Maybe I suck at crossing cultures? Communication in foreign grad school.
December 4, 2015 10:37 AM   Subscribe

Hello, I am in a graduate program in the USA and an American. I was accepted into a special short term program in Southern Europe and am having some communication problems with my fellow students/teammates. It's most likely a cultural thing.

The title of my question is kind of a joke. I have lived in 2 countries and successfully done business in Latin America for almost a decade. I feel pretty confident working in other cultures, but here are still a few things that drive me crazy about Latin countries and I am including Latin/southern Europe. (This is officially the term that this program uses for their region and yes I am generalizing to a certain extent).

One thing that I don’t like is communication styles. Written communication such as email is not always the best way in a Latin cultures to correspond, with people preferring calls or face-to-face communication.

The culture is also different being academia as opposed to my background in international business. Also, I am probably 10-15 years older than the other students which I think may be part of this puzzle.

We received a lengthy email from a pretty prestigious professor giving us advice and direction on a project that we submitted. I have tried to ask the team in two emails and through Whatsapp how we want to answer and proceed with the assignment and have received no responses. Being American and a business person where fast communication is essential, it’s driving me insane not responding to the professor. I’ve never been great at an indirect communication style and consider it my biggest weakness.

I do not answer because I don’t want to come across as a pushy, impatient American with the team. Two of us, myself and another seem to have become the leaders in the group based on our last conference call. This is because we were the most active in the call and offered the most information about the team projects. I want to continue in this manner but I do not want to come across as a control freak as well ( and don’t feel that this is part of my personality) but I really want to move things along. (In the beginning of my international career I tried the direct and assertive American style. Guess what? It did not work at all. It was BAAAADDDDD).

What do you guys think? How should I get things moving without being too intense? I'm feeling really stuck.
posted by Che boludo! to Human Relations (20 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
You seem pretty self aware, so that's helpful, but if you know face to face works better why not just do that? It's not clear to me from your question (maybe I missed it?) but are you in the same place as the rest of the team? Go get coffee with someone else on the team and ask about the email.
posted by Wretch729 at 10:43 AM on December 4, 2015

Send your team an email - "Let's get together to talk about this at *time/place*". You're asking a very open-ended question "gosh guys, what should we do next?" in a medium that isn't how your team likes to respond to questions. Use the email for its local purpose - setting up voice or face-to-face time.
In the meantime, it'll scratch the itch if you start drafting a reply, or at least outline the few things you want to address, which may help in the discussion. And after the meeting you can volunteer to write the email reply, and it's already half done.
posted by aimedwander at 10:55 AM on December 4, 2015

Response by poster: Sorry, I'm in the USA and they are all in Europe. Face to face won't work. Also, I'm 8 hours behind them.

It's taken a lot of self awareness to learn what I have about those from other places. Thanks for the compliment.
posted by Che boludo! at 10:58 AM on December 4, 2015

Do they Skype? I work with Italy (from Boston) and am a big, big fan.
posted by lydhre at 11:04 AM on December 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

I have to schedule meetings for discussions with passive people - I myself prefer audio-only to laggy distract-y video calls, but whatever works.

"Is everyone available for a Skype on Monday at 16:00 Rome time? I'll put a draft of the response on today if anyone would like to review in advance."

I find in these cases that even if I don't want to be the leader, if nobody else is stepping up to be the leader, I will step up to be the leader. If someone decides to challenge my leadership - with a real bid like "well, this is the outline I'd like to discuss instead" - I hand off, but hover in preparation to project-manage if I have to.

posted by Lyn Never at 11:11 AM on December 4, 2015 [3 favorites]

If I were you, I would prioritize, first, which is more important to me.

