Mindset Diversity and its Influence on Communication
Both in private and public setting, we all face the need to make ourselves understood by others. When thinking about work and business, communication is key in almost every situation. Common examples we can think of are job interviews, results presentation, goals communication, providing feedback, team motivation, group interaction, among others.
This article will provide an overview of the process of communication, barriers that can appear, as well as general tips that all individuals can use when addressing this topic.
What is communication?
Communication can be defined as the exchange of information between two or more people through a specific channel. This information will be coded in a specific way (written, oral, pictorial, etc.) and later decoded by the recipient or recipients. However, it can also be defined as “the process of generating meaning by sending and receiving verbal and nonverbal symbols and signs that are influenced by multiple contexts” (Jones Jr., 2013). This last definition points out one of the aspects that make communication more complex and constitutes one of the main causes for communication failures: meaning generation. According to this definition, we can say that communication is:
- An exchange of ideas that convey a specific meaning for each participant;
- The encounter of two or more mindsets that give concepts, ideas and facts a meaning;
- The codification of a message based on a specific communication code chosen by the emissary that conveys the intended meaning to his/her best knowledge;
- The decodification of a message by the receiver(s) based on their interpretation of the meaning of each element of the code;
- The exchange of feedback between the individual’s participation in the communication situation based on their comprehension of the exchanged message.
This new approach would define effective communication as a correspondence of the meanings attributed by all participants to the ideas being transmitted. Those meanings are defined by what is called interpretative culture: the reference system and meaning attributed to reality, symbols, practices, etc. that also shapes assumptions, expectations and representations.
Why can communication be hard?
The above mentioned definitions represent a new approach that requires moving away from the traditional communication model by Shannon & Weaver (1949), where the focus was on identifying the elements and avoiding noise affecting the channel that enables us to understand individual and group mindsets. Communication barriers therefore arise from factors such as:
- Culture: The context in which we grow up, our experiences, education, relationships and the people we meet shape our cultural mindset, both consciously and unconsciously. This defines how we attribute meaning to symbols, expressions, gestures, non-verbal codes, as well as our expectations of the other people’s reactions, responses, among others (Barmeyer, 2012);
- High vs low context communication: Although this is normally related to nationalities (Nam, 2015), individuals show a preference towards more direct or indirect communication that determines their interpretation of the message transmitted. High context communication is based on a holistic consideration of verbal and non-verbal communication and relies deeply on the individuals prior knowledge. Low context communication aims at expressing most of the transmitted ideas explicitly with little to no room for further interpretations;
- Nationality: Strongly related to culture, the country were individuals are born and raised can also influence the way they communicate. Some nationalities are used to accompanying verbal oral communication with non-verbal elements that can emphasize or even contradict the verbal message, whereas others disregard these elements completely (Lewis, 2006);
- Profession: An individual’s profession or occupation can shape for example the language he/she uses and therefore act as a barrier when faced with other professionals that do not share this specific vocabulary (Piekkari, Welch, & Welch, 2014). Moreover, there is a difference in expectations in each profession, such as what is understood as respect, or the level of formality is appropriate.
- Gender: Although for some individuals, this might seem irrelevant, some cultures and countries expect specific behaviors towards gender (Pafford & Schaefer, 2017). They vary from physical or eye contact, or permission to speak to woman/man, to using what is called as “inclusive language” which can represent communication guidelines or local linguistic variations used in order to not offend specific groups. In some cultures, it can also shape priorities or expectations, for example women are expected to care more on life quality or be less competitive than men; or men are expected to be less inclined to show emotions. Although making assumptions on these topics might sound as discrimination to some cultures, it can unconsciously influence expectations.
- Generation: Differences in age can shape for example expectations related to work-life balance or the level of formality in a specific situation or relationship (Jones, Murray, & Tapp, 2018).
Why can it go wrong?
