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Business Across Cultures: Is It Language or Culture?

Language and culture are closely intertwined. Having a good understanding of the mother language of your foreign co-workers shows respect. However, being able to speak a second language does not automatically mean that a person is culturally sensitive. Conversely, not being able to speak the language does not automatically mean that one is not.

There are certain situations where language difficulties are often seen as cultural barriers. Take a company's annual staff outing for instance. It is often the case that when arriving at such an occasion the expatriate and Indonesian personnel from a company will initially mingle and then separate in to two distinct groups for conversation. This is especially true if spouses or other family members are present.

I have often seen this held up as an example of the lack of cultural integration in a company. I do not, however, agree that this is necessarily the case. In a social setting people want to be comfortable. Using a second language is never going to be as easy for most people as using their mother tongue.

It is a bit of an interesting phenomenon here that spouses of expatriate employees are often more fluent in Bahasa Indonesia than their husbands or wives. This is partially because of the opportunity to study Bahasa Indonesia on the part of the spouse outside the office, while the working spouse is more involved with job performance demands. The normal high quality of English speaking ability on the part of the local co-workers also contributes to this phenomena. It is normally the case, however, that the spouse of a local employee will not have the same level or ability of English as the working spouse and for spouses with a very low understanding of English, this may be a cause for embarrassment or frustration.

The separation of the cultural groups in a social occasion is often best understood as more of a language separation than a cultural barrier. People separate into conversational groups where the language is most comfortable for them. When people are outside of the office in a less formal situation, people tend to enjoy a more relaxed form of a “Joking 'N Smoking” spirit where the language used, the topics discussed, the jokes made, are all culturally-based and affect one's ability to fit into the discussion.

In most companies this is not meant to be an exclusion of one cultural group or the other. In most cases people would be happy to welcome their foreign co-workers to their conversational cluster as long as it is not disruptive. It may be that you end up with two sides in almost every social occasion. One speaking English and one speaking Bahasa Indonesia. This should not be seen as negative. While the goal of cross-cultural training is to integrate the groups, this should not be forced.

Such social situations should rather be seen as opportunities for those from both cultural groups who are able to cross the line and participate in the conversations, humor, and free flow of ideas in the other language to do so.

Cross-cultural integration of a company does not mean making everybody the same. The diversity of the employees in any company should be seen as one of their greatest assets. The division of personnel by language groups, whether it's on an annual outing or retreat, or in the canteen for lunch, should not be seen as a sign of disharmony. It is rather a sign that everyone has their own interests and is more easily able to communicate in their mother language. Keep in mind that in most situations you will be welcome to participate in the “Joking 'N Smoking”.

This article was generously contributed by George B. Whitfield, III when he was a Technical Advisor with Executive Orientation Services.