I see two mutually exclusive things here, so you need to choose which one rates higher:

1- Fitting in culturally/not being perceived as the controlling or pushy impatient American, as you put it
2 - Being responsive and professional and "on the ball" in this (and other cases) where this conflicts with your perception within the group

Once you've decided which one matters more to you, you can set about devising a strategy where you try to balance the two. But you have to know the outcome you are more ok with, so that you can bail out if your balancing strategy fails - because it likely will - it's rare to get the best of both worlds!

So, I would say, if #1 is more important to you, you should couch your request in as friendly/self-effacing a manner as you can. List the caveats that make communication difficult (such as being 8 hours behind, not being able to approach them in their preferred manner because you're overseas, etc). And acknowledge your concern about not wanting them to think you're being controlling. Hopefully that will ingratiate you a bit and you'll get what you want (a quicker collaboration) without having to charge ahead without them, possibly making them angry. If you really want to not be perceived as controlling here, if they don't respond, you should still just hang back and let the other leaders do their thing and contribute when necessary/when you can. That means you are sacrificing responsiveness and your reputation with the professor, but you are preserving your cool factor with the group and nobody would think you pushy.

If #2 is ultimately more important to you, I would be friendly but firm, and say that you really want to get back by X time, you have these things you'd like to say, and you plan to charge ahead if you don't hear anything by the deadline. I'd also invite them to feel free to talk to you about concerns with this plan and try to be as open and inviting as possible about that, but when you are this firm and focused people will not often feel comfortable doing that, so you will likely be sacrificing your perception in this group dynamic in favor of satisfying the professional request.
posted by pazazygeek at 11:16 AM on December 4, 2015

Let me clue you in on something. The person who refuses to shut up on the conference call is not the de facto leader. Just because you were the most active on the call does not mean you are the leader. Good leaders help other voices emerge and contribute.

Rethink how you're operating to get others to participate. You might ask, "what should our timeline be to respond to this email?" That lets others on the team say what they think is appropriate.
posted by 26.2 at 11:19 AM on December 4, 2015 [8 favorites]

I'm a little worried by your last paragraph that you think of yourselves as team leaders because you were better at one phone call. Was the phone call in everyone's first language, for instance? Is this project something where phone calls are a representation of project capabilities?
posted by the agents of KAOS at 11:20 AM on December 4, 2015 [3 favorites]

Does this "team" really exist or is it something you've imposed on the others? If the school didn't say, "Be a team!", and, " Find a leader", perhaps no one sees a need to be on a "team". Deal with things as an individual and allow others the chance to do the same.

I'm American and being pushed into unwanted teamplay would annoy me, too.
posted by justcorbly at 11:24 AM on December 4, 2015

Response by poster: To somebody else memail. The program is in Spain and mostly attended by those from Spain, Portugal, France and Italy.
posted by Che boludo! at 11:27 AM on December 4, 2015

Response by poster: The team exists and the whole program is based on it. Nobody tried to control the call but some were more active in it and I was the only native speaker so that is probably a big part of the unbalanced communication.

Some in certain cultures are also less vocal in meeting like situations. So that may be part of how things went on the call with some more vocal than others.
posted by Che boludo! at 11:31 AM on December 4, 2015

Hello fellow pushy business-like American! I am an introverted, quiet, indirect person who is always told she's pushy... as soon as people learn I'm American. Before and until then, I am considered... introverted, quiet, and indirect.

I have also studied at Masters level in a southern European university. (South of France, where the culture is very similar to Italy and Spain – in part because it was in fact not part of France until 150-odd years ago. On preview, oh hey there you go.) These parts of the world have the biggest chips on their shoulders re:"American culture". That said, they do indeed also have very different working styles. So you have not one, but two things working at cross-purposes for you.

University here is much more individual. From the way you worded it, it sounds like the professor has assigned a team subject? But is that actually the case? Because it's extremely rare here. So rare I've only ever seen it in MBA programs (which you may be in). In any case, I suspect that most people are working on their own and will respond at the very last minute. Often after the very last minute. Two years of university experience here, and working with a lot of Masters students – including MBAs – who are interns on my teams speaks to this being par for the course.