Differences in participant’s mindsets can shape how verbal and non-verbal elements are perceived. Here are some examples on how different factors can be perceived differently by individuals:
- Perceptions: Opinions, conclusions, relevance and expected consequences can differ from individual to individual. Perception biases can limit or distort the impression of certain facts or information by for example, putting more focus on theory confirming items and disregarding contradictory information; risk adversity can condition the urgency towards a decision given the same facts; professional knowledge and experience can limit or increase the emotional reaction towards certain circumstances; among others;
- Direct vs indirect communication: Differences in the level of interpretation of a certain message can lead to misunderstanding by reading, disregarding or misinterpreting contextual factors;
- Word choice: The words and specific terms chosen by individuals can have positive impressions on others, such as sounding extremely professional by using specific words, or can make communication unclear if the other participants do not share the vocabulary insight. Choosing phrases and words that aim at showing honesty, humility or willingness to learn can be perceived also as a lack of experience; whereas being firm and sharing much detail on experiences and knowledge can be perceived as too ambitious.
- Language: For native speakers, regional differences can lead to misunderstandings. For non-native speakers, it can be even more complicated, since language is also strongly linked to culture and some words, though linguistically objective, can have negative connotations or touch culturally sensitivities unintentionally.
- Tone: The tone of the voice is linked to emotions. Either unintentionally, like nervousness or anger, or intentionally, such as speaking in a louder and emphatic manner to transmit confidence. However, it can also trigger emotions on the individual receiving the message or be interpreted as the wrong emotion. Speaking loudly can for example be perceived as excitement or anger; speaking softly can be perceived as nervousness, calm or insecurity.
- Silence: Some individuals perceive silence as something negative, uncomfortable or as a synonym of insecurity. As a consequence, they leave little to no silent time when communicating. This can be perceived as overwhelming or disrespectful by others. Some cultural mindsets consider silence to be a sign of respect and of thoughtful consideration of the spoken word.
- Interruptions: Some cultures consider interruptions or comments that overlap with what the other is saying a sign of strong interest, while others perceive it as rude. The same applies to questions during presentations, as some might perceive this interruptions as a strong interest in further understanding the concept, while others as a lack of respect towards the speaker.
- Speech speed: An individual that speaks at a fast pace can be perceived differently based on the receiver’s experiences. It can be interpreted as nervous, insecure, professional, enthusiastic or it can be simply overwhelming to the receiver.
- Gestures: Accompanying the spoken words with body gestures or body expressions is expected for some cultures, while others might feel they are distracting. The absence of gestures can have a similar effect on those individuals that expect them.
Tips on preparing for communication
All the above mentioned factors and barriers give evidence to the complexity of communication. However, since communication is an essential part of our professional life, it can be really useful to have some simple tips at hand that can help us overcome some of the obstacles that may arise:
- Do your homework: Research the cultural mindset of your communication partner, try to have a first impression of the expectations, experiences and perception framework of the person or people you will be communicating with;
- Clarify the rules: Set premises for questions (for example if they can be asked at any time or if there will be time at the end), feedback (if people should interrupt when something in unclear) and emotion (being transparent on the emotion you are trying to convey to avoid misunderstandings)
- Get the right attitude: Show strong positive approach towards “getting the message through”, delineating channels and timing for feedback and further questions.
- Set an objective: Structure the speech around an objective “what do you want to accomplish?” (convince, impress, inform…)
Questions brought up during the Webinar
How does the Halo effect communication?
The halo effect is a type of cognitive bias. We mentioned previously that the perception bias can affect the way we see the world and perceive facts and ideas. In the same way, the halo effect can influence communications positively or negatively. A positive impression of an individual or group can lead us to focus on the positive sides of the message being communicated, have a more positive emotional reaction, or even take the negative elements as a good point without even questioning them. On the contrary, if a person is perceived negatively, even a positive idea being communicated can be perceived as negative or trigger skepticism or even disbelief. Simultaneously, it can also influence the participants predisposition or receptiveness to communication. An individual can start a communication with the premise that he/she will not be understood or that he/she will be received with enthusiasm, depending on the cognitive bias.
Biases are most commonly unconscious. It is then that they cause the barriers to communication. If they are consciously perceived, individuals can try to compensate their effect by being highly aware of their emotional reactions and behaviors.
How to handle emotions in communication?
Stress, conflict and tiredness, among other factors, can influence our emotions. And these are closely linked to our communication style. Emotional intelligence (EQ) helps us keep emotions at an adequate level so that they don’t get in the way of getting the message across, but present so that the individual is not completely detached. Finding the right balance requires high EQ, both from the individual transmitting the message, as well as those receiving.
From the one transmitting the message, it is about developing better awareness of both their own and the other’s emotions in other to keep the right internal balance or helping others to keep it. This might imply all sorts of actions, from adapting the communication style, body language, voice tone or speed, to even interrupting the communication to gather control of emotional reactions (both own and other’s).
