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Business Across Cultures: The Meaning of Words

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One of the most common sources of intercultural friction in a multinational office in Indonesia is a misunderstanding between a foreign professional and an Indonesian manager. Often there is no fault to be found in such a circumstance. It may well be because of the way people's understanding of the meaning of words or concepts differs between cultures.

For instance, Indonesian managers often speak of the need for respect and politeness in business transactions. The meaning of those terms, “What is respect?”, “What is Polite?” vary with the perceptions of the person or persons involved. What can be considered impolite in Indonesian Business Culture may be a commonplace and accepted facet of Western Business Culture. However, the miscommunication or misperception of meanings by a foreign co-worker is often a reason for cultural friction.

One of the most frustrating conflicts in meaning for both Western and Indonesian managers is the question of proper feedback or of “Closing the Loop”. What may seem sufficient response and information on an on-going assignment to one party, may be considered grossly insufficient by another and this insufficiency may never be properly addressed.

One of the benefits of a cross-cultural training program is having the different cultural sides of a team or office sit down together and decide on what terms and words mean exactly in the separate cultural context of their own office.

It should be a basic premise of these programs that Indonesians are not expected to become Westerners in outlook and neither are the expatriates expected to become Indonesian, but rather both have to work towards establishing a separate corporate culture one that works best to meet the bottom-line goals of their company in Indonesia.

“Closing the Loop” normally involves four distinct information steps. These are giving, receiving, acting, and reporting. Each of these steps are important and each contain the seeds for misinterpretation.

For instance, there is often a general disagreement as to the level of the reporting or “feedback” required in an office. The feeling of many Indonesian managers is that a lesser level of feedback to superiors is considered sufficient than many expatriate managers are comfortable with. One thought on the Indonesian side being that delays may not be within the manager's power to control.

Many expatriate managers disagree that such lower levels of feedback are acceptable feeling that Indonesian managers should not wait until an action is completed before reporting progress on an action being important also.

These are issues that need to be discussed and decided by the people who work on the team or in the office. Ignoring or complaining that the other party is not giving proper feedback, or worse, that the other party is incompetent, will not improve the harmony of the office.

These miscommunications can be resolved if the different cultural sides of an office take the time and effort to try to understand one another. For instance, I recently facilitated a mixed, cross-cultural program for a major multinational operating in the financial sector. The Indonesian and expatriate sides in the discussion thought that they had understood what each other expected. As it turned out, there was a large gap in those expectations. After several hours of guided discussions, the following agreement on meaning was reached.

“Closing the Loop” is taking responsibility that you give information clearly, that you indicate that you have received and understood the information, that you act promptly on that information, and that you report back not only when the action is complete, but when there is additional information that is of importance.“

Some Western managers think that these kind of Mission Statements 'go without saying'. That they are clearly understood by anyone working in an international business environment. I sometimes wonder how many times I have heard an expatriate participant on one of my programs exclaim, ”Well, they [Indonesian managers] must understand that!' when it is clear that they do not.

The culture that one grows up in effects the entire way that he or she perceives actions and words. These perceptions are altered through personal observation, experience, and training. However, the assumption that someone else looks at a particular situation the same way that you do is often incorrect and can lead to many cross-cultural conflicts.

The way around these cultural barriers is through mutual understanding. Multicultural offices and teams need to take the time and effort to set the ground rules for future cooperation. They need to determine the meaning of words and concepts so that their understanding is clear. Denial, often a criticism of Indonesian managers in problem resolution, is one trait that is also often found in their expatriate counterparts.


This article was generously contributed by George B. Whitfield, III when he was a Technical Advisor with Executive Orientation Services.

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