Like pazazygeek mentioned, the rest depends on what your priorities are. Don't want to rock the boat? Take a step back, make sure your personal work speaks to your strengths, and you should be good. Do want to fulfill a professor-requested team goal? Then go ahead and ask them again how they'd like to contribute. Note: you WILL be seen as a pushy American, because you are American and that is how we are seen by default anyhow. After a while you grow a thick skin. Feel free to memail me if you'd like to bounce off ideas on this, because I know full well what it is to live this firsthand over a period of 15 years and have people who have not lived it think you're not taking responsibility for yourself. As perspective: everyone who actually knows me, including people who work with me directly, agree that I am not in fact pushy. There's always an epiphany moment 6 months down the line where they go, "oh gosh, you've been letting me show my strengths without being pushy... I'm sorry, you're not actually American!!!" (yeah, that's a quote, and a repeated one over the 20 years I've been here, so... yeah. sigh.)

On second preview: yes, leave a lot more time for others to respond. Actively request responses from others and accentuate that learning the language is part of the program. I have a lot of success with that approach.
posted by fraula at 11:35 AM on December 4, 2015 [3 favorites]

I'll answer this based on logic and practicality, not on any knowledge of the culture. You could contact the professor yourself, and simply ask for guidance on what type of reply he would like to receive to his last email, and when. You might also ask whether he would prefer to have a single point of contact with the team. Then you could simply pass this information on to the team. This may stimulate the team to set a time frame for their work, and/or to appoint a team leader.

advice and direction on a project that we submitted

What was the team's collaboration style when you submitted the initial project? Were there problems with deadlines, or communication within the team? Did the lack of a single leader cause any problems? How is the present situation different from the initial project?
posted by JimN2TAW at 11:50 AM on December 4, 2015

Not sure if this is a "Latin" culture thing anyway. I've seen crappy e-mail discipline in Denmark, Sweden, the UK and Belgium, all University settings. It drives anyone who wants to do his stuff and be done insane.

The only way out is to adjust your communication style to the results you want to see: you don't need people to use e-mail, it's their answers you need.

So, yes...
-- Do explore Skype and other alternatives;
-- Make your e-mails concise and put the most important item first;
-- Long emails: include a "bear with me" note at the beginning;
-- Flag urgent e-mails as urgent;
-- Don't ever bombard non-responsive people with copies of the same. Re-phrase, and after two resultless efforts, swap communication channels.
-- Use the (*gasp*) telephone.
--If you're between a professor's request and a bunch of let-you-dangle-wimps, write the Professor a neutral quick note that you're on the ball but can't reach everyone (no accusations, in other words).
--Melt down once per half year, not more often. Try to be zen about the importance of it all.
--Especially for Europe: don't take on any responsibilities that you haven't gotten a clear-cut mandate for. Some people here (or where I've looked) will unfailingly take advantage of someone who too-readily volunteers to shoulder responsibilities of the kind that sort-of hang(s) in the room. Take only on stuff that matters to you in any direct (or simple-indirect) manner.
posted by Namlit at 12:16 PM on December 4, 2015 [3 favorites]

To be honest, you really need to meet the others in person, wherever that is most convenient. One of my students did something similar to what you are doing and failed terribly.
We imagine modern communication can overcome spatial and social distance, but my personal experience, as a professor of an international masters program, is that students need to meet up and see their professors in person. They can absolutely live in their home countries and skype for tutorials and group meetings, but real live meet-ups are essential.
Universities might want to sell long-distance degrees, and you may pass whatever because they have other agendas. But for your own sake: go meet your peers and your professors.
posted by mumimor at 12:58 PM on December 4, 2015

Response by poster: It's a pretty prestigious university and we meet in person after the first of the year. It's an Erasmus Mundus program and I have been accepted as an outside student. The point is to work and learn about cross-cultural differences in work and life.
posted by Che boludo! at 1:26 PM on December 4, 2015

English teaching in Spain doesn't give a lot of conversation skills beyond scripted dialogues because exams are written, so it's likely that many people are just too shy to speak at video/ phone conferences. Maybe you could use a chat room?

