Intercultural misunderstandings: The drawbacks of Skype, chats & co.

E-mails, video conferences and emojis: virtual communication comes with its share of challenges, especially in a cross-cultural context. Here are a few pitfalls to watch out for. 

Dr. Christa Uehlinger, Gastautor
Temps de lecture
15 minutes
Different cultures, different people
The beauty in diversity: Competent intercultural communication is becoming increasingly important. © Shutterstock

We might forget it sometimes, but behind every work e-mail and chat is a human being who might have been socialised differently. And that means they might act, think and communicate differently than you would in the exact same situation. This phenomenon materialises time and time again when people cooperate across cultures and time zones – especially when they use virtual channels – and can make it quite challenging to build strong interpersonal relationships.

Misunderstandings can happen in an instant

Cultural differences can complicate virtual communication, making it more likely for misunderstandings to arise. Why? There are a number of reasons:

  • Communication styles (i.e. the way a message is conveyed) can differ from one culture to the next. And when we communicate online, we often lose the contextual cues that normally help us decode messages, such as body language, gestures, facial expressions or intonation. This leaves room for ambiguity. 
  • Only communicating digitally with a counterpart can widen the social distance between you and that person. When doing business, personal relationships are more important in some cultures than in others. 
  • The large selection of different communication channels can make things even more complicated, because the channel of choice for specific situations can differ, depending on the culture. 

So what should you keep in mind to prevent misunderstandings? Unfortunately, there aren’t any hard and fast rules – it all depends on the context. Let’s take a look at some real-life examples instead: 

Example 1: Why are our Chinese colleagues hiding?

The situation: A project team consisting of people from Switzerland, China and the UK meets once a week for a video conference. The Chinese team members never switch on their camera for these calls, and this bothers the rest of the team members. 

Woman during a Skype-call
Online communication is practical, but has its drawbacks. © GettyImages / Morsa Images

What’s going on here? Culturally speaking, there are probably a few things happening. The UK and Switzerland are individualistic cultures and thus more task oriented. China tends to be a relationship-oriented culture, where you first build trust and relationships. So the Chinese team members might not be turning on the camera because trust hasn’t been established yet, and it’s therefore uncomfortable for them to show their face. But in this situation, it’s important to take a closer look at the big picture: what are the various roles within the team and what are people’s seniority levels? Is this an informal or a formal meeting? Are the team members in the office or are they working remotely? If they’re working from home, they might not want their colleagues or even the boss to see their home environment. All of these aspects can influence behaviour.

How to deal with the situation: In a first step, request that the camera be switched on for these meetings, or come up with guidelines as a team for how you want to work together. And remember, whether or not someone switches the camera on isn’t always cultural. Their reasons might be personal. So drawing conclusions based on a person’s nationality, such as “Chinese people never turn on their cameras”, can be problematic. These kind of prejudices and biases stand in the way of cooperation. It’s also important to note that many people, regardless of their culture, don’t switch on their camera – including team members from Switzerland and England. 

Example 2: I’m thinking of letting my assistant go.

The situation: Joanna Miller is an executive from the US who has an assistant from Mexico. According to Joanna, her assistant always writes her very long e-mails, and sometimes, she doesn’t understand what he’s trying to say. Joanna doesn’t have time to read novels – she wants to work efficiently. She expects him to write brief and concise e-mails that focus on the matter at hand. She’s therefore thinking of letting him go. 

What’s going on here? Communication styles and the way messages are conveyed vary greatly and reflect our cultural values. In this example, what we are seeing are some of the differences between “low” and “high context” cultures. Joanna comes from a low context culture, which means she communicates in a way that is precise, simple, explicit and clear. For her, what’s important is what is said. She uses words to communicate. Her e-mails are generally no longer than five lines and she doesn’t use a salutation in her exchanges with his assistant. For her, an e-mail exchange is like a conversation. 

Her assistant, in contrast, is from a high context culture. He expresses himself implicitly and indirectly. When he communicates, what’s important is how things are expressed and not what is said. Messages only become clear with the help of information that is not verbalised: they lie in the context; you have to read between the lines. For people from high context cultures, such as many Asian cultures, explicit statements can be perceived as disrespectful or inconsiderate. Conversely, when people from low context cultures find themselves in high context situations, they miss the explicitness they are accustomed to.

A woman using her mobile and her laptop
Cultural differences can complicate virtual communication. © Shutterstock

The example of Joanna and her assistant underscores just how big the misunderstandings can be between these two communication cultures. In order to communicate more competently, Joanna and her assistant need to be aware of these different communication styles. Following a cultural analysis of their situation, Joanna decided not to dismiss her assistant. Instead, they worked together to agree on what their e-mail exchanges should look like in the future. 

E-mails can be fertile ground for intercultural misunderstandings. Here are some potential stumbling blocks: 

  • form of address (Last name or first? Should you address the person with or without their title?)
  • writing style (Formal or informal?)
  • personal relationship (Do you start by acknowledging the recipient’s professional achievements, ask about how they’re doing or get straight to the point?)
  • hierarchy (Who is allowed to say what to whom?) 
  • channel (E-mail or phone call?)

