Unexplored Territory or a Cross-Cultural Communications Nightmare: The Internet and Business Communication

By Dop, Thomas M. | DISAM Journal, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

Unexplored Territory or a Cross-Cultural Communications Nightmare: The Internet and Business Communication


Dop, Thomas M., DISAM Journal


In the fall of 2000 I conducted a research project in partial fulfillment of a master's degree program. This project had to be directly related to my job, security assistance and defense cooperation, and my degree, information resource management. I chose to study the effect that cross-cultural relations had on communicating across the internet. The following is a summary of the results of this study.

Background

Over the past decade there has been an explosion in information technology and the use of the internet to conduct normal business communication. With most offices now wired for both internal and external communication, e-mail appears to be taking over our everyday lives. This technology boom has provided mixed results. On the positive side we are now able to communicate with anyone, anywhere in the world because time zones do not apply to electronic messages. Also, with the use of e-mail, there is a very structured audit trail that can be followed if a problem arises based on an electronic communication. On the negative side it seems as if personnel within an office would rather send e-mail to a co-worker in the office next door rather than actually talking to them face-to-face. This appears to have caused a decline in interpersonal and social skills within the workplace.

In DISAM's course offerings, we teach over 350 international students per year. Once students graduate from a DISAM course, they are provided with unlimited access to faculty members for follow-up questions, for research

problems, or for advice on security cooperation issues via the telephone, facsimile, or through e-mail. The use of internet technology coupled with the use of e-mail has greatly increased the number of questions former students have posed and therefore, the number of possible communication errors has risen. Since the faculty cannot see or hear the international students, they cannot pick up on their body language or hear the inflections used in their words while asking a question. In this type of situation the chances of a miscommunication are greatly increased. As an example, when a person has a question, they send an e-mail to a DISAM faculty member who in turn can query several members of the faculty at one time on the issue. There have been several instances where former students have us ed this function and then become upset with the response they have received because they felt the faculty member did not fully understand the question or did not take the time to fully research the problem. In reality what happened was that the faculty member was not able to read key cultural pointers in the students' body language and spoken language so they did not really understand what the student was asking. Instead they researched the inquiry as they perceived it. The result of these miscommunications has been that the DISAM faculty, at times, appears to be somewhat less than capable when responding to these requests.

One of the key groups of people who have been affected by the increased use of the internet and the technology it represents are foreign service nationals (FSNs), who are citizens of a particular country who are employed by the U.S. government to fill certain positions within the American embassy in that country. These employees have the peculiar circumstance to spend part of their day in the American culture and to live the rest in their native culture. In the case of those involved with security cooperation, it appears to be even more complicated because they are constantly using the internet to ask questions, working with security cooperation specific software programs, and participating in training related to their careers.

DISAM is bombarded with e-mail on a daily basis, much of which comes from former international students and from FSNs. The impression is that these e-mails are, at times, difficult to understand and have a cultural spin to them that is not always understood by the recipient. …

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