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Cross-Cultural Communication Between Latin American and U.S. Managers

Gary M. Wederspahn

GROVEWELL associate Gary M. Wederspahn is a leading intercultural business coach, consultant, speaker, and writer.  His book, Intercultural Services: A Worldwide Buyer’s Guide and Sourcebook (2000), is available from Butterworth Heinemann (www.bh.com).  This article was expanded in 2005.



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Communication between people of different cultural backgrounds involves much more than overcoming the language barrier.  Hidden cultural differences often cause a great deal of misunderstanding and friction.  These differences are a serious problem because they are mostly invisible and inaudible but they affect the true meaning of the messages sent and received by business counterparts, South and North.  The NAFTA, GATT and MERCOSUL trade agreements require increased communication between managers in Latin America and the United States.  Being aware of the cultural factors that create “static” will help businesspeople in the hemisphere understand each other better.  However, to accomplish this goal, it is necessary to identify the specific roots of misunderstanding.
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Cross-Cultural Communications
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When a person from one cultural background conceives a thought and encodes it, verbally or non-verbally, then transmits it to a person in another culture, the recipient decodes the message to understand the intended meaning.  The encoding process includes considering the status and background of the recipient (friend, parent, boss, client, etc.) and selecting the words or gestures most likely to be understood accurately.  This process is by no means trouble-free even if the two people share a common language and culture.  When the message is sent through a cultural filter, a breakdown of communication is likely because the decoding is influenced by a set of values, attitudes, beliefs, preconceptions, and expectations that are different from those of the sender.  Therefore, the message often becomes distorted in the mind of the recipient.
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Through five years of academic study on Latin America and thirteen years of living and working in Central and South America and The Caribbean, I have discovered many ways in which Latin American and U.S. business associates tend to misunderstand each other.  The following are a few of the more common and serious areas of miscommunication.
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Context- vs. Content-Focus
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In U.S. business settings there is a strong emphasis on the content of communications:  the data, facts and specific details.  This relatively narrow focus results in a tendency to be literal-minded, direct, and highly explicit.  Both verbal and written communications tend to be brief and to-the-point.  In Latin America generally there is a broader focus that includes contextual factors such as relationship, circumstances, timing, and social appropriateness.  The actual meaning of the words and gestures may depend, for example, on the hierarchical status of the parties involved, the degree of trust they share, or whether the exchange of communications takes place in public or private.  Therefore, an awareness of the context and the ability to accurately interpret subtle rules in a particular situation are essential to the Latin American businessperson.  Consequently, the Latino may seem ambiguous or evasive to the U.S. counterpart.  At the same time, however, the U.S. American may be perceived as impersonal and overly direct or blunt.
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“Molecular” vs. “Atomic” Social Structure
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According to Geert Hofstede, a well-known Dutch sociologist, the United States of America is the most individualistic culture among 40 countries studied.  It was rated 91 on a 100-point scale.  Popular sayings such as “If you want a job done right, do it yourself,” and “ You have to blow your own horn” reveal this emphasis on autonomy.  Therefore, self-reliance and accountability are valued in business settings.  Expressing one’s own opinion openly and frankly is usually acceptable and often admired.  Actively pursuing one’s personal interests is considered natural and legitimate. This concept is analogous to individual atoms interacting with each other.
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By contrast, Latin American countries were rated much lower on the individualism scale in the Hofstede study (Argentina 46, Brazil 38, Mexico 30, and Chile 23).  The practice of becoming godparents (compadres), the use of networks and connections, the exchange of information and favors, the obligation toward and reliance on the extended family all reflect the “molecular” structure of Latin American societies.  This sociological reality requires that one be more indirect, diplomatic, non-confrontational, and cautious in communicating with others because there is a positive or negative multiplier effect in every social or business transaction.  A good interaction may gain one multiple allies (members of the other person’s “molecule”) while a negative encounter has the potential of creating numerous opponents for oneself.
