Thomas Grammig

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Communication Across Cultural Distance

Individuals struggling to understand cultural differences act towards an interlocutor in three dimensions.  The three are independent of each other according to logic.  Rhetoric, body language, information exchanges of any sort, all appear in this frame of interpretation:

Irrespective of the value seen in the other (the culturally distant counterpart, visiting expert, interlocutor, advisor, etc) one can assimilate his/her knowledge or tools or one keeps them separate.  Thus the attitude on the vertical axis is independent of the horizontal axis.  Similarly, the value does not imply an interest in knowing the other or in ignoring him/her and furthermore the relational axis is independent of the identity axis.  Some areas in this 3-dimensional space are common, others rare and visible only in extraordinary individuals.

International technology transfers are fully dependent on acknowledging and addressing cultural distance.  Transfers take place only between two persons and become effective when these act within firms.  Development economics has produced evidence for learning externalities and policy remedies are used to increase spillovers (forward and backward) from leading firms (Hausmann and Rodrik 2003).  Based on Foreign-direct Investment (FDI) and patent data, some countries appear to have “imitative abilities“ and others none but the evidence is contradictory between levels of industrialisation and between sectors.  Duplicative imitation appears in some fields and creative imitation in others and there is no theory available to predict outcomes.  Communicating technical knowledge is decided between individuals and it is necessary to understand what attributes of the individuals enable them and many peers so that aggregate outcomes are relevant.

The Kyoto Protocol's Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) provides ample evidence that cultural distance allows or prohibits international cooperation.  The following diagnosis of cases in China and Brazil are not representative beyond the type of organisations involved.  Still, such cases appear frequently in these countries.  Technology spillovers from CDM can systematically be made more likely when individuals find opportunities to express and change their assumptions about cultural distance towards foreign colleagues.

Graphic 1: Climate Change Mitigation in Brazil: Cultural Distance in CDM projects.


Brazilian experts in climate change mitigation approach foreign colleagues with attributes on the blue surface.  When a foreigner is seen with positive value attributes, his/her work is kept separate from national efforts. 

More than a stigma of race or skin colour, it is the unique value of Brazilian natural treasures and the export of CO2 emission reductions, that let Brazilians become defensive the more environmental content a foreigner addresses.  Less value attributes and less knowledge about the content, the easier it is to assimilate what a foreigner provides.

The ultra-modernist capital Brasilia illustrates how far this foreign design is positively qualified (and lived in) but never acquires local features or affects other cities.  Sometimes even Brazilian expert knowledge published in European academic journals and cited as authoritative still remains separated from Brazilian work and efforts.  Cultural distance is still felt, evoked and resented toward the person and his/her knowledge.  By moving back and forth repeatedly under the right conditions, knowledge can loose symbolic charge and becomes useful and integrated in Brazilian CDM projects.

Graphic 2: Climate Change Mitigation in China: Cultural Distance in CDM projects.


Chinese experts in climate change mitigation place foreign colleagues on the red surface.  The red surface is quite uniform over the value axis and somewhat less uniform across the identity axis.  Neither Chinese nor foreign experts anticipate that they would be able to change their relations by specific efforts and so whether they are individually known or not has little influence.  Nonetheless technical knowledge and skills ought to be assimilated and there is seldom thought or worry about local damage or risks in doing so.

This uniformity on the relational axis would in theory invite more active and repeated appeals by individuals to affirm or change the relations but in practice such appeals remain rare.  Many open doors are not pushed through.

European goods carry significant prestige in China but their use is disconnected from this prestige.   Likewise, technical knowledge is not seen differently when it is related to local usage.  Irrespectively of these origin attributes, assimilation is unpredictable.  Both the blue and the red surfaces as typical interpretations of cultural distance are simplifications and most organisations have sufficient numbers of individuals with different behaviour that can agglomerate to other outcomes.  Individuals anticipate that they can stop well known patterns of relating to foreigners and vice versa.  Types of organisations, firm sizes or dominant professional groups in firms can be sources for other patterns.

