Sunday, May 13, 2007

Happy end of ramadan!

A friend told me the following story. It is funny but a nice example of intercultural communication (and how easy it is to create misunderstandings) too. Fortunately, she allowed me to blog it:

I work in a large, international development organisation with thousands of staff in various countries all over the world. We have a corporate e-mail system whereby it is possible to send a mail to all employees at once. One day, towards the end of ramadan, a person from a country in West Africa send a message to all to wish every one a happy end of ramadan celebration. Others started replying thank you, etc. The IT persons at the headquarters were panicking because a lot of mail traffic may bring the system down, so he sent a message warning people not to send these kind of messages around. But that aroused very bad sentiments within the West African employees, and they started reacting to his message by challenging their right to wish everyone a happy end of ramadan, as they would wish for Christian holidays. So the whole discussion became even more heated on the issue of muslims versus christians (everyone sending mails to thousands of staff) and the IT department panicking even more.

You see how easily the intentions of the IT department staff get misinterpreted. Probably the West African staff may not be aware of the implications of sending messages all over the globe, both for the system as well as for using the staff time. There is a dimension of people from different backgrounds giving different levels of importance to these kind of messages too (they may think this is not wasting time). I can also imagine there may be more general frustrations about unbalanced attention for Christian holidays over Muslim holidays leading to this interpretation by the West African staff...


hoong said...

I worked for an international company, and covered the S.American region. We ran into all kinds of problems and complains from the S.American employees or customers that US employees (from our company) do not pay attention to local cultures. Therefore the division head decided we need to learn how to behave. During the divisional meeting, we had a lady who was born in one of the S.American countries but has a business in international business training or something. Her job was to fill us in on how US empolyees (from our company) should know about S.American cultures before we go there for our assignments. Well, I had no problem with most of the dicussions and suggestions, but then it came to the 'kiss and hug' thing. I told the consultant very blankly that in my cultues (I am Asian origin, and I am refering to at least my generation and my mother's), we don't kiss and hug. Especially strangers! Isn't it politeness itself from the S. American (or any races)they should be aware, and respectful to mine cultures?

Often time we talk about cultures, we generally forget there is something call 'organizational cultures'. For any very diversified, internatinal organization (that include a country in my opinion) the focus should be about 'organizational cultures, and not about individual cultures related to human and social activities. You would/could avoid a lot of frustrations and heated arguements.

Wouter Rijneveld said...

nice post. very recognisable.
apart from the intercultural aspect, I have experienced email to be a medium that is extremely likely to cause confusions. My own option when I sense some misunderstanding because of emails is to stop the discussion immediately and talk face to face, or else by phone.

Joitske Hulsebosch said...

Thanks Cindy and Wouter. Great story Cindy, you can imagine what shifts I made in kissing and hugging while moving from south america to Africa... I did try to adjust myself in both cases, but in Chile, the kissing seemed overdone, and in Africa things seemed very cool and distant at times (but I kept my awareness that this is just a difference in how people express their feelings). Actually, people cried in Chile when I left, something which never happened in Mali, Ethiopia or Ghana. Yet, I don't believe the feelings of attachment were less there.

And yes, e-mail may be more confusing that other ways of communications. I sometimes think that my worklife was just one long training in trying to communicate as clearly as possible (learning the hard way).