The problem appeared when Charles Foster received an unexpected offensive call from Ahmed Hassan, his counterpart in the Joint Venture (JV) which is based in France. Foster described that Hassan yelled at him for what seemed like an eternity during the phone call. However, the trigger of the problem had already started from a couple days before the incident happened. It started when Foster sent an email to his direct supervisor, Richard “Dick” Howe regarding the problems he encountered with the inventory. Dick responded by sending an email to the Head of Strategic Business in France, Maurice LeBlanc, and asking for help to follow up the JV. Maurice directly sent an email to Hassan to clarify items those were written in the email. Hassan, who seemingly found this email as offensive, called Foster as a response.
In this particular case, all the communication held are a non-face to face communication among parties who have different cultural backgrounds. The case has successfully captured not only issues in multicultural communication but also within the channels of communication especially those that involved internet as a medium. Hall (1976) emphasized that communication is culture and culture is communication. Communication involves five important phases: encoding, sending, receiving, decoding, and feedback. Although the phases of communication are constant across culture (Gibson, 1997), communication in culturally specific (Vernes, 1988). Research found that most of intercultural communication are most evident in the first two phases of communication phases during which messages are constructed and transmitted (Eaerly & Erez, 1997). It is also suggested that intercultural understanding at the latter phase of communication can reduce the variances in meaning at the latter stage. Although it has been taken for over 30 years ago, Hofstede's work on culture and social richness is a useful approach to analyse this case. To be more specific, we also need to identify the effects of culture in diffusion on digitalized communication.
Assumptions & Interpretations
Given Foster's reaction, he clearly did not understand the problem nor did he aware when it started. He assumed that he did nothing wrong up until he received the call from Hassan. He only did what he normally did. However, it became abnormal when it involved other parties from a different culture with different norms. American culture is masculine, individualistic with low power distance (Hofstede, 1980). It was reflected in how Foster, an American, composed his email. Foster's email to Howe contained some key important messages which were being delivered in an informal way. Having come from an individualistic culture, Foster tend to use an explicit word such as “strongly”. He regarded his boss with his nickname emphasised Foster is coming from a lower distance culture and had previously built an informal communication with his boss. It is proposed by Eaerly & Erez (1997) that person from a country with low power distance tends to use an informal channel of communication rather than formal way. They tend to break the hierarchy and use personal judgment as a basis for communication. Part of Foster's individual judgement without further confirmation was reflected on his assumption on how “manufacturing does not believe in the forecast made by marketing” and his assumption towards “JV that is not cooperative”. Thus, it appeared that Foster's intention was to report his concern and consult the issues with his boss. He meant what it was written in the email and looked forward to having feedback from his boss. A person from a country that emphasis in masculinity like the United States, constructs messages in more rational content than emotional content (Eaerly & Erez, 1997).
Nevertheless, it cannot be ignored that Foster worked in Sales Department. He was responsible for the sales target of the product but he potentially could not achieve his target if the JV failed to support him with sufficient inventory and good quality product. His concern was suggested in the end of his email that he feels uneasy that they could not achieve the top line while the current sales level could not be satisfied. He felt the urgency to communicate this matters to his boss as part of his responsibility. Therefore, any delays or shortfalls in projection had rational explanations. Foster's action is justified by Hall (2000) that in a monochromic time management like in the US, “time is money” in which they … This urgency is also rationalised by the fact that in a low context system, power is diffused throughout the system (Hall, 1976). Thus, accuses are often found in the low level of the organization (Hall, 1976). The content of Foster's email most probably be clouded by his self interest.
Moreover, Foster failed to understand the sensitivity of writing an electronic email. The word “Scary” and “Frustrating” reflects exaggeration in his email. Despite his personal relationship with his boss, he should have been aware that an electronic communication can be shared, copied, printed, and obviously forwarded to any parties, known or unknown by the sender (Herschel & Andrews, 1997). The way he emphasis the urgency by writing “THIS IS SCARY” would potentially lead to misinterpretation. It is important to note that a sender has to avoid the usage of capital letter or bold because the receiver can interpret the message as an offense (Herschel &Andrews, 1997).
The next recipient, Howe received the email with minimal bias given the fact that they are coming from a similar cultural background and have informal communication outside the office. As Gibson (1997) has discussed in his research that culture similarity between sender and receiver encourages successful communication at each phase of the process. Although it was not clearly stated in the case, I assume Howe did not put Foster in the email loop so he (Foster) lost track of the development of his report. Eventually, Foster left stunned by the sudden call which he could have anticipated if he was being copied in the email. I believe this loop hole as a major setback on the communication among people in this particular case. It would be even better if Howe have notified Foster by email that he would communicate the concern to Headquarter.
