People Innovation Excellence

Bridging Cultural Diversity Through E-mail

Bridging Cultural Diversity Through E-mail

By: Pnina Shachaf

In this paper, the writer discuss that: unlike traditional teams, virtual teams routinely cross boundaries, using communication technology to link members. A virtual team is “a group of people who work interdependently with a shared purpose across space, time, and organization boundaries using technology”. Global virtual teams (GVTs) are internationally distributed, culturally diverse, and geographically dispersed work teams. The increased use of GVTs creates opportunities as well as challenges for traditional management theories and practices. Employing GVTs allows organizations to combine the expertise needed for task performance, regardless of geographic location or travel costs and restrictions (Kirkman, Rosen, Gibson, Tesluk, & McPherson, 2002).

Although there are clear advantages to instituting GVTs, these teams face greater communication challenges than face-to-face teams (Watson-Manheim & Belanger, 2002). Specifically, traditional communication mechanisms are lost or distorted, and vocal and nonverbal communication cues are altered (Kayworth & Leidner, 2001). In addition, because of team members’ locations in multiple time zones, logistics are more complex; scheduling meetings and travel is very difficult.

As a result of the conditions of virtual teamwork, building trust among GVT members becomes an additional challenge for GVTs (Jarvenpaa & Leidner, 1999), as does overcoming feelings of isolation and detachment (Kirkman et al., 2002). Cultural diversity further increases teamwork complexity and may weaken