Market musings

Business Communication Styles in a Multicultural Workplace

by Sasha Viasasha
August 17, 2017

What kind of communicator are you?

Do you like to write off long emails, copying every potential stakeholder, and including all the details in interest of full disclosure?

When you receive a message that doesn’t make sense, does it seem easier to just pick up the phone and talk?

Is your deepest desire simply to be left alone to work, and to only receive the most vital and pared down updates?

Are you frustrated because your coworkers seem unable to comprehend your signals, and are all too willing to read agreement into your silence?

Business communication styles

Communication is integral to business, which involves close coordination at every point. Exchanges of ideas, data, and other intricate details requires accurate, effective communication. Whether this is occurring face-to-face or across the globe, communication styles vary greatly, and can easily cause misunderstandings.

The generational divide

Generational differences are often named the culprit of workplace differences, especially when communication fails and misunderstandings abound. Four distinct generations of workers make up the modern workplace, each seemingly with its own distinct style, values and shared culture.

Much has been written about integrating the tech proficient millennial generation into the workplace, but treating this generation as a monolithic can cause as many problems as it solves.

The dominance of a homogeneous, normalizing culture that easily dissolves differences as superfluous has never been more hotly contested, in practice as well as in theory.

Diversity and millennials

In reality, millennials, largely eschewing nationalism as their politics of choice, and often sharing more kindred qualities with their global sisters and brothers than their elders, are the most diverse generation that ever lived.

A new era

The postmodern era preferences pride, local truth, and equality, and yet equality does not mean we are all the same. Difference is also finding a new validation. A kind of neo-traditionalism is flourishing atop these other trends, as the new generations forage in the past for meaning to carry into the future, breathing new life into old symbols as they do.

What does all of this mean for business, if anything?

Simply this: the future of work is diverse, less of a melting pot than a tossed salad.

This is far more than a generational shift, and will remain a challenge well into the future. The work of mediating differences while respecting them requires a solution that is cultural, social and technological.

Not history; histories

The modern work community brings together many different histories. Each employee, partner and customer brings both a personal and collective history. From family traditions  to religious or cultural observances, what is viewed as acceptable or unacceptable may vary. For example, some families openly air their differences, while others rely on more subtle forms of negotiation.

Two workers coming from different backgrounds may have difficulty communicating because one is used to direct confrontation, while the other prefers to communicate using cues like body language or passive tactics. Likewise, some cultures are more authoritarian and others more egalitarian.

Consequently, different attitudes towards conflict and decision making are inevitable. A diverse workplace can use these differences to attack problems from different angles, using different methodologies.

At the same time, strong company culture creates common ground where differences can be respected while establishing clear values, goals and best practices to guide organizational  processes and decision making. People exist in many different spheres, and are able to fluidly transition between different spaces, for example, religious and social circles have different rules and norms. 

In the absence of a strong company culture, people will default back to their personal mode.

An effective company culture creates a space where people can come together despite different backgrounds. Explicit communication protocols, clear goals and well-articulated values are the basis of effective internal branding and shared culture.

Business meets intersectionality

Demographic factors such as class, race and gender greatly influence communication styles and conventions. While business tends to preference what might be thought of as a more authoritative and even masculine style of communication, correcting this tendency can allow for better communication, collaboration and more critical thinking. 

Everything in moderation

Because of the coexistence of different but equal cultures and social identities, moderation is very important in modern workplaces. Whether it is a meeting, conference call or email thread, moderating the conversation can help ensure that all stakeholders have a voice. Rotating moderation responsibilities help give everyone a chance to influence and shape workplace conversations. 

Generational and cultural differences

Each generation seems to be comfortable with different channels. Gen X came to age with email, while many boomers still love to talk on the phone. Millennials are known for preferring text and chat. But are there cultural and social differences to consider? 

While a great deal of data has been gathered and analyzed about millennial communication behavior, especially as it relates to digital tools, cross-cultural differences and preferences have been less well studied. However, a look at smartphone penetration and social media habits does show cultural differences. For example, according to a Pew research survey from 2013, 40% of black internet users ages 18-29 use Twitter, compared with 28% of their white peers of the same age group. And, although it is perhaps more difficult to quantify, different demographic groups use communication tools to accomplish different goals.

In any case, it is certain that differences do exist. Technology can help bridge the differences, by providing context and eliminating unnecessary friction. But the human element must be every front and center when designing and implementing these solutions.

High context vs low context information

High context information is information that cannot be understood without a lot of background information, whereas low context information needs little supporting data or background. High context information is where the we get into the most trouble when communicating, especially when the missing context has a cultural aspect to it.

The language of business

An international business language composed of low context messaging signals can eliminate confusion. Manufacturing, shipping, logistics and other industries where a high level of standardization is possible have created a low context language to ensure that business runs smoothly.

Creative work is high context

But other industries, including PR, marketing, sales, communications, and even IT rely on the exchange of high context information with an explicit social and cultural context. As the workplace grows more diverse, and there is less agreement on exactly what constitutes that context, a meaningful and coherent company culture will become even more essential.

Aligning channels with content 

Choosing the right channel for business communication is more important than ever. High context information requires conversations, face-to-face or voice-to-voice, while low context information can leverage asynchronous communication platforms like chat or email. Trying to communicate high context information on a low context channel not only causes misunderstandings, but it also adds to uncertainty, and can introduce unnecessary tension into even routine exchanges.  

Diversity pays

Managing a multigenerational, multicultural and mobile workforce is one of the great challenges facing business leaders today. In remote and distributed teams, communication becomes even more important. Leaders must develop best practices that allow many different styles and preferences to coexist respectfully. The benefits of diversity go beyond some obscure ideal of social justice. Diverse workplaces are more effective and more innovative, better able to interface with increasingly diverse market, and to respond quickly and effectively.  And, most compellingly, they also have stronger financial outcomes.  

Technological help

Technology should help and not hinder communication. Resolving the anxieties that come with communication latency goes a long way in creating a more productive, engaged workplace.

Does your office phone system actually help you talk?

It may seem obvious, but some office phone systems don’t make it easier to connect, SIP phones, hosted PBX and VoIP business phone service are often too complex and expensive for the average small business. Built on top of 20th century technology, they can end up being so difficult to use and maintain that employees end up just using their own smartphones.  

Meanwhile, the consumer app market has changed what business buyers expect from a turnkey solution.   Spoke is a next-generation virtual phone system, built to run on top of new technologies like VoLTE, HDVoice and 5G networks.  The Spoke app transforms the phones that your employees already love into a global mobile network, with local numbers in 56 countries.  

Essential business phone features

In researching how employees at small companies actually use their phones, we've found out that less is more. The intuitive Spoke interface contains all the business phone line essentials that small businesses need, including an easy-to-use interface that helps mediate the communication challenges of the modern workforce, including:

  • Live presence to indicate availability and prmote work/life balance
  • Call context, to prepare recipients for a phone call
  • Privacy masking, so personal phone numbers remain anonymous
  • Mobile-to-mobile call transfer and extension dialing 
  • Smart directory that captures call data and phone numbers
  • A shared business call history
  • Smart routing and AI receptionist  

Spoke is as easy to install and easy to use, yet powerful enough to replace your office phone system, eliminating up to 88% of your telecom costs.  Contact us for an interactive demo or a 21-day free trial of Spoke Phone. Find out what it feels like to love your phone system. 

As technology comes to define our workplaces, having real, human conversations is becoming more important. Crossing the cultural and generational divide to communicate better can only make your business stronger.

The Pocket Communication Guide for Your Millennial Employees
The Pocket Communication Guide for Your Millennial Employees