Although EQ has been recognized to be an essential skill in the workplace, not all individuals have the same skill level. So the question for the ones receiving a message can be how to help keep the other’s emotions under control. Sometimes pointing out the fact that he/she is being carried away by emotion can be uncomfortable or inadequate. However, one thing an individual can do is prevent his/her own emotions as a receiver under control. Emotions feed themselves on the other’s emotions. Consequently, by not letting those same feelings arise in ourselves, we help prevent the other’s emotions from spiraling out of control.
In conclusion, we can state that communication is between different mindsets and therefore needs more consideration than just focusing on the channel to get the message across and confirming its arrival. Getting closer to “the other” diminishes the chance of miscommunication, since the better our understanding of how the receiver will receive the message is, the more accurately we can choose how to code the ideas to successfully get them across. It is also essential to overcome our fear of being honest about emotions, perceptions and setting “general rules” to communication in order for them not to block communication.
Further reading recommendations:
- CommunicationTheory.org Cross Cultural Communication https://www.communicationtheory.org/cross-cultural-communication/
- Harvard Business Review Cross-Cultural Communication Takes More than Manners https://hbr.org/2012/08/cross-cultural-communication-takes-more
- University of South Florida Emotional Intelligence in the Workplace http://www.woodassociates.net/FAP/Newsletters/Search/PDF/FAP%20August%202013%207_23_13.pdf
- Petrovici, Amalia & Dobrescu, Tatiana The role of emotional intelligence in building interpersonal communication skills https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1877042814004236
- Cherry, Kendra Why the Halo Effect Influences How We Perceive Others. https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-the-halo-effect-2795906
- Shinners, Erin Effects of The “What is Beautiful is Good” Stereotype on Perceived Trustworthiness. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/7160/98753efcc6b6a96a959a7913c4acd9ad968a.pdf
- UN Gender Inclusive language https://www.un.org/en/gender-inclusive-language/guidelines.shtml
Nationalities and Gestures:
- Business Insider - The shocking differences in basic body language around the world https://www.businessinsider.com/body-language-around-the-world-2015-3?IR=T
- The New York Times - When Italians Chat, Hands and Fingers Do the Talking https://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/01/world/europe/when-italians-chat-hands-and-fingers-do-the-talking.html
Tips on communication with diverse mindsets:
- Harvard Business School – Seven ways to better communicate in today’s diverse workplace https://hbswk.hbs.edu/archive/seven-ways-to-better-communicate-in-today-s-diverse-workplace-seven-tips-for-communicating-in-today-s-diverse-workplace
- Barmeyer, C. (2012). Context Matters: Zur Bedeutung von Rekontextualisierung für den Internationalen Transfer von Personalmanagementpraktiken. En V. Stein, & S. Müller, Aufbruch des strategischen Personalmanagements in die Dynamisierung (págs. 101-115). Baden-Baden: Nomos.
- Jones Jr., R. G. (2013). Communication in the Real World: An Introduction to Communication Studies. Boston: FlatWorld.
- Jones, J. S., Murray, S. R., & Tapp, S. R. (2018). Generational Differences in the Workplace. Journal of Business Diversity, 88-98.
- Lewis, R. D. (2006). When Cultures Collide: Leading Accross Cultures. Boston / London: Nicholas Brealey International.
- Nam, K. A. (2015). High-context and low-context communication. En J. M. Bennett, The SAGE Encyclopedia of Intercultural Competence (págs. 377-381). Thousand Oaks: Sage Publication, Inc.
- Pafford, S., & Schaefer, T. (2017). Women at Work and Business Leadership Effectiveness. Journal of Organizational Culture, Communications and Conflict, 5-8.
- Piekkari, R., Welch, D., & Welch, L. S. (2014). Language in international business: The multilingual reality of global business expansion. Cheltenhamm/Northampton: Edward Elgar.
Nov 2019 - 10 min read
Prof. Tamara Pawluk
Tamara is a professor in Intercultural Business Management and is finishing her PhD Thesis on Diversity Best Business Practices. She gained her practical experience as Talent Manager for IT Professionals at Accenture. In her role as the Head of Freelancer Management at expertlead Tamara is using her combined 11 years of university teaching and practical experience to support our freelancers in their career in the best possible way.