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Cross-Cultural Connections Between Latin American And U.S/U.K Managers

People process information, both verbal and non-verbal, based on pre-made assumptions formed by their previous cultural experiences. This is a tricky process even between those from the same cultural background.

When you add a different set of values, attitudes, beliefs, preconceptions, and expectations that are different from those of the sender – the message often becomes distorted in the mind of the recipient.

Communication across cultural as well as language barriers can involve a complex set of judgments  experience and tact. Cultural differences can often cause a great deal of misunderstandings that can lead to damaging outcomes. During Latin Link’s extensive experience working along this cultural divide we have noted the following areas that are often the hidden roots of these misunderstandings.

Context- vs. Content-Focus

Within UK/US business culture there is a strong emphasizes on the what is being said in the communication, the detailed data and facts. This can lead to a literal minded focus, producing mangers that are perceived as direct, to the point and highly explicit.

The Latin American  broader focus tends to incorporate contextual factors such as relationship, circumstances, timing, and social appropriateness. This makes the ability to evaluate the context and to interpret subtle rules in any given situation essential to the Latin American business person.

The result, the Latino may seem ambiguous, and the US/UK manger may seem blunt.

“We” vs. “Me” Business Structure

According to Geert Hofstede, a well-known Dutch sociologist, the United States of America is the most individualistic culture among 40 countries studied.

The USA was rated 91 on a 100-point scale evaluating individualism.  Popular sayings such as “If you want a job done right, do it yourself,” and “ You have to blow your own horn” reveal this emphasis on autonomy.

Self-reliance and accountability are valued in business settings.  Expressing one’s own opinion openly and frankly is usually acceptable and often admired.  Actively pursuing one’s personal interests is considered natural and legitimate. The “Me” in business.

By contrast, Latin American countries were rated much lower on the individualism scale in the study with Argentina 46, Brazil 38, Mexico 30, and Chile 23 accordingly.  The practice of becoming compadres of work, the use of networks and connections, the exchange of information and favors, the obligation toward and reliance on the extended family all reflect the “We” structure of Latin American societies.

This new business reality requires that one be more indirect, diplomatic, non-confrontational, and cautious in communicating with others because there is a positive or negative multiplier effect in every social or business transaction.  A good interaction may gain one multiple allies (members of the other person’s “We”) while a negative encounter has the potential of creating numerous opponents for oneself.

The result, the U.S. counterpart may feel that the Latin American is being excessively diplomatic, which is generally associated with insincerity in the United States.  In contrast, the U.S. person’s individualism may be perceived as being individualistic.

Task vs. Relationship

U.S. business people are trained to be task oriented.  “Keeping your eye on the ball” and not allowing yourself to be distracted from the job at hand are considered high priorities.  Therefore, most of the emphasis is placed on the tangible outcome or result of a business project, not the process.  People who work together may develop personal relationships over time but the task comes first.

Latin Americans tend to feel that it is essential to invest in establishing a relationship before focusing on the task.  A period of getting to know the client is typically required to create a good interpersonal environment in which the task can be accomplished most effectively.   There is faith that a positive relationship will lead to a good process, which in turn will produce the best results.  An important clue in this regard is the high desirability of being considered simpático or likeable and accessible.

Too often, U.S. business people seem impersonal or aloof due to putting tasks above and before relationships.   On the other hand, Latin Americans may be considered too slow to get started on the task and not as “serious” about getting the task completed.

Time Difference

The U.S. culture is one of the most fast-paced in the world.  “Time is money” was coined by Benjamin Franklin in 1748.  He also said, “Lost time is never found again.”  This time-consciousness has become ingrained in the U.S. psyche.  Today, driven by computers, fax machines, and electronic mail, the speed of business is faster than ever.

The pace of life and work varies within Latin America.  However, it is generally less intense than in the U.S. for three reasons.  First, technology is somewhat less available in the workplace, although this is rapidly changing.  More important is the fact that building and maintaining relationships, attending to one’s “We” networks, and managing the complex contextual dimensions of business simply takes more time.

Time differences have great impact on communication.  Such issues as how soon to send a message and how quickly to respond frequently become sources of friction.  The U.S./U.K businessperson may appear hasty, rushed, and pushy, while the Latin American may seem to lack a sufficient sense of urgency.

Nonverbal Communication

In Latin America, there is less physical distance between people, softer handshakes, more touching and abrazos, and greater use of hand and arm gestures.  Business dress tends to be more fashionable and, in some cases, more colorful.

Nonverbal language is very important in face-to-face communications because it conveys feelings, intentions, and reactions.  Latin Americans may seem emotional and excitable to their U.S. counterparts,  while U.S. Americans may come across as cold and distant.  Even in non-face-to-face communications such as via e-mail , fax, or telephone, the absence of nonverbal signals may create a problem.  Not being able to see each other, the parties may misinterpret the true meaning or tone of written messages.

Bridging these difference is the key to successfully conducting business across the two cultures, and those who are already doing so, will understand the importance of appreciating these differences.