“You got the point?”: Thoughts on culture and (mis)communication

The root cause of project failure is (mis)communication.

How many times have you heard, read, or said that?

Among causes like poor product quality, unclear project objectives or scope, and changing business needs, most project managers (PMs) would list poor communication, especially in a client-vendor relationship, as a major source of project stress and ultimate failure. But, is it true? Is communication really the problem? The root cause? Or is it something deeper?

Communication is little more than the transmission of signs and symbols. Culture imbues those symbols with meaning. Even people speaking the same language do not necessarily share a common culture. For example, many consider the US and Britain “two countries separated by a common language.” When we talk about cross-cultural communication that bridges political or geographical boundaries, we expect breakdowns. Recent management studies have tackled how culture affects projects that span those borders.

I have been thinking a lot about cross-cultural communication lately. After all, I am living in another culture and constantly communicating. As an expat, I find myself surrounded by people from many cultural backgrounds. The American Women’s Club has members from over 28 countries. English is not always the first language. Add to that mix Indians and their typical polyglot of at least three languages, and communication becomes complicated.

Last week, after an unusual conversation with Jude, I started thinking about communication and culture at a deeper level. When I first arrived in India, and workers would come to the flat, Jude would say, “Leave the door open.” I would do that. Jude has not said that in a long time. But, last week, we needed a plumber to caulk the tub. Jude found a guy, brought him to house, and showed him what needed to be done. The guy said he could do it that day, but needed to get supplies. OK. No problem. The plumber would return by 5 pm that evening before Brian returned from work. Before he left, Jude asked the plumber to wait outside.

Jude closed the door and said, “When this guy comes back, keep the door open.”

“OK,” I said.

The plumber went off to find the caulk, and Jude went to pick up Brian at work. Jude called me about 30 minutes later, after he had reached the office.

“Ma’am, when that guy comes back, be sure to leave the door to the flat open. While he is working, stay where you can see him. If he comes back with another guy, make the second guy wait downstairs and call security. Have security come on top and stay with you while they are here. You got the point?”

“Yes, Jude, I’ve got the point.”

What was Jude’s point? Well, without putting too fine a point on it, he was concerned for my personal safety. Notice that he never explicitly said this. Whether he thought they might rape or rob me, I am not sure, but he wanted to make sure that I knew what to do. He did not say, “Ma’am, be careful.” He did not assume that I knew what to do, so he told me what to do and how to do it. He ran through every possible scenario in his head and determined what my response to each situation should be. He had obviously been thinking about it all the way to Navi Mumbai, and decided that he needed to be clearer about the situation than he had been. It turns out that the plumber did not appear until after 6:30, and by that time Brian was home, rendering the entire conversation moot.

Let’s take this scenario Stateside. First, I would have called the plumber myself. Let’s be honest. Brian would have recaulked the tub himself. End of story. Instead, let’s assume Brian was away on business, and I could not should not did not want to caulk the tub. I would have called someone myself. He would have come out, given me the estimate, and scheduled the work. In a situation like this, that might even have happened over the phone. His first appearance at the house might have been when he showed up to do the work. In the US, we sometimes take our personal safety for granted in a way that we do not in India. It is unlikely that Brian would have been worried about me, but If he had any concerns for my safety in the house alone with a stranger, he would have told me to take proper safety precautions. He would have assumed that I knew what those were. He would not have given me specific instructions about what to do as Jude did. He would have given me a goal (stay safe) and assumed that I knew how to achieve it.

When Americans start working in cross-cultural environments, they often express frustration that they cannot give their Indian counterparts a goal and expect that goal to be achieved. They must instead give the goal and the steps that must be followed along the way. But, what the Americans fail to appreciate is that Indians communicate the same way with other Indians. It is how Jude was communicating with me. There was a clear subtext present in the conversation. What Jude wasn’t saying was as important as what he was. When I first arrived, all I heard was the textual dialogue. I missed the subtext. After some time, I can hear the subtext, too, but it has taken practice. The key to understanding this conversation is context, and context is all about culture. I asked myself why Jude found it necessary to say something to me; it had been so long since he had done so. Surely, he knows that I know the rules about open doors and workers. Then, I realized the context. Sevrine is on holiday. She is not here to ensure my safety; I must do it myself. If we take that exact conversation and relocate it to the US, the textual dialogue would make sense, but the context would not.