Within teams of local and foreign experts, communication across cultural distance is limited by accordance/disagreements among locals vis-à-vis foreigners and vice versa.  Bounds of solidarity or pecuniary interest among locals and among foreigners inhibit individuals from seizing opportunities.  The following graphic illustrates stabilised categorisations when a mixed team operates over several years.  The red line shows variations of attitudes among a team of Mexican energy engineers towards American colleagues.  In most cases, the variation of these attitudes are hidden from the foreigners because revealing them would make conflicts unbearable.  I have reconstructed this variation based on several months of ethnographic fieldwork in Mexico (see Fieldwork).  The red and blue lines are more precise and more actionable than the surfaces in the two graphics above.

Graphic 3: Developer Positions in 3-dimensional Cultural Distance



Foreign expert roles in Mexican large industry (see Cogeneration Mexico):
ally- competitor - judge   =   when a local group varies widely over the
————————————    relational axis, while there are no value or identity differences in the local perception of foreigners called “Gringo“ by those locals on the right, medium opinion locals speak of “Malinchismo“, on the left no subjective claims (ally) appear.  

All locals and foreigners had the same engineering education and years of professional experience.  All individual engineering skill differences among foreigners and among locals remained inaccessible.

Foreign expert roles in the Chadian informal sector (other fieldwork):

jerk - academic - coach  =   a group of professionals varies over the identity axis, local experts
————————————     (engineers and economists) rarely appear as individuals and thus little
                                                   local reaction, Chadians who recognize foreign identity have clearly more
                                                    “good“ interpretation and slightly more assimilate, dominant behaviour
                                                    exo-social exchanges: foreigners are labelled all sorts of things, their
                                                    image is very difficult to discern or to find a glims of.

When an outsider joins a team and his presence is credibly independent of the team's responsibilities, s/he becomes nonetheless object of the same interpretative efforts.  The outsider or observer can be used verbally by team members to call for changes in attitudes towards foreigners (and vice versa), the accordance / disagreements become visible.  The observer's neutrality is an opportunity for the team members.  The following graphic shows the same cases as above and illustrates the usefulness of the observer as pawn.  S/he serves as pawn by being the latest to arrive, stay only temporarily and also by demonstrating hesitation to choose sides.  Using an observer as pawn is common in international development projects where communication across cultural distance is shaped by a pretended equality of team members and international relations' objectives in project implementation.  Teams in commercial projects are just as open to verbal efforts.

Graphic 4:  Observer Position as a Pawn in the Development Context




The observer is a pawn for the team members, they use his/her presence in staged demonstrations to appeal to the other team members.  In Mexico, the staged demonstrations moved the observer along the red line towards the left.

The effectiveness of the observer presence and of management tools derived from it are the product of the legacy of development assistance and the economic growth inferiority or decline.

ally - competitor - judge:    passive use of the pawn to claim sincerity especially by those on the
———————————     “judge“ side of the Mexican interpretation of foreign expert presence.

Management tools derived from fieldwork in Mexico can improve the recognition of the other side. 

Such tools prolong the pawn usage (in verbal exchanges) in a more meaningful way.  They create more opportunities for foreigners and locals to appear as individuals, express their views and describe their professional products more accurately.

jerk - academic - coach:   those local experts towards the “known“ end use the pawn to demonstrate
———————————     their knowledge about the foreigner to the other locals who want to ignore
                                                 the foreigner, foreigners “confess“ to the observer (pawn).

The management tools from ethnographic fieldwork in Chad serve to separate the value from the relational axis.

These tools improve the tendency among Chadian experts to scrutinize what the foreigners bring.  Similar to the use they made of the pawn (an observer), moving along the blue line toward the coach end, the tools expand the local significance of the project content by offering Chadians more arguments among them.

In both cases Mexico and Chad, management goals introduced co-existed with observer presence (described in chapter 6.1.3 Intersubjectivity and the management landscape, in Grammig, 2002).

Possible roles an outside observer is used for by team members seizing an occasion (situation
during normal activity) for a verbal plea towards the other group:

This list is counterproductive when transferred to another context.  Any field research requires producing these categories anew, and overcoming personal traits in the observer’s presence, exchange and perception.  The observer role reflects to the social other and at the same time to the opposite side in the project team.  Fieldwork becomes more diffult, even impossible, the more the observer role reflects him/herself as an individual.

Hausmann R and D Rodrik, 2003, “Economic development as self-discovery“, Journal of Development Economics, 72: 603-633.

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