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Cultural Competence: Communicating with Care

“There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign,” said novelist Robert Louis Stevenson, who wrote Treasure Island and Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Stevenson was right in recognising that no one place (or culture) is foreign. Instead, people need to appreciate the cultural nuances of every new place they find themselves in. 

This attitude applies to corporate communications whereby being sensitive to cultural differences has become an increasingly important skill. Not only is cultural sensitivity important locally (given Singapore’s status as a melting pot of cultures), but in the era of multiculturalism, one’s words also have the potential to impact a diverse international audience. Additionally, this also means that an organisation is likely to be made up of an increasingly diverse group of people, and as such, developing cross-cultural competence is critical in corporate communications.  

Culture and communications are tightly intertwined. Only when organisations recognise the importance of cultural sensitivity will they be able to leverage their cross-cultural competencies and ensure the effectiveness of their communication strategy.

Cautionary Tales: Importance of Cultural Competence

What happens when a brand does not have cultural competence?

There have been numerous cases of organisations failing to be culturally sensitive, from the infamous Nets ‘brownface’ advertisement in 2019 to the recent case of a Malay couple’s wedding photo being misused as part of Hari Raya decorations in the Radin Mas constituency in Singapore. While the crux of the issue in the latter is the use of a personal photograph without consent, both cases still share a similarity in that they were not culturally sensitive. Both trivialised a race, ethnicity and culture into a single superficial caricature, without regard for accuracy or nuance. And the key issue here is cultural competence – whether one is able to look beyond the superficial and instead embrace the nuances of a multicultural world.

A study by Shavitt and Barnes (2020) showed that the consumer journey (which is the path individuals take when forming relationships with brands) differs across cultures, and a deep consideration of cultural differences is required to effectively understand it. Yeo and Pang (2017) found that the field of public relations is also highly culture-dependent, especially in a multicultural society like Singapore. In their work titled Asian Multiculturalism in Communication: Impact of Culture in the Practice of Public Relations in Singapore, they noted:

If practitioners are not cultural competent, their solutions to communicate problems will not be creative or effective. When managing stakeholders, the ability to recognize and be acquainted with audiences with multicultural minds or who belong to multicultural groups, i.e. race, ethnicity, religion all at the same time, will equip practitioners to better identify other dimensions of diversity, which has become a very significant part of PR practice if organizations hope to succeed in the globalizing era of multiculturalism.

Yeo and Pang (2017, p.14)

Simply put, as the world becomes increasingly multicultural, the ability to communicate cross-culturally and to do so effectively is a skill that is highly sought after. Multiculturalism has a great influence on corporate communications and the inability to be culturally competent is therefore a disadvantage to avoid at all cost.

So, how do we ensure cultural competence and cultural sensitivity?

A Guide to Cultural Sensitivity

1. Look beyond the superficial

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Edward T. Hall's Cultural Iceberg (Adapted from the University of Central Arkansas)

The first step to ensure cultural competence is to ensure that we have the right attitude towards cultural sensitivity. Being culturally sensitive is about giving the proper respect to religions, ethnicities and traditions. And to do so, we have to approach cultural sensitivity with an authentic desire to learn more about other cultures beyond any superficial preconceptions about the culture that we may carry. In his book Beyond Culture (1976), anthropologist Edward T. Hall suggested that culture is like an iceberg — there are visible aspects above the water (surface culture) but there exists a larger portion of the culture hidden beneath the surface (deep culture). His cultural iceberg model suggests that only understanding the easily visible aspects of a culture is insufficient. One needs to put in the effort to see what lies beneath the surface in order to fully appreciate the richness of a culture.

2. Be Mindful

We are subconsciously trained to make quick assumptions and we are instinctively biased towards familiarity. However, to be culturally competent, one should strive to be mindful. Essentially, be conscientious and challenge the “why” behind our thinking. This means being aware of our biases and habitual behaviours when operating within a diverse environment. Self-awareness is therefore key in engaging with the nuances of a multicultural world.

3. Understand National Culture

When dealing with global marketing or managing a multicultural work environment, corporate communicators can benefit by understanding how national cultures can differ.

Social psychologist Geert Hofstede’s theory of cultural dimensions describes the various ways a country’s culture can differ, and his framework has been applied to fields like organisational behaviour, international management and international marketing. While his categories are not exhaustive, understanding Hofstede’s cultural dimensions is the first step companies can take to become cross-culturally competent.

Hofstede’s six factors that influence how a culture behaves are:

  1. Power Distance: The extent to which less powerful members of organisations and institutions accept and expect that power is distributed unequally.
  2. Individualism: The extent to which people feel independent, as opposed to being interdependent as members of larger wholes.
  3. Uncertainty Avoidance: Society’s level of tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity.
  4. Masculinity: The extent to which power, assertiveness and materialistic success are emphasised.
  5. Long-term Orientation: The extent to which society views its time horizon.
  6. Indulgence: The extent and tendency for a society to fulfil its desires.
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Hofstede's Cultural Dimensions (Adapted from the Corporate Finance Institute)

Hofstede’s cultural dimensions provide critical insight into how a culture thinks and makes decisions, which in turn may help in understanding the dynamics of people from different international cultures working together in a globalised work environment. Additionally, the framework may also be helpful when tailoring marketing content meant for international audiences, and to communicate interculturally.

4. Adopt Cultural Appreciation

In most cases of marketing gone culturally wrong, brands often commit the grave mistake of ‘cultural appropriation’ in their attempts to generate diverse content. Admittedly, there is a fine line between appropriation and appreciation and there is much debate over where the line actually is.

So, how then should brands navigate the murky waters of culturally sensitive marketing? A good guideline to follow is to recognise that using something of value from another culture, and especially one not of your own, should be with the intent of appreciation and/or education. Additionally, it is also important to avoid co-opting culturally rich symbols, practices and/or clothing in a simple and superficial manner. This means that celebrating cultures must go beyond looking at the surface and instead turn to deep culture, focusing on the significance and the values behind certain cultural aspects.

A good example is the 2019 Public Utilities Board (PUB) video. Titled Kinship, the video used the Hari Raya Puasa celebration to push PUB’s message of reducing water wastage. They were able to authentically represent the special occasion by focusing on the values of forgiveness and family, which are central components of the event, instead of simply appropriating symbols or materials related to Hari Raya. In doing so, they did not trivialise the culture into a single superficial aspect and instead showed a deep understanding of the culture and its core values.

Benson Toh, executive creative director of Tribal Worldwide Singapore, the creative agency behind the video, said that it is crucial to have people involved in the production who are deeply familiar with the specific culture in question to provide critical insights. This means that introducing diversity into a brand’s marketing and content generation process can help ensure authentic and sensitive cultural representation. Benson further elaborated, “[It’s] not just about making sure we don’t get it wrong, but more importantly, how we can make it right.”

Communicating Culture

Singapore is a great example of the ‘rojak’ (Malay for mix) of different cultures. But organisations still need to put in effort to be culturally sensitive and competent to appreciate the richness of a diverse world and to communicate with care. This will not only reduce the possibilities of negative branding from cultural faux pas, but it would also strengthen companies to help them navigate the challenges of an increasingly multicultural workplace and dynamic global economy.

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