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The communication implications of this difference are important.  The U.S. counterpart may feel that the Latin American is being excessively diplomatic or “flowery,” which is generally associated with insincerity in the United States.  In contrast, the U.S. person’s individualism may be perceived as being selfish or egotistical.
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Task vs. Relationship
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U.S. businesspeople are trained to be task oriented.  “Keeping your eye on the ball” and not allowing yourself to be distracted from the job at hand are considered high priorities.  Therefore, most of the emphasis is placed on the tangible outcome or result of a business project, not the process.  People who work together may develop personal relationships over time but the task comes first.  Latin Americans tend to feel that it is essential to invest in establishing a relationship before focusing on the task.  A warm-up period is typically required to create a good interpersonal environment in which the task can be accomplished most effectively.   There is faith that a positive relationship will lead to a good process, which in turn will produce the best results.  An important clue in this regard is the high desirability of being considered simpático or likeable and accessible.
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Too often, U.S. business people seem impersonal or aloof due to putting tasks above and before relationships.   On the other hand, Latin Americans may be considered too slow to get started on the task and not sufficiently “serious” about getting the job done.
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Time Difference
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The U.S. culture is one of the most fast-paced in the world.  “Time is money” was coined by Benjamin Franklin in 1748.  He also said, “Lost time is never found again.”  This time-consciousness has become ingrained in the U.S. psyche.  Today, driven by computers, fax machines, and electronic mail, the speed of business is faster than ever.  Another aspect of U.S. time is illustrated by a study of ten countries by Fons Trompenaars, a Dutch anthropologist.  He found that the U.S. was the country most oriented toward future and the least toward the past.  The implication is that something new is almost automatically accepted as better.  These factors have created a situation in which punctuality, strict deadlines, high speed of work, and constant change are essential features of the workplace.
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The pace of life and work varies within Latin America.  However, it is generally less intense than in the U.S. for three reasons.  First, technology is somewhat less available in the workplace, although this is rapidly changing.  More important is the fact that building and maintaining relationships, attending to one’s “molecular” networks, and managing the complex contextual dimensions of business simply takes more time.  In addition, there is a greater awareness and appreciation of the past and a sense of history.
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Time differences have great impact on communication.  Such issues as how soon to send a message and how quickly to respond frequently become sources of friction.  The U.S. businessperson may appear hasty, rushed, and pushy, while the Latin American may seem to lack a sufficient sense of urgency.
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Nonverbal Communication
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There are many sub-cultures and ethnic groups within the United States.  Each has its own characteristic style of nonverbal communications.   In the corporate environment, however, firm handshakes, strong eye contact, and smiles are encouraged.  Business associates who are conversing face-to-face typically stand about a meter apart.  Dress is relatively conservative and formal.
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In Latin America, there is less physical distance between people, softer handshakes, more touching and abrazos, and greater use of hand and arm gestures.  Business dress tends to be more fashionable and, in some cases, more colorful (especially in tropical regions where Guayabera style shirts are worn to the office).
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Nonverbal language is very important in face-to-face communications because it conveys feelings, intentions, and reactions.  Latin Americans may seem emotional and excitable to their U.S. counterparts,  while U.S. Americans may come across as cold and distant.  Even in non-face-to-face communications such as via e-mail , fax, or telephone, the absence of nonverbal signals may create a problem.  Not being able to see each other, the parties may misinterpret the true meaning or tone of written messages.
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Overcoming the Differences
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The cultural differences described above are only a few of the challenges in South-North business communications.  In order to overcome them, it is necessary to first see them clearly and objectively; this skill can be learned.   Secondly, one must understand how he or she is being perceived by counterparts from other cultures; this is a challenge of self-awareness.  Finally, one needs to use effective cross-cultural communications, which means developing skills such as communicating in English with non-native English speakers, using gestures and body language understood across cultures, and matching voice tone, volume, and pacing.
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