestures, the emotion — everything adds to effective transmission of the message, and gives opportunity for exchange of ideas.

Sure, sending an email blast to the whole group is easier, but is it effective interculturally?  It gets more done but does more get accomplished? I tend to think that if I have put something in writing that it should be clear to all. But I may have distanced myself from my colleague of a more relational culture.