This week on the Digital Millennial we're overseas in Norway to discuss the ins and outs of cross cultural communication styles. With any culture that differs from your own, there are cross-cultural challenges that can impede business and social life, so it's important to enter any new culture with an open mind and a few tricks up your sleeve. Non-verbal communication styles are an important aspect in cross-cultural business communication. Since cross-cultural communication is not always clear due to language barriers, communicators often rely on non-verbal cues to decipher what the other person is feeling.
This past week Norway celebrated the 17th of May, their constitution day. The 17th of May is perhaps the best day to catch a glimpse into Norwegian culture and better understand their communication customs and norms. Because the workplace is rapidly expanding internationally, it is essential to understand how to communicate effectively with those who may speak a different language and have customs and norms that differ from your own. Although this post features Norway specifically, the following tips can be applied to any cross-cultural setting to help avoid faux pas and garner a greater understanding of one another.
Keep It Simple - You need to remember that when dealing with international business, the people you are engaging may not be speaking their native tongue. Therefore, it is imperative to keep the language simple. This means avoiding slang and humor.
Avoiding slang is imperative; it causes avoidable misunderstandings; and although humor is often seen as a way of “breaking the ice” in tense situations, every culture is different, and what you may think is appropriate could be offensive to another.
Remember Non-Verbal Communication - Different cultures have many ways of communicating non-verbally. Forms of non-verbal communication that differ from culture to culture are physical touch, eye contact, physical space, hand gestures, and facial movements. Cultures that are more individualistic in nature tend to value personal space a bit more and are therefore put off by close contact. On the other hand, people living in countries that are densely populated are less likely to be bothered by such close contact as it is a part of their culture. Do your research beforehand, and when in doubt, err on the side of more space is better.
Respect Cultural Differences - Understanding the practices and norms of your own culture is crucial to improving cross-cultural communication. By understanding the norms of your own culture, you will be less surprised when a different culture does not abide by your customs. It is also worth noting that you are biased in your point of view of the world, and this point of view directly affects how you will perceive the customs of other cultures. It is best to stay calm when encountering differences that may shock you. Keep an open mind and try to understand the way other cultures view the world.
For example, you may balk when first encountering the traditional Norwegian dress called the bunad, because
both men and women wear it. The dress is worn with silver buttons and broaches and is embroidered with flowers and patterns. The bunad is considered very formal and is only worn on special occasions such as the 17th of May, weddings, and confirmations. The color and style of the bunad is determined by where you come from. Each region in Norway has a distinct design that is recognizable. The national dress is a form of non-verbal communication, as it tells others where the wearer is from without any form of verbal communication.
The Food - One might be expecting a buffet of ethnic Norwegian cuisine on this 17th of May holiday, but that assumption would be wrong. In fact, the food of choice does not differ much from what we would eat in the United States on our constitution day. After a morning breakfast full of all the usuals such as eggs, toast, bacon, and fruit, Norwegians enjoy an afternoon of grilling, mainly hotdogs, with a side of potato salad and later, ice cream. An unexpected choice from the view of an outsider, although not an unpleasant one. Recognize the table colors? Yep, you guessed it - Norway also sports red, white and blue!
The Party - If you were expecting to sleep in on your day off, think again, the constitution day party starts bright and early. Somewhere between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. champagne breakfasts begin and last until early afternoon. Friends will join to toast to their country and celebrate with one another. After breakfast, many choose to head into the city center for their town’s almost never-ending parade with the children of the city, bands, and anyone else who chooses to join. The party often concludes in the evening with a BBQ and relaxation.
The Graduates - The graduating high school seniors’ tradition is perhaps the most unique tradition in Norway and one of the most perplexing from an outsider’s point of view. From late April to the 17th of May, graduating seniors celebrate what they call “russefeiring,” or Russ celebration, a time of partying before their upcoming graduation. “Russ” wear overalls, mainly red or blue, and hats to identify themselves as soon-to-be graduates. Many participants purchase and design large busses to drive to festivals and other Russ meet-ups during their russefeiring. After non-stop partying for several weeks straight, the russefeiring ends on the 17th of May with a Russ parade. The most confusing part of Russ, however, is this all occurs right before final exams.
The Russ outfit also tells a non-verbal story; others can infer what type of concentration the wearer has chosen. Red is the color of general studies such as mathematics, biology, history, literature, etc., and blue signifies business administration studies.
The Phrase - If you want to experience the 17th of May the right way, you better learn how to say “gratulerer med dagen” and get used to hearing it a lot. The phrase means happy birthday, but on this day, you say it to one another simply because it's Norway’s birthday! Though Norway has been around for ages, it was passed between Sweden and Denmark for a several hundred years, until the 17th of May 1814 when Norway officially became a sovereign state.
That’s all for your digital dose of Norwegian culture! Keep these tips handy when experiencing a new culture firsthand to help improve your cross-cultural communication skills - skills that are absolutely necessary in today’s international business setting. Norway is unique in its own way, but like many cultures, we have some unexpected similarities to the United States. Respecting cultural differences and identifying similarities will help make your business communications more effective and enjoyable. Ha det! Until next time!
Hannah Jackson is a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University. She currently lives in Drammen, Norway and is a regular contributor to the Digital Millennial. Visit her on LinkedIn to connect!
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