Craig Storti (Morocco 1970-72) is a nationally known expert in the field of intercultural communications and cross-cultural adaptation. He is Director of Communicating Across Cultures. Internationally known as an expert in intercultural communications and cross-cultural adaptation, he is the author of many books, including Culture Matters, a cross-cultural workbook used by the U.S. government in over 90 countries. He is also the author of a book read by many PCVs, The Art of Crossing Cultures. Craig’s most recent book is Why Travel Matters: A Guide to the Life-Changing Effects of Travel, reviewed on this site.. He has lived nearly a quarter of his life abroad—with extended stays in Moslem, Hindu, and Buddhist cultures—and speaks French, Arabic, and Nepali.
In his interview with Forbes Magazine, Laura Brown asked: What does the rest of the business world think of U.S. communication style? And how can U.S.-based businesses communicate productively with their global partners? As business becomes ever more globalized, the ability to work productively with people from other cultures is becoming an asset for individuals and a competitive advantage for organizations. Craig Storti, a nationally known expert in intercultural communications and the founder of Communicating Across Cultures, specializes in designing and delivering seminars in intercultural communications, cross-cultural business dynamics, expatriation and repatriation, cultural diversity and managing the multicultural/global workforce for clients in government, business, the military and education. In this interview, Craig draws on over 30 years of helping business people to offer some unexpected insights about communicating across borders.
In particular, U.S.-based business people might be surprised to learn that despite the dominance of American business, American-style directness is not considered the global standard in business communication , and that, for example, Chinese and Indians will typically have an easier time communicating with each other than communicating with Americans. It’s food for thought if you’re working with colleagues or partners from overseas.
Laura Brown: How did you get into the business of facilitating understanding and communication between U.S. and overseas business people?
Craig Storti: I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco and then worked for the Peace Corps headquarters in Washington. I wrote a book—The Art of Crossing Cultures—and got some work with government agencies (the FAA, the State Department), and then the business community started asking for this kind of training.
Laura Brown: What are some of the most disastrous consequences of failed cross-cultural miscommunication you’ve heard about?
Craig Storti: The Daimler-Chrysler unsuccessful merger is commonly attributed largely to German-US cultural differences. German bluntness did not go down so well with Americans who, though relatively direct themselves (vis-a-vis many cultures), nevertheless tend to sugarcoat negative feedback. Americans found the Germans rude, and Germans found the Americans dishonest and unprofessional when they soft-pedaled critical feedback. Another German-U.S. example occurred when Walmart in Germany insisted store employees be informal, chatty, let’s-be-friends and otherwise insincere (as Germans saw it) in interacting with customers. “In Germany we go into a shop to make a purchase,” one German said, “not to make a friend.”
It’s not a business example, but a famous instance of failed cross-cultural communication occurred during the Korean War. The Brits were allies with the U.S., and at one point a large British unit was completely surrounded by Chinese and North Koreans, and the British general in charge radioed to the Americans that he was in “a bit of trouble.” (He probably said, “a spot of bother.”) “A bit of trouble” didn’t sound so bad to the Americans, so they bided their time. By the time the urgency was communicated to them, the situation had deteriorated drastically, and the British had to fight their way out.
Laura Brown: Does this kind of miscommunication cost companies money?
Craig Storti: In even the best cases, miscommunication causes confusion, and confusion very often leads to delays (you can certainly put a price on those) or mistakes (which can be costly to correct). Miscommunication also leads to mistrust and bad feelings; there may not be a direct cost here, but there are many indirect costs that can ultimately undermine successful cooperation and, in the worst cases, give doing business with “foreigners” a bad name. The cost there is missed opportunities.
Laura Brown: It seems to me that in the past the expectation was that overseas business people would conform to US communication norms. To what extent do you think that U.S. communication standards are now global standards?
Craig Storti: If you’re talking about U.S. communication style—direct, informal, non-hierarchical, devoid of face-saving considerations, characterized by the inability to read between the lines, bereft of understatement—then U.S. communication standards are shared and readily understood by only a handful of other countries: the other northern European cultures (the Germans, the Dutch, the Scandinavians) and the other Anglo cultures (U.K., Australia, New Zealand and Canada). Most of the rest of the world—the Mediterranean, Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa, Asia Pacific and Latin America—while they may understand and expect those behaviors on the part of Americans, do not observe those norms themselves and don’t use them with each other. They are more like each other in these respects than any of them is like the U.S. Put another way, an Indian and a Chinese or a Brazilian and an Indonesian probably have to make very few adjustments to communicate successfully with each other, but with Americans the learning curve is steep and the room for mistakes is great. And mistakes have consequences.
