Wetenschap - 16 november 1995

Culture clash in communication

Culture clash in communication

Transfer of knowledge is often hampered by cultural misunderstandings. Improved technologies such as electronic mail and electronic conferences can facilitate communication but these do not automatically improve the quality of cooperation. WAU lecturer Gert Jan Hofstede tries to throw light on intercultural communication through a workshop entitled The windmills of our minds.

Your culture is like your nose. You cannot see it yourself whereas everybody else will perceive it and think it is peculiar if it differs from theirs. You can always follow your nose. But when you finally get close to something, the nose tends to get in the way," says Gert Jan Hofstede of the Department of Information Systems. In his research on Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW), he is focusing on cultural differences. Within this framework he has designed and organized a workshop on culture clash in CSCW. This workshop was given a trial run on Tuesday November 7.

Communication technology, such as electronic mail and electronic conferences, enables people from different cultures to communicate with each other. Intercultural communication has become increasingly necessary, since many companies and organizations now operate across borders. Hofstede explains: People with experience in multicultural working groups know how difficult it used to be to get these groups to function even before the advent of information technology. People from different cultures tend to misunderstand each other's behaviour and hence come to distrust one another."

Hofstede believes that new communication technologies are not specifically designed to overcome these problems and can have an adverse effect. One of the workshop participants, Rhodora Gonzalez from the Philippines has mixed feelings about communicating via computers. Gonzalez, a MSc student in the Geographical Information Systems programme (GIS), thinks that electronic mail can be very effective, since it is cheap and fast. She communicates by E-mail mainly with fellow students, whom she knows personally. An advantage of communicating by E-mail is that I can prepare and anticipate better what I want to say. On the other hand I have also been on-line, chatting directly with people I did not know and then it is very difficult to interpret what they really mean by certain remarks. You have to read between the lines and have to take cultural differences into account."

Indigenous people

Gonzales is working on her thesis, which deals with different perceptions of soil classification. She is trying to link scientific and indigenous perceptions of soil classification, thus applying different cultural frames of reference simultaneously. Indigenous people look at the soil on a day to day basis according to their farming experience. They know which crops to grow on specific soils and they are able to adjust cropping patterns if necessary. Scientists can look at the very same soil but may regard it as a substance, which can undergo physical and chemical analysis, and which can be experimented upon. Gonzales relates how she is trying to combine these two perceptions in applying GIS principles: The final results will be displayed in a soil classification map, so in this case the map will be the media of communication." Gonzales admits that electronic mail is of no use in establishing communication between scientists and indigenous people. Although in this case one can
speak of computer supported cooperative work, an intermediary is necessary in order to link the different perceptions of soil and to transfer the knowledge and information to the beneficiaries. Gonzales indicates that this was an important reason for her to participate in the workshop.


In the workshop, entitled The windmills of our minds, participants are divided into groups. Hofstede distinguishes ten different so-called synthetic cultures. Hofstede developed these imaginary cultures largely on the basis of his father's work. Hofstede Senior analyzed data from a large scale study on work related values of IBM personnel in a range of countries. His main findings were that attitude of people towards their jobs and employers can be classified according to a number of cultural dimensions.

Each team has to act from the point of view of one of the synthetic cultural backgrounds. Each team forms a local branch of a global commercial company, selling energy providing technology. The concept of windmills has been added to the traditional range of products and the local branches are asked to design a communication structure for a sales and maintenance network for these windmills. A consultant from each team has to visit the other teams to exchange experience and information, while still adhering to his/her own cultural background.

The workshop showed clearly that cultural differences indeed affect the process of cooperative design and the choice of communication technology. The meetings between different imaginary cultures induced a sense of culture shock. Finally, differences in power between cultures brought about a one way information flow, which tended to benefit mainly the most powerful culture.

The question was raised as to whether this workshop could be used for new MSc students to aid their acculturation in Wageningen. It was felt, however, that the workshop was designed to experience and perceive differences in culture, and not to further participants' own acculturation processes.