The country rooster does not crow in the town: communication with foreign nationals in the American workforce

Jimmy B. Foster, P.E.
Director of Public Works
City of Plano, Texas
Member, APWA Government Affairs Committee
President-Elect, APWA Texas Chapter

"I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am." - J.S. Mbiti

  Mud huts in a small village in West Africa

It was hot—unbearably hot—as Steve drove the Toyota van along the red dirt roads in the "bush" of West Africa. It was that time of year—the dry season—and it had been four months since the last rain fell on this parched land. Steve, however, was thinking more about his employeesthe fifteen nationals who worked at the project site where several earthen dams were being built.

The fifteen employees had done an excellent job in taking care of the numerous American volunteers who operated the bulldozers, drove the trucks, and provided much of the technical work on these much-needed water projects. This afternoon, Steve was planning to express his appreciation to the employees. As Steve approached the compound, he recalled an earlier effort at praising his employees. Knowing that American employees liked to be praised in front of their peers, Steve had praised his African employees in a similar manner. Big mistake! To be culturally acceptable among the people of this West African tribe, criticism or praise should be given privately. Having learned that lesson, Steve knew that his afternoon would be full as he devoted the proper amount of time to each employee in a private setting.

While group communication is generally adopted in most western-based business cultures, such communication with employees from foreign cultures can be misunderstood, can be viewed as favoritism, and can be slowed by a reluctance to formally criticize a subordinate. How should employees of foreign ethnicity be treated in the United States of America? In 2004, in the engineering sector alone, 46 percent of master's degrees and 57 percent of the doctoral degrees were awarded to foreign nationals. The number of foreign nationals enrolled in undergraduate engineering programs in the U.S. has been slowly increasing. Enrollment increases are occurring in many individual engineering disciplines; the largest increases have been in bio-engineering in recent years. Foreign national enrollments in engineering as a whole have been in the range of six to seven percent for almost a quarter of a century. You may have several or many foreign nationals in your current workforce. Foreign-born workers make up almost thirteen percent of the U.S. workforce. How are you handling praise, criticism and discipline? It may not be as simple as you think.

Direct communication is difficult for members of many cultures. Many West African tribes generally adopt an indirect approach to problem solving to avoid the possibility of confrontation and the disruption of community harmony. The preservation of such community harmony is seen as a prime cultural value and one often having priority over work performance. During the author's years in West Africa, it was common that requests on behalf of a national would be made through an intermediary. It was also expected that, if the response was to be a negative one, the answer would be "I'll think about it" or some other non-committal response. Also in many cultures, a problem situation is addressed as soon as possible, albeit in an indirect and non-blame-pointing way, and then forgotten. To bring the subject up again at some later time could be considered inappropriate.

What about the annual performance appraisal? George B. Whitfield, III, in an article entitled "Do as I say, not as I do: Annual Performance Appraisal and Evaluation in Indonesia," stated that a supervisor might expect accusations of being arbitrary and unfair if the performance appraisal process is tied to salary increases:

Such performance-based bonuses or salary increases are pretty much in direct opposition to the Indonesian business values of the group working together and maintaining office harmony. Traditionally, the ideal Indonesian employee is one who is loyal to the boss for a long time. In other words, loyalty and seniority are the prime attributes, and by loyalty, I mean personal allegiance to the boss, not to the corporate entity. Pointing out a specific employee and emphasizing the fact that he is superior to and a better employee than those he or she works with on a daily basis is going to be disruptive to the office and embarrassing to the individual.

For instance, if you have an annual office party or awards dinner for your staff and you say something like: "Now here is Budi who outperformed everyone else in our office and we are giving him a new TV." The polite clapping of his coworkers is going to be overshadowed by thoughts of "traitor" and plots for revenge against the award winner. If you bring up another employee and say "Now here is Bambang who has worked for our company for 10 years and we are giving him a new TV," Bambang will bask in the limelight and his coworkers will no doubt truly admire his accomplishment. The difference being that Bambang was rewarded for seniority, while Budi was rewarded for violating basic Indonesian business values.