Laura Brown: Do you think Americans are more sensitive than they used to be to different cultural norms?
Hmm. I had to think about this one. My first thought was, “of course; they have to be.” My second thought was, “they had better be, but I’m not sure they are.” To the extent Americans have had significant experience working with other nationalities, they have at the very least been exposed to different cultural norms. But to my mind it’s an open question whether they have reached the point where they are actually sensitive to them, sensitive in the sense of “we need to respect these differences and adjust our behavior accordingly,” or whether they are merely more aware but not happy about it. I guess this is all another way of saying that while exposure to cultural differences is a necessary condition to being sensitive, it is not sufficient.
Laura Brown: What are some of the major considerations U.S. business people should be aware of when communicating with their overseas counterparts?
Craig Storti: The biggest considerations revolve around the need to be more indirect with most other cultures (except the other Northern European ones and the Anglo ones). In the Asia-Pacific region in particular, face-saving is a paramount value, and American directness—telling it like it is, meaning what you say, and saying what you mean—doesn’t go down well. In those cultures negative or critical feedback, for example, takes the form of saying something neutral or not saying anything positive (or even simply changing the subject), but it does not involve saying something negative. Anther common difference is saying “no” without using the word “no,” such as giving a conditional or qualified yes or saying something lukewarm, like “very interesting.” I once asked a group of Indians what they thought of the word “no.” “No is very harsh” was their reply. “So what do you say instead?” I asked. “We usually say ‘yes.’”
Laura Brown: Do you find that overseas business people try to meet their U.S. counterparts halfway?
Craig Storti: More so than Americans do. But then people with cultural awareness, with considerable exposure to cultural difference, have enough experience to know enough to meet most people halfway, not just Americans.
Laura Brown: Let’s talk specifically about writing now. With the rise of global virtual teams, it’s very possible that the primary contact you’ll have with your colleagues will be in writing. What are the special challenges of maintaining a business relationship with overseas business people through written communication?
Craig Storti: Personally, I think it’s very hard to establish good working relationships through writing, through email, I mean, or text messaging, or the other forms of written communication. Those forms are good for executing tasks and clarifying things, but not for getting to know someone else. In my trainings I always encourage people to use the telephone, Skype and video-conferencing to get a better sense of the other person and for them to get a better sense of you.
If you do have to rely mainly on written communication, the best advice I can give is to try to mirror the level of formality and other communication norms you detect in the other person’s written communication. That’s what they’re used to, obviously, so if you can communicate in similar fashion, that should stand you in good stead.
Laura Brown: What habits should U.S. business writers try to change if they want to communicate effectively with overseas counterparts?
- Dial back the enthusiasm; it’s seen as insincere.
- Dial back the chronic American optimism; try to be realistic; optimism comes across as naivete in many cultures.
- In many cultures, people don’t do business with strangers. You are a stranger by definition when you first approach folks, so take advantage of every opportunity to let them get to know you, especially those “down” times when you’re not “doing business” per se. Those are the interactions that matter.
Laura Brown: Are there words or phrases that Americans should avoid writing to overseas business people?
Craig Storti: Just be careful of colloquial expressions, things like piece of cake, out on a limb, off the wall, up a creek, the last straw, sit on the fence, up in the air. People may know the individual words, the parts, but when they are used together in these expressions, the meaning of the expression bears no relationship to what the words mean by themselves. The parts, in short, don’t add up to the whole. And people either will not ask you what these expressions mean or they’ll get tired of doing so after awhile.
Laura Brown: For a U.S. company just starting to work with partners in other parts of the world, what’s the most important thing to do communication-wise?
Craig Storti: Be less direct.
Laura Brown: What’s something people often get wrong about Americans?
Craig Storti: Americans have a reputation of being arrogant, of thinking their way is the best way. While some Americans may be like that, most Americans, with limited exposure to other cultures, think their way is the only way. That sounds terrible at first blush, but what it really means is that Americans are naïve, even a bit ignorant, but they really aren’t all that arrogant. To be sure, they will be surprised to learn there are other ways, but they are often very open to them. Just show them how your way works, and they’ll pay very close attention. At the end of the day it’s much easier to deal with people who are naïve, even ignorant, than with people who won’t listen. Americans will listen.