Q&A With Andrew Molinsky: Cross-Cultural Communication

Posted on March 20, 2010


Andrew Molinsky, Assistant Professor of Organizational Behavior at Brandeis University’s International Business School,  sheds light on the issue of cross-cultural communication, its challenges and possible ways to reduce cultural shock.

You can download the audio Q&A interview  here (scroll down on the opened page to download the audio file).

Q: What is cross-cultural communication?

A: “I think cross-cultural communication is simply, when someone from a particular nationality, particular region, it could be from a particular sub region, is interacting with someone from a different nationality, region, and their typical, default, ingrained way of communicating is different in some way from the person they are communicating with.  Their expectations for what to say, when to say it, the timing with which they are saying it might be different. Cross cultural communication entails an effort to find that common ground in communication and figure out a way to mutually make sense what each person is talking about.  In some cases it can be a person trying to adapt to different cultural set norms and expectations.  In other cases it might not.”

Q: How to deal with the mindset of “us” vs “them”

A: “From my understanding, my experience, if I understand the “us” versus “them” correctly, is some degree of immersion, in experience in a new culture.

I find that foreign students, for instance, who I work with, or even American-born students, are able to have an experience in a foreign culture, learn a language, meet people, have relationship, they really understand another culture’s perspective. That helps to deal with the mindset about “us” versus “them”.

If you approach a different culture without really trying to understand and appreciate their perspective I think it is much more difficult.”

Q: What is a culture shock?

A: “There is a classic framework of culture-shock, which is called a “U” curve model.  Like the letter “U”.  That model says, and that is not my model, it’s researchers’ who have developed this framework for understanding the culture-chock.  The idea is that, when you move to a different culture, and it’s typical to people who move to a different culture, they actually first experience a “honeymoon period”, that’s what they call it, where the new culture is new and exciting, different.  People are often enthusiastic about these differences, according to this framework.

But shortly thereafter, people experience what is called a “culture-shock” and that is the bottom part of the “U”.  If you imagine the top part of the “U” and the far left of the “U” is the” honeymoon period”, when you, sort of go down to the bottom of the “U”, that represents the culture-chock period, when people are realizing that their ways of acting and behaving, perhaps things that they value, things that they are used to are very different in the new culture.  They realize that in order to get along in the new culture they might even have to change some of the aspects or the ways in which they act and they behave and act.  Or they can choose not to, but there could be consequences associated with that.  For instance, it the work place you might not be as affective or trustworthy, maybe not seen as trustworthy by your colleagues if you do not adopt in certain ways, expected ways of the new culture.

People are sometime overwhelmed with culture-shock, culture differences.  And after that period, this model says, that people go to a recovery period when they tend to see the pluses and minuses of being in a new culture.  They acclimate in some ways, they, perhaps, come to grips with some aspects of their own behavior that they have decided to change a bit and perhaps have decided that they are not going to change those aspects. But it is a little bit of a leveling out period.  That is the way of understanding the culture shock.”

Q: How to control, sooth  adjustment periods?

A:  “Some researchers do not agree with the culture-shock model, saying that it doesn’t capture everyone’s experiences.  Many people do not go through this, so I should mention that.

There are ways to control symptoms, reactions: I think if people are given a realistic preview of the culture that they go into, before even having gone into the new culture that might help control some of the symptoms.

Sometimes if people have a strong support system , support network in the new culture maybe even a cultural coach : someone who is even a native of a culture, or perhaps comes from your own culture, who   has been in that culture for some time to be, sort of a guide. Those are some ways, some examples.”