Organizational communication across cultures with visual mapping: benefits and perils

Communicating across cultures is often a challenge: it is easy to imagine that visualization can help us overcome linguistic barriers, but it can actually do much more!

The benefits of visual mapping for cross-cultural communication can be summarized in five main factors:
1. Overcoming linguistic barriers.
2. Providing double cues: When the verbal or textual information is not clear, the visual element can support elaborations and understanding.
3. Seeing the big picture and the relations: Mapping ideas forces to provide links between the contributions. In presence of cultural
differences, this explicitation is useful to convey ideas more clearly.
4. Surface misunderstanding: Visualization, thanks to its concreteness, can help to surface assumptions and misunderstandings by triggering an open discussion.
5. Prevent personal conflict: when ideas are mapped onto a visualization, participants can express their disagreement by referencing the idea visualized, rather than the person who proposed it. This advantage of visual mapping can be particularly useful in intercultural meetings in which the Power Distance  of the participants’ culture is largely different.

However visualization is not free of dangers when used in cross-cultural context: misunderstanding can arise, cause by seven main factors:

1. Color.
2. Direction: In Arabic and in traditional Chinese language information is read from right to left.
3. Icons and symbols: a handshake symbolizes agreement only in the west. Fork and knife are perceived as an exotic symbol in Asia.
4. Humor: humour is culturally dependent.
5. Visual metaphors: sport metaphors are not understood in coutries where that sport is not practiced.
6. Focus of attention: Westerners focus on the main central objects at the expenses of the background, and Asians focus equally on the background as on the foreground (Nisbett, 2003).
7. Nature of thought: Westerners prefer linear and analytical diagrams while Asians prefer more holistic types of visualizations such as visual metaphors.

If you are interested in more details you can check out my recent publication:  Bresciani, S. (2013). Organizational communication with visual mapping: Comparing East and West. In D. Ingenhoff (Ed.), Internationale PR-Forschung. Konstanz: UVK Verlag.


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