Working Virtually Across Cultures

15 Aug 2014 10:43 AM | FIGT Blog Editor (Administrator)

Cultural differences are often enhanced in virtual communication. An intercultural trainer demonstrates how understanding culture and making minor modifications in our approach can help lead to rewarding and productive working relationships.


When communicating with colleagues around the world, email, teleconference and phone calls are the most common methods. What happens, though, to the communication when those colleagues speak different languages, use different patterns of communication or have diverse work style preferences?

One of the biggest challenges of virtual communication is the fact that cultural differences do not disappear just because we are communicating virtually – in fact, many times they are enhanced.

Let’s explore some recent examples:

Case 1

In the midst of preparing for a 3-year assignment to Oman, Barbara had been repeatedly sending off quick and direct emails to an Omani colleague asking for information on her arrival accommodations and who would be meeting her at the airport.

Unfortunately, there had been no response from her Omani colleague and Barbara grew increasingly frustrated. Barbara expressed her frustration during her pre-departure cross cultural training session and her consultant suggested learning more about Omani culture, their relationship orientation, greetings and formality.  Barbara also learned more about Ramadan, which was being observed at the time of her requests.

Applying the suggestions of the intercultural business consultant she had met during the program, she tried her email request again. This time, instead of writing a one line email requesting the location of her hotel and details of her airport pick-up, she experimented with a different approach:

Dear Mr. Abdul,

It is with great pleasure that I look forward to meeting you and to my arrival in Oman. I am so eager to learn about your beautiful country, and hope that we will have time to share discussion about its history, traditions, food and sites that I must visit during my stay. I would greatly appreciate any information you can share about my living situation upon arrival and who I may look forward to seeing at the airport. I wish you and your family an easy fast and a peaceful Ramadan.

Within five minutes she had received a response.

Case 2

Paula is Puerto Rican living in New York and working for a European company. She was struggling with weekly teleconferences with her French colleagues as they had strong opinions and expressed them forcefully, which made her uncomfortable. As a result, Paula stayed quiet, not wanting to further disrupt harmony in the group.

Her colleagues rarely responded to her emails on time and didn’t ask her opinion often.

During a two-day Global Team program sponsored by her company, Paula learned more about French communication style, and that argumentation can be seen as engagement and a way to demonstrate that you have good ideas and commitment. 

She was nervous about it, but took a deep breath one day on a conference call and challenged one of her French colleagues openly; her colleague challenged her back. Soon they were discussing freely and the conversation was lively and engaging.

It still didn’t feel comfortable, but Paula noticed that over the next few weeks, her colleagues began to include her in more email communication and seek her opinion. She was both pleased and amazed at how effective this small change in her teleconference behavior changed the tone of email communication as well.

Case 3

Christoph noticed that when conducting conference calls with his Chinese colleagues, there was often silence on the other end. He knew that some junior colleagues struggled with English, and that his own accent may have been a barrier, but he thought he was being patient and always spoke slowly. Still, he felt that no one was willing to share opinions or contribute to decisions.

His supervisor suggested a technique that had worked for him: start the meeting, present the topics he wanted feedback on, and then pause the meeting for 10 to 15 minutes to allow the Chinese team to speak amongst themselves.

This allowed the Chinese to check comprehension with one another, ask each other questions instead of losing face in front of the group, and come to a group consensus on what the answers and opinions should be. It also helped them honor hierarchy by letting the most senior person act as the spokesperson.

Christoph also tried a similar technique of sharing the agenda with specific questions to be addressed a couple of days in advance. His meetings became much more productive and had the added benefit of the Chinese colleagues prioritizing his future requests.


The techniques and solutions above required an understanding of culture and a willingness to adapt the approach to virtual communication according to the unique demands of the situation. While changing behavior is never easy, experimenting with minor modifications in our approach to working with colleagues virtually can lead to rewarding and productive working relationships even when face-to-face is simply not possible.


Contributed by Charisse Kosova, Director, Intercultural Training and Development at IOR Global Services.

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