How to deal with the situation: The bottom line here is that you shouldn’t assume your message will be received as intended. Whether an e-mail is perceived as being friendly, clear, polite, aggressive, disrespectful or shocking depends to a large extent on who receives it. It can be written with the best of intentions and still be completely misunderstood due to cultural differences. 

Different cultures, different e-mails

  • In Japan, e-mails usually begin with a greeting that acknowledges the recipient’s status and thanks them for their time. 
    “Dear [recipient’s name], I hope you and your family are well. I am grateful for your time and attention with regard to [purpose of e-mail]."
  • E-mails written by Americans are often more informal, direct and to the point. The emphasis is on efficiency and productivity. 
    "John, hi, any news on .... ?"
  • In Germany, e-mails tend to be more formal, structured and longer. Precision and clarity are important. 
    “Dear Dr. ... I hope this e-mail finds you well. With regard to our previous exchange, I would like to ask if you could provide me with more information about [the purpose of the e-mail]. May I request that you send it to me by [deadline]?"

Example 3: What is my teammate trying to tell me?

The situation: A team consisting of people of various nationalities uses WhatsApp as its main means of communication. They use emojis in these exchanges. One day, a Greek team member posts an important message. A Swiss colleague reacts with a thumbs-up. The Greek team member is startled and doesn’t understand what their colleague is trying to say, because in Greece, the symbol is offensive and insulting.

Emojis are used differently in different cultures
Emojis are not universal: Thumbs up, for example, can be a rude emoji, depending on the culture. © Shutterstock

What’s going on here? Emojis are becoming increasingly popular in everyday business exchanges. And there is no denying that they’re entertaining and give an emotional context to messages. Many people think that emojis are used the same way around the world, and that they are a universal language. But studies show that the use of emojis varies from one culture to the next, with some being more widely understood than others. Emojis that refer to universal basic emotions such as anger, sadness, joy, surprise and fear tend to be understood similarly by everyone. But some have different meanings depending on the culture. 

How to deal with the situation: If you use emojis in a cross-cultural context, you run the risk of being misunderstood or considered offensive. So think twice before sending one. 

Be careful with these emojis:

👍 “Thumbs up” is a positive and affirmative gesture in many Western cultures that signals agreement. In some Middle Eastern and Latin American cultures, however, it is considered rude and insulting, like a raised middle finger.
👏 “Clapping hands” symbolises applause or congratulations in many cultures. In China, however, it can be seen as a symbol for sex. 
🙏 “Folded hands or high five”? In many cultures, this emoji is an expression of gratitude or a request. But in Brazil and some parts of Europe, folded hands can be interpreted as a symbol for begging.
😂 “Face with tears of joy” is often used to express laughter or to indicate that something is funny. In China and Japan, on the other hand, it can be a way to communicate sadness or disappointment, as tears are associated with negative emotions.
👌 The “Ok hand emoji” stands for the word ok in many Western cultures. In parts of South America, however, the gesture is considered vulgar and offensive.
😳 The emoji with big eyes and a neutral face expresses surprise or disbelief in many cultures. In some Asian cultures it is also used to convey anger or frustration.
♥️ The heart emoji is often used to express love or affection. However, in some Eastern European cultures it is associated with strong anger or hatred.

Some tips when you’re communicating virtually in an intercultural context

  • Consider the cultural context. For example, the other person’s cultural background, their role or function, and the business context?  
  • Consider the other person’s culture. Remember: how your message is received depends on your counterpart’s cultural imprint and not on how you intended it. To better account for other people’s cultures, consult reliable sources for intercultural information or an intercultural expert. 
  • Make a conscious decision about which medium you will use to communicate in which situation. Also, pick up your phone every once in a while instead of relying only on e-mail. 
  • Electronic communication tends to be a reflection of Western, task-oriented cultures. People from relationship-oriented cultures, for example, in South American, Southern or Eastern European, African or Asian countries, may prefer face-to-face meetings. 
  • Make sure you have a good relationship with your contacts. As a general rule, the greater the trust and the better the relationship, the stronger the foundation for collaboration and the faster the responses. Proactively nurture your business relationships. 
  • Build trust digitally, for example, make small talk at the beginning of a video call or organise a digital coffee break. Talk about personal things and not about business. 
  • Be aware of different communication styles. For example, don’t send long e-mails explaining everything in detail if your counterpart communicates differently. Instead, send short messages with attachments.  
  • Jointly define guidelines for video conferences, for example, that everyone’s camera should be turned on. 
  • Choose emojis carefully if you’re using them in a cross-cultural context.

Conclusion: In an intercultural environment, virtual communication has pitfalls

Let’s be honest: ensuring successful collaboration between people from different cultures often requires extra effort on all sides. In our own cultural environment, everything feels comfortable, but when we come into contact with people with a different background, we’re sometimes forced to step out of that comfort zone. And virtual interaction adds further layers of complexity to that reality. That’s just the way it is. 

So if you opt to work virtually in a cross-cultural context, good intercultural skills are pivotal. 

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