The recognition of diversity is a key element of cross-cultural communication. Remember, communication does not take place unless the receiver understands what is being communicated. Therefore, feedback is important. How does the foreign national working for you best receive communication? Written or verbal? Direct or indirect? Does your communication style utilize jargon and slang? Are your international employees receiving adequate training? If you've ever found yourself in a cross-cultural setting, you know the importance of training, even repetitive training. Learning another culture, yes, even the American culture, can be a lifetime endeavor.

How can you remove the barriers that interfere with communication?

  • Focus on listening, not talking. Be patient: Working in an intercultural environment can be a frustrating affair. Things may not get done when expected, communication can be tiresome and behavior may be inappropriate.

  • Communicate clearly, slowly, and with a sense of diplomacy.

  • Respect: The foundation of all intercultural communication is respect. By demonstrating respect you earn respect and help create more open and fruitful relationships.

  • Foreign accents or poor grammar should not cause you to prejudge.

  • Establish Rules: Sometimes if working in a truly intercultural team, it may be necessary for all to take a step back and set down some ground rules, i.e., how do we approach punctuality, meetings, communication, e-mails and disagreements? It is always a good idea to try and develop the rules as a group rather than have them imposed.

  • Get feedback. Ask questions that will generate responses that indicate understanding. Asking questions stops you from making assumptions, shows the questioned that you did not understand them and helps build up your bank of intercultural knowledge.

  • Much of your communication may need to be in writing. Sometimes people who do not have English as their mother tongue will read more proficiently than they speak. It is a good idea to always write things down as a backup.

  • When conflicts arise, the problem may result from style rather than content. Strive for understanding. How you say something may be more important than what you say.

  • Investigate their culture's perception of your culture by reading literature about your culture through their eyes before entering into communication with them.

Communication can be one of the major problems in businesses today, and it can be exacerbated by the blending of different cultures. Emmanuel Ngomsi states,

Each of us views the world through "cultural lenses" constructed by us or imposed on us by society. Most of the time, we are not aware of our lenses. Most important, we forget to recognize that others wear lenses too; and that their lenses may be different than ours. Eye contact, physical distance during interactions, handshake styles and even a "yes" response can vary by culture. The first and major step toward successful interaction with others whose lenses are different from our own is to become aware of the presence and the impact of these lenses in our daily attitudes and professional behaviors.

Diversity is the similarities, as well as the differences, among and between individuals at all levels of the organization, and in society at large. Joel Barker, the author of several books about paradigms, has stated that diversity of thought presents an environment in which innovation and creativity take place. It is, therefore, our responsibility to use this diversity to improve our quality of life, to solve problems, and to create relationships that benefit everyone involved.

Living in a new or different culture, not being fully proficient in the language, and lacking knowledge of that culture's values and norms can cause one to be silent or withdrawn, perhaps to a fault. It's important that the employee working in a new culture be encouraged to ask questions. This article began with the Swahili proverb: "The country rooster does not crow in the town." That is to say in part, "The person in the new culture will be hesitant to speak." Encourage conversation and communication. You'll be surprised at how much you can learn.

Note: Please be careful in the use of this information. Do not use it to stereotype any employees or acquaintances. Each of us has his own abilities to adapt to a new culture. Some will adapt much more quickly; others will adapt much more slowly, even with great difficulty. Just as it is important for the American who is entering a new culture to recognize his tendencies, capabilities, and the historical influence of his culture, it is also necessary for us to remember that foreign workers in the U.S. will have those same strengths and weaknesses.

Jimmy Foster has visited and worked in 57 countries, advising overseas personnel regarding humanitarian projects and assisting in the development of disaster relief plans around the world. He can be reached at (972) 769-4128 or jimmyf@plano.gov.