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Navigating Cultural Differences in Communication: Business Acumen | 28 March 2022

Featuring Jay Soo and Michelle Whittemore (original article can be seen here)

Global Brand ConvergenceSM is a global collaborative experience for higher education students, faculty and professionals in public relations and marketing, to connect a community and advance new ideas. With six topics of discussion and artists, academics, writers, scientists, innovators, practitioners and entrepreneurs speaking from all over the world, Global Brand ConvergenceSM is a complimentary exchange of concepts, including navigating cultural differences in marketing.

We spoke with Jay Soo and Michelle Whittemore, who will present “Marketing: When East Meets West: How to Navigate Cultural Differences.” Here, Soo and Whittemore discuss the importance of understanding cultural differences in a world of instant connection. Plus, they share what participants can expect from their Global Brand ConvergenceSM session.

In today’s digital world, people can easily connect across oceans and continents. Why is it so important for communicators to understand cultural differences, especially in the age of instant connection?

Jay Soo (JS): It is so easy to connect that we often forget we’re all from different places with different origins, and we need to be sensitive to each other’s cultures. When we’re younger, this is usually not so apparent because it never crosses our minds. As we start to interact with others, either in school or at the workplace, we realize that maybe we aren’t all cut from the same cloth.

It’s worth making an effort to understand the other person’s point of reference; if you can shape your communication to fit that particular culture or worldview, you’re much more likely to get the other person to accept what you’re putting across. Plus, you won’t be inadvertently insulting them.

To me, that’s what communication is about — getting the other side to see your point of view and giving proper consideration to what you’re pitching or asking for.

Michelle Whittemore (MW): There is no doubt that the digital age has reshaped the way we communicate. We now live in a world of real-time communication, 24 hours a day. When dealing with a different culture, the risk and impact of misunderstanding our messages are amplified. Today, the focus is more about the speed of a reply and not necessarily thinking through its content. To short-circuit this risk, we as communicators need to have the right mindset, be culturally sensitive and be intentional when crafting our messaging.

A best practice when communicating across continents is to educate yourself with knowledge and awareness of your audience (their cultural norms, values and how your communications will sound to them) before you communicate. Then, treat every text-based communication — be it email, social media or other — as if you were standing in front of the person.

You both have rich professional backgrounds to bring to your session. Jay, as a former musician and current business owner, how does your background impact the way you manage communications across cultures?

JS: The wonderful thing about music is that it is language-less. Tones and chords invoke emotions, and how you assemble those tones and chords (harmony) all add up (like a music arrangement) to give the listener a feeling. A master musician can move you to tears, or they can have you on your feet, punching the air with your fists.

When I am communicating with words, I try and arrange the order of those words so the person listening starts to feel what I’m saying, like telling a story. If I’m speaking, I modulate my tone and volume, adding dynamics to my voice like a musician does when playing.

First, I ensure that the progression of my communication leads to a big crescendo. I try to bring the other person along on a journey because it makes the listener or reader feel involved in my story. I try very hard to evoke an emotion. For example, in a pitching situation, if I can get someone to feel the ideas I am trying to sell, I’m usually successful.

It’s precisely the way you listen to a piece of music. We have hooks in music, and we have hooks in verbal communication. You want to ensure that the hook works with the other person’s cultural references or touchstones if they come from a different place.

Michelle, as a marketing director in the global hospitality industry, how does your background impact the way you manage communications across cultures?

MW: I am truly privileged that my 25-year career has afforded me incredible cross-cultural awareness, having worked in the U.K., South Africa and Belgium.

Working in luxury hospitality has taught me that luxury is many different things to different people, but it does seek to do three things. Give pleasure, create status and offer symbolic value no matter what cultural background someone might have.

As we know, culture involves beliefs, attitudes, values and traditions, but it also involves expectations when it comes to communication context. The lessons I have learned over the years and continue to try and improve on are to master the art of effective intercultural communication — from my choice of words and how I communicate to acknowledging and understanding it, as all these aspects of communication are influenced by the culture one way or another.

What is one insight you hope Global Brand ConvergenceSM participants take away from your panel?

JS: I want the participants to realize that the intelligent thing to do (always) is first research and find out as much as possible about the person you’ll be communicating with. In the age of LinkedIn, that isn’t so difficult. If you discover that said person is from another culture, learn about it and see if you can tune your communications to match what you know. This is not to be manipulative, but I believe widening your understanding of the world and other cultures is always a positive thing. And the more you know of the other person’s culture, the better you will be at getting your message across.

MW: Take the time to understand what culture is, as there is a wide range of definitions. The bottom line is that culture is understanding the attitudes and behaviors of people from other countries. Education is key — learning about other cultures allows you to develop cultural sensitivity, which at the end of the day is simply caring.

Share one piece of career advice you have for the students and young professionals in the Global Brand ConvergenceSM audience.

JS: Be humble, have fun and always see the other person’s point of view, all the while learning and doing. Live. Laugh. Love. Life’s already too short and complicated as it is, why make it more difficult for yourself or the people you come into contact with? Learn about others’ differences, embrace them and celebrate them so we might have a better world.

In the words of the legendary John Lennon:

“Imagine all the people Living life in peace You may say I'm a dreamer But I'm not the only one I hope someday you'll join us And the world will be as one”

MW: Apply “CIMPLE,” which stands for:

C: Be confident in your decisions and actions. Confidence is attractive.

I: Have an inquiring mind — questions lead to answers, which lead to learning.

M: Be a maverick. Don’t be scared to color outside the lines.

P: Be passionate about what you do. It rewards the highs and makes it easier to accept the


L: Be a leader — you will have a broader impact.

E: Have empathy. Feeling heard and understood is a human need.

IABC is a partner of Global Brand ConvergenceSM, which takes place online Thursday, 21 April. Learn more here and register for this free event.

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