When I worked as a global media coordinator for the UN several years ago, I organized biweekly conference calls, during which I would ask my colleagues around the world to provide information by particular deadlines. My colleagues almost always responded with a resounding yes, but all too often, the deadlines came and went without the requested material, leaving me bewildered and upset.
Finally, my South African boss had to explain what would never have occurred to me: In many cultures, it is rude to say no. So some people would say yes to anything I asked, regardless of whether they had any intention of delivering.
If communicating internally at the UN was challenging, interacting with the outside world was even harder. How would we reach people in places where newspapers and televisions are still not widely available? How could we generate media coverage in countries where unpaid or underpaid reporters expect “brown envelopes” (full of cash) in exchange for stories?
Communicating globally might require changing the way you interact with both your colleagues and your target audiences. For a book, I spent a year interviewing senior communication professionals in 31 countries about how they help clients modify their messages and strategies for particular cultures. I have found that some of the biggest factors to consider when communicating in a new culture involve emotion, context, conceptions of time and social expectations.
As an example of emotional differences, if I were to do a media interview in the US and become visibly angry at a reporter’s question, I would be seen as unstable. By contrast, in the Middle East, emotional responses are often expected to emotional questions. If you stay cool and calm while discussing a heated issue, you may be viewed as untrustworthy.
Another big cultural difference revolves around the level of “context” provided in a conversation. As an American, I am what is known as a low-context communicator, so if I want something done, I say so bluntly and directly. By contrast, in high-context cultures, as in Asia, people might communicate more subtly. You have to pick up on body language and other contextual cues to realize that your colleague who just said yes to you has actually communicated that she does not agree to your plan.
One of the cultural differences that people find most difficult to cope with is conceptions of time. When I worked in US President Barack Obama’s administration as a spokeswoman for international affairs in the US Department of the Treasury, I once flew with a senior official from Washington to Africa to meet with a head of state. When we arrived for the scheduled meeting, the president was not in the office. My boss was furious because in “monochronic” cultures such as the US, it is expected that people will be prompt and deadlines will be met. However, in “polychronic” cultures, such as in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, plans are less firm and are constantly changing.
A good way to understand expectations in different communities is to make friends with local influencers. In the US, we tend to think of influencers as Hollywood or media celebrities, but in other countries, they may also be imams, the cool kids in a particular township or the village chiefs.
The head of a public relations firm in Malaysia told me that before working in communities there, he would organize a jamuan — a Malay word for a feast — by inviting about 10 villagers to dinner at a local restaurant. In exchange for food, they answered his questions about how he could best promote his telecommunications client in the local community.
I have witnessed firsthand and heard from experts how people from other cultures can take differing paths to achieve similar goals. So today, when I consult for the UN and other clients, I no longer ask my colleagues to meet my deadlines. Instead, I ask what it is possible for them to do, and what they think will work best in their country or culture.
Kara Alaimo is assistant professor of public relations at Hofstra University and author of Pitch, Tweet or Engage on the Street: How to Practice Global Public Relations and Strategic Communication.
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