News & Insight
June 2003

Q&A With Diane L. Simpson, Ph.D. Learning to Communicate Across Cultures

Diane L. Simpson, Ph.D.

For executives with global responsibilities, success depends in large part on their ability to understand the cultural differences that influence business decision-making and to communicate effectively with their foreign counterparts. Diane L. Simpson, a member of WJM Associates' coaching faculty, has helped thousands of managers from more than 100 countries to work effectively with those from different cultural backgrounds. As coach to dozens of senior executives, including many from Europe and Asia stationed in the United Stares, she has enabled her clients to successfully work across cultural borders. Her current research includes developing a model of cross-national technology transfer using intercultural teams. She holds a Ph.D. in personality and social psychology from Boston University, speaks Japanese and French, and reads Chinese.

What advice can you offer to someone who has been promoted and now will have more international responsibilities?

Obviously, for someone dealing across cultural borders, there are many important country-specific things to know. However, an executive about to take on an international position needs a global mindset and the ability to look at the dimensions of cultural differences that apply across the world and see how they play out.

For example, one important dimension identified by a leading Dutch social scientist named Geert Hofstede is "uncertainty avoidance." This refers to how much data you need to have before you make a decision. If you're an American executive dealing with Europeans, you may have had experience dealing with some, such as Belgians, who have very high uncertainty avoidance. Japanese are high on uncertainty avoidance. Americans are relatively low on uncertainty avoidance.

So people with very high uncertainty avoidance need a lot of data.

Yes, though some of the motivations for uncertainty avoidance could differ from culture to culture. In East Asia, for example, a lot of uncertainty avoidance is related to issues of face-saving. People there don't want to make a mistake; they fear their colleagues will view them negatively. As a result, they are very deliberate in their decision-making.

Would you say communication between cultures is more effective face-to-face?

I think that's a very fair statement. There are different ways in which cultural theorists comment upon that. Certain cultures, like the U.S., are task-focused vs. relationship-focused. This does not mean that Americans don't care about relationships, but, rather, we prefer to get the task done and then get to know our counterparts. In cultures that are relationship-focused, people are very reluctant to join in on the task until they feel they trust the people involved.

Another way of saying that is the U.S. tends to be a very high-trust culture. We trust people unless we have reason not to trust them. In some other cultures, which are relatively low-trust, you don't trust someone unless you have a good reason to trust them, namely someone you know and trust gives you an introduction to that person, and kind of guarantees that relationship. In East Asia, for example, that is largely the case. You just don't go and do business with someone without an introduction very easily.

And you need to spend time getting to know the person.

The way Americans might want to get to know another person could be quite different from the way, say, an East Asian person might want to get to know someone. We're looking much more for people's opinions, the way they think about things. We try to get more into their personalities. On the other hand, the Japanese want to know where you went to school and how you fit into your company's hierarchy. All those things are not about you as an individual, but you in the context of your group. If you are a high-status person in a recognized, credible organization, you bring to the table not only your own credentials, but also those of your organization. Individual "chemistry" then becomes less important.

Join our newsletter

Stay up to date on all things happening at WJM Associates