University of Southern California

Jolanta Aritz
Adapting Business Communication for the International Community
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Everybody agrees that workplace communication can be tricky to navigate, but you can only imagine how complex it can be when people who work together come from different countries. According to Workforce 2020 trend report, four of every five new jobs in the United States are generated as a direct result of international business. Researchers estimate that 10 percent to 45 percent of U.S. workers fail in their global assignments (i.e., return prematurely)—with the highest failure rates associated with assignments in developing countries.

The dominance of the Western paradigm in doing business has recently been questioned by many in the field of international business. At a CIBER Language conference at the Wharton School of Business last year, Arthur J. Rothkopf, Senior VP of Education and Workforce Initiative at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, stated, “Doing business in English is a thing of the past. Other countries stand shoulder to shoulder with the U.S. and we need to produce future business leaders who will be able to successfully compete in the new global marketplace.” Rothkopf’s words stayed with me as I was getting more familiar with Marshall’s efforts to provide each student with global experiences and expose them to the world of global business through unparallel global programs.

Research in international business predicts a new type of leader given an increasingly global world – a culturally sensitive, cosmopolitan leader. This new type of business leader is required to bridge cultural barriers to overcome differences based upon people’s learned cultures. He or she must create cultural synergy and lead cultural change in organizations. This leader must focus on intercultural business communication skills and develop sensitivities that can be transferred across cultural lines.

My fascination with cultural differences began when I first studied pragmatics, a subfield of linguistics that studies how context influences meaning. I later expanded my interest to sociolinguistics to include effects extending beyond the linguistic context to broader societal issues and their impact on communication. Since I started teaching at Marshall in 2000, I became increasingly interested in cultural differences in business interactions.

I was very fortunate to find a colleague at CMC who shared similar interests. Robyn Walker and I have started our research program looking at mixed teams in decision-making meetings. Our research has true grass-roots beginnings: questions arose from observing student groups at Marshall and watching how, in mixed teams, American students outspoke and linguistically outperformed students from Asian countries. This pattern of communicative dominance intensified as Asian students became a minority in the group, leading us to conclude that more than mere language proficiency inhibited the Asian students’ speaking performance. Rather, it was the ownership of the cultural norms, the cultural value system, and the Western leadership style that deeply affected team dynamics and prompted American students to be more vocal and dominant.

My research has continuously informed my teaching, and I found myself talking about intercultural business communication skills in many of my communication classes. Yet the real opportunity was still ahead of me – to develop a follow-up elective that focuses exclusively on building intercultural competencies and is positioned as a follow-up to short-term global programs, such as LINC, GLP, and global summer internships. Research on experiential learning points to the immense benefits of short-term exposure to foreign countries. Short-term trips abroad provide valuable experiential learning in developing students’ intercultural knowledge. Many experts on experiential training agree that the debriefing that follows the activity is an important process designed to synergize, strengthen, and transfer learning from the experiential exercise. Ironically, it is also the most often overlooked part of the experiential learning process. A 2-unit elective seemed like a natural fit to accomplish this objective within the existing structure of Marshall global programs.

BUAD 499, “Business Communication across Cultures,” a 2-unit elective, is offered for the first time in Fall 2011. The course brings together international business and intercultural communication to build key competencies central to understanding how businesses work across cultures. My goal is to help students reflect, translate, and transfer knowledge and experiences they had as part of their global program across different cultural contexts and interpersonal interactions to successfully compete in a new global marketplace. The course will focus on three key groups of intercultural competencies: knowledge (needed to live and work in a diverse world); skills (tolerance of ambiguity, behavioral flexibility, and communicative awareness), and personal attributes (empathy, flexibility and respect for otherness). We are ready to embark on the journey of discovery through readings, simulations, role plays, self-assessment, and training videos.