Two of us, myself and another seem to have become the leaders in the group based on our last conference call. This is because we were the most active in the call and offered the most information about the team projects. I want to continue in this manner but I do not want to come across as a control freak as well ( and don’t feel that this is part of my personality) but I really want to move things along.

If you've located another proactive team member, what you can do is between you two brainstorm a project task list and then ask the rest what they think of the tasks and if they're ok with it, because else you won't get anything done. Give them a clear project overview so they can give their input on concrete things.

Anyway, tomorrow Dec 6 and Tuesday Dec 8 are festive days in Spain and people who can will take Dec 7 off as a "bridge" too (the Puente de la Constitución/ Inmaculada/ Puente de Diciembre) so people probably will have gone skiing and won't answer emails before Wednesday. Try to get as much done as you can before Christmas, too.
posted by sukeban at 1:00 AM on December 5, 2015

(I was in the reverse position when I was an Erasmus in Germany: having clear defined tasks was a godsend because I couldn't manage meeting the rest of the team and my conversational German skills have never been good)
posted by sukeban at 1:02 AM on December 5, 2015

We received a lengthy email from a pretty prestigious professor giving us advice and direction on a project that we submitted. I have tried to ask the team in two emails and through Whatsapp how we want to answer and proceed with the assignment and have received no responses.

I'm from Southern Europe myself and live and work in an international environment and in remote contact with colleagues across the world and this to me sounds like there may be more specific individual issues at play, rather than just wider cultural differences in communicating. What Namlit says above applies very much in my experience too.

How have you "tried to ask the team" so far - how did you formulate the request? Those people who aren't responding, they either haven't really understood the urgency of responding, or, they're bad at responding in a timely manner, or are taking their time to think about it without telling you, or don't care enough, or are just well a bit lazy and bad at responding quickly - we cannot know that, but if that has happened before, you do need to change tactic or communication method.

Namlit's list of tips there sounds good - first thing you could indeed "write the Professor a neutral quick note that you're on the ball but can't reach everyone" and then try one of the other approaches to get those people to get back to you.

Maybe suggest a day and time for Skype and ask if it's a good time for everyone? Or if you're not using Skype, and are using a group in Whatsapp, then suggest a specific deadline for coming up with your team response, and break it down more specifically. When you give a detailed request and a specific time span for responding, people are more clearly expected to get back to you, and if they still don't, then unfortunately you have a team problem, rather than a cultural communication problem...

I completely understand you're sensitive to how well different communications styles can translate across cultures, that is very important to keep in mind, especially if you've had bad experiences before, but try not to put the cart before the horse there - don't get too hung up on cultural differences being the only explanation. Don't be afraid of being too direct to the point you don't make it clear enough that something urgent is urgent, you know? You can express that in English in a multicultural team in different styles, more or less assertive, more or less American, more or less British, it still needs to be made clear enough so that people have no excuses not to respond – and so that that lack of response can be brought up as something to improve to continue working together in the team.
posted by bitteschoen at 5:45 AM on December 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

It's taken a lot of self awareness to learn what I have about those from other places. Thanks for the compliment.

I am amused at the bizarre contradiction in that first sentence, and that no one seems to have pointed it out already. This is part of your problem.

If I were in your shoes, I'd take this as a learning opportunity on multiple levels (learning about myself, that is), and a chance to observe and learn from how others in the team deal with the problem rather than how I want it dealt with right away. Reminds me of some of the best advice I have received about different working styles: "Just because people do things differently does not mean that they are incompetent."

Having worked in multiple countries/cultures is not at all uncommon these days. International experience, however, by no means implies self-awareness, let alone an ability to lead.
posted by xm at 9:14 PM on December 5, 2015

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