In many respects, an organization is a mini-country with its own culture. Even when we are not crossing borders, we must still consider that one organization’s culture affects its communication strategies, objectives, and methodologies. Even the answer to the most basic question asked by a PM at project kickoff, “How do you prefer to communicate (by email, by phone, in person, etc)?” is informed by organizational culture. At a post-mortem for the same project, the question, “Did we communicate effectively with your team?” might be answered by, “No, there was not enough communication about project status.” But, what is “enough”? Were weekly updates not frequent enough? Would the client have preferred a phone call instead? What does it mean to communicate “more” or “effectively” with a client? Sometimes, less is more, and more is itself not always better.

I have written elsewhere about my aversion to the telephone. An aversion that has not improved in India. For cross-cultural teams, Skype, WhatsApp, Google+ Hangout, and other instant messaging and video conferencing platforms with free VOIP can be excellent ways to communicate. These tools help bridge gaps of time and space with little or no corporate spend. Remote workers in the same organization (even those in the same city) have also learned to use these tools to bridge physical distances that did not exist in the workplace before.These new communication tools help us communicate more easily and more frequently, but are we communicating better? These tools alter an organization’s communication culture and represent a fundamental paradigm shift. But, as an editor, I consider impromptu Skype calls the devil. Nothing is more disturbing to my personal workspace as I am trying to make a correction than a giant pop-up blocking half of my screen accompanied by an absurd fake ringing sound. I don’t care who it is; I will decline the call almost every time. I will return the call quickly, but always IM first to make sure a call is OK.

Let’s pretend for a moment that I am the client answering the question, “What is your preferred communication method?”

My answer would be, “Email with WhatsApp.”

Why? Is this simply a personal preference? What does it say about my cultural experience? It seems fairly obvious that someone whose expertise is written communication would prefer written communication like email. Let’s take a deeper look, though. Why is that my preference? Because I like to see what you are saying. On the phone, I only get to hear what you are saying. I have been told that I am a horrible listener. I would make a terrible salesperson. I process information visually. The more I look at something, the better I understand it. Some people prefer to hear information repeated orally. They are the people who taped lectures in college. I am not one of those people. Moreover, with an email, I can respond in written form, which is, after all, my strength.

If you had asked me the same question before I moved to India, I would have listed Skype instead of WhatsApp. Skype is available in India, so why the shift? At their cores, Skype and WhatsApp are the same. They both enable people to instant message. But, where Skype requires an email ID, WhatsApp works using your mobile number. Not everyone in India has email, but everyone (and I mean everyone) has a mobile phone. WhatsApp is used for group conversations in a way that Skype is not here. My yoga teacher uses it to communicate with the class quickly and easily. A local five-star hotel maintains a WhatsApp group of all its employees to quickly transmit business-critical information. Best of all, WhatsApp uses your mobile phone, but it does not count against your SMS or call time. We have already established my dislike of phones. Why the preference for a communication method that relies on phones? Cost. Not mine; everyone else’s. Compared to the whopping $120/month (Rs. 6,600) that I used to spend on my mobile phone, my current fee of less than Rs. 900 ($16/month) is cheap. But, in a country where no one has voicemail, text messages are the best way to send a quick message. WhatsApp is the cheapest, easiest way to send that message.

The plumber scenario teaches us that understanding the cultural system in which communication occurs is critical to successful engagement. We should treat each new foray into a new client relationship like a foray into another country.

The Skype/WhatsApp scenario teaches us that flexibility is critical to successful communication. We must be willing to adapt communication strategies to fit the project’s needs and the client’s culture.

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