Cover Feature
Do you know what I mean? Challenges of cross cultural work teams
By Lorraine Weygman

Reprinted from HRPAO's newsletter

As program director for the West Toronto Chapter of HRPAO, I invited Anne Thornley-Brown of The Training Oasis, Inc. to speak at a luncheon on “The Changing Face of Diversity”. I have personally known her for many years and knew she’d deliver a highly informative, innovative, interactive and professional presentation.

During lunch, among gasps from the participants, she began setting up her equipment. She was wearing a clean, orange, slightly wrinkled tennis shirt – inside out!, khaki pants and boots. Some participants were so upset, they said her shirt was “upside down”. I was embarrassed and felt responsible for bringing in a speaker who neglected the appropriate dress code....

Anne's note:In polite Canadian style, nobody said a word to the speaker about it or openly acknowledged the obvious. The stage had been set for us to move beyond the polite facade and explore the challenges of diversity in Canada. My point had been made. A lively exploration followed.

And then the penny dropped. Anne had made her point with her entrance! She brought out our biases, prejudices, beliefs, stereotypes, values and hidden discrimination without speaking a word. During the ensuing role-play, she left the room, returning in a suit. We learned a lot that day!

If only it was that simple to illustrate in a normal workplace. When you add the challenge of multicultural workteams, it becomes even more of a struggle.
People either love or hate teams. They’re complicated. Their ingredients combine diverse personalities and points of view. Cultural diversity can bring new methods of communication, group dynamics, relationships and ways to process logic.

Due to Canadian immigration over the past 50 years, the varied cultural mix has broadened our scope and challenged our prejudices. The Canadian mosaic has created individual differences that blend into the vast culture of the country and into the businesses of the land. In the workplace, though, differences that may seem quaint or charming over a cup of coffee can become barriers to effective team processes, and eventually necessitate a paradigm shift in the way we see and manage employees.

A paradigm is our own assumption, frame of reference or how we see and understand our world, and is the source of values, attitudes, beliefs, prejudices and behaviours.

A paradigm shift demands that we not only look at things differently, but also change our behaviour. Global companies must now assess their mission, vision, values, structure, strategy, corporate culture and human resource development to ensure that all are aligned with this new shift in thinking.

In order to develop cultural competence, management must recognize the strength and value of diversity, and develop cultural knowledge and cross cultural skills. However, communication across cultures goes beyond the spoken language.

Challenges of cultural differences and practises

People of diverse cultures approach a business relationship in different ways.
As a Canadian, accustomed to a task-oriented culture that gets the job done without necessarily building a relationship, I learned to change my expectations when I worked in Venezuela. Knowing the individual and building trust was critical before any business could occur. What I didn’t know was the actual steps in the process and the length of time it would take. For me, it was an exercise in patience and a priceless learning experience.

Time And Meetings: In an article on, the writer suggests that people view time either rigidly or flexibly, thus influencing the starting time and duration of a meeting. Whether they are more group-oriented or individualistic, or from cultures with more or less hierarchy will influence their ability to make an on-the-spot decision, or even to give immediate feedback.

Verbals and Non-Verbals: One of the greatest barriers to effective communication across cultures is not only the variety of first languages people speak, but also the different idioms, the subtler linguistic nuances and the general vernacular used in specific regions where the same basic language is used.

For example, when the Japanese say “yes” to a contract, they really mean they will think about it. According to their language, there isn’t a specific word for “no”. Being polite is deeply entrenched in their culture. How would that affect the understanding of a response from a Canadian team member in the group?
Many errors using literal translation have been cited. For instance, when the word preservatives is literally translated into Spanish, it means condom. On a particular box of chocolates, the label read, “There are no condoms contained in the preparation of these chocolates”.

In his newly published book, “Intercultural Communication and Body Language”, Johannes Galli describes the following misunderstandings caused by body language:
• Thumbs-up sign: Understood as a positive signal in North America and Europe, in Asia and Africa it becomes a phallic symbol and considered a rude, sexual affront.
• O.K. sign: A circle formed by the index finger and the thumb, in Greece, Turkey or Russia the same gesture symbolizes a human posterior opening and considered highly obscene

Cultural Context and Meaning: In Beyond Culture, Edward T. Hall describes the challenge of a direct linguistic translation of a language. During the 1950’s, the United States Government spent millions of dollars developing machine translations of Russian and other languages. Unable to translate the context, the machines translated the words accurately, making a distorted sense of their meaning. The project was dropped.

According to Hall, people communicate differently depending on their context styles. For example, the Americans, Swiss, Germans and Scandinavians have a “low context culture”. They tend to be direct, get down to business quickly and believe that most of the message is in the words.

High context cultures, such as the Japanese and Latin Americans, believe that words alone are not enough. They watch non-verbal cues and want to know everything about a topic and an individual. They take longer to do business because personal relations are important.

Foreign Accents: Liliana Chocarro of LC Plus Biosciences Consulting, whose first language is Spanish, has an incredible understanding of the English language. Today, she speaks with a slight accent and has experienced the issues that result. She states that many people have difficulty with strong foreign accents, treating the speaker as if “their brain has defects”. Listeners tend to correct pronunciation and grammar, rather than absorb the content and meaning of the message. A foreign rocket scientist who may speak the local language with difficulty still has remarkable expertise in his known field of endeavour, but a heavy accent can create a barrier that results in discrimination.

When training or in a meeting with those from other countries, Chocarro, understanding that some people may be translating “in their heads”, speaks more slowly and gives more breaks because these listeners tire sooner. Her handouts are copies of the visual text slides, intended for deeper clarification at a later time.

Meetings: Who’s going to be present at the meeting? Who will ask questions? Who will be comfortable speaking? Who will be prepared to make commitments and decisions and what will be the differences in their comfort level? It’s important to know prior to the meeting in order to plan according to the variances in style.

Body Distance: Different cultures demand different distances when speaking to each other. Europeans and Asians generally require at least an arm’s length, while Latin Americans come in closer and will often touch an arm, give a hug and kiss. With such differences, misunderstandings can frequently occur.

In Galli’s Seven Rules for Effective Communication, he suggests we learn the various messages sent by such things as posture, language, movement or voice which help us to identify concealed information about a situation, and communicate and understand each other more effectively.

According to Thornley-Brown (of the wrinkled shirt), we must learn to compensate for our own biases and filters, avoid making assumptions without facts, appreciate the skills of members from other cultural groups, make sure staff knows appropriate behaviour and definitely avoid sexist or racial jokes.

Teams have enough difficulty working together without additional complications.
Due to our global village, increased air travel and the Internet, we have considerable access to recruiting people on a global basis and routinely transfer staff from one country to another. This is a great opportunity for human resource departments to educate their companies in the strategic plans for training that must be carried out in order to achieve harmony and success in the workplace. By looking at diversity as a benefit and allowing individual talents, skills and experience to enhance each team, we gain from the varying ways people experience their world.

Lorraine Weygman specializes in coaching managers to acquire & develop high performing teams. She can be reached at and (416) 630- 6423.