Howe, being accommodating to his subordinate, sent a follow up email to his counterpart who he believed was the correct person as a facilitator with the JV. Howe who held a senior position in a French company seemed to understand that politeness is important in correspondence with a French. The French emphasize clarity, precision, audience, politeness, and avoidance of superlatives (Varnes, 1988). Howe also followed the business conduct in the USA to avoid using negative words in the ending of the message (Varnes, 1988). Even though he delivered a negative message to LeBlanc, he shifted the negativity by ending the email with a “thank you”.
After receiving the email from Howe, LeBlanc seeks for clarification from his subordinates in regards to the news. LeBlanc perhaps rationale the email as serious when a subordinate point several issues directly to his superior like what Foster had done. In communication, the French come to the point more directly, and they usually come to the point in the first sentence (Vernes, 1988). It is clearly seen from LeBlanc email which directly point the issues without any flowery words like what his fellow colleague from American would do. However, there was perhaps also emotional judgments in the email. LeBlanc might hold subjectivity and stereotypes about Americans.
Ahmed Hassan, President of the JV, has been raised in the Middle East, and based in France. Being lived in France, I assume that Hassan has already accustomed to how direct the French communicate in email especially in delivering a bad news. However, we cannot neglect the fact that Hassan grew up in Arabian society who tend to have high context communication. Although originally LeBlanc's intention was only to clarify, Hassan analysed the email more deeply. It was a red flag for him.
Then Hassan continue to scroll down and found Foster's email. Although both American culture and French culture are individualistic (Hofstede, 1980), it is important to put into a note that the French have fairly high power distance whereas Americans holds low power distance based on Hofstede's scale. On the other hand, the Middle East also lies on the high power distance scale. It justifies Hassan's response to Foster. Hassan viewed Foster's attitude which directly send the email to his boss complaining about his (Hassan) work was unacceptable. He felt accused of being not deliver any progress. Foster's email was long and full of complaints about the JV. Pointing at JV weaknesses meant that Foster was pointing at him, too. He was “losing face” (Nelson, 1997) in front of his boss and counterparts. The email indirectly sent a signal that Hassan was incapable of follow the procedure and manage his work. In Hassan's assumption, it can ruin his credibility in his boss' eyes.
Hassan perhaps took Foster's email more seriously than what it was originally intended. He possibly felt unfairly judged without knowing the context of the problem. And what's with the capital letters? Hassan probably assumed that Foster was “yelling” at him (Preece, 2004). Foster appeared to be a bossy and conceited American. Hassan could perceive the content of the email as full of arrogance and exaggeration. Hassan, who was raised in a collectivist society, tends to use high context communication (Hall, 1976). He expects formal interaction, contextual, and general overview to digest the information. Without cues of context, Hassan failed to interpret a full meaning of Foster's email. Ghanem et al (2013) points out that communication through online environment in Middle East society still relies on collectivist style.
However, despite the culture background, use of technology has changed the way people interact. Technology has helped companies gain efficiency and effectiveness in communication regardless physical being of the communicators (Herschel & Andrews, 1997). Lack of social and power cues, that people from a high context culture needs to interpret the message, could be the source of miscommunication. Furthermore, people need to be more culturally sensitive in communicating through electronic devices (Herschel & Andrews, 1997).
My first advise to Foster would be to relax. A reactive response absolutely will not minimize the conflict that might happen caused by intercultural miscommunication like what happen in Foster case. Eaerly & Erez (1997) summarized that there are three approaches that can minimize intercultural communication challenges: active listening, framing, and follow up. Those approaches needs to be done in a natural way with minimal hesitation to be especially effective (Eaerly & Erez, 1997).
Furthermore, Foster must assume that there must have been a misunderstanding. It can be started by active listening. Sometime a misunderstanding cannot be rationale and sound illogical at the first place. It needs sometime to absorb the other party's meaning and feeling. Thus, empathy is an important “tool” in intercultural miscommunication. Secondly, Foster has to accept that the misunderstanding is also part of his mistake. It will avoid defensive mechanism and endless arguments.
Check and balance is also important. Foster has to set a time to talk to Hassan, LeBlanc, and Howe to clarify his initial intention of sending the email. After the meeting, he would need to send a follow up email about the feedback under a term that would have been agreed by the parties. It is important because above the communication issues, there is company's interest that needs to be adhered.
To avoid similar case in the future, I would also propose a more transparent e-mail communication to make sure that people who are included in the email can have full chronology of the situation. Internet is a borderless and limitless “universe”. It can be your best friend or worst enemy. Regardless the cultural background, sender in electronic communication must be able to put themselves in person shoes and go a few steps ahead to make sure that there is no confidential nor offensive matters are written in the email. In this digitalized era, the bias in intercultural communication can be overlapped by the ignorance of senders
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Hofstede, G. (1980). Motivation, leadership, and organization: do American theories apply abroad?. Organizational dynamics, 9(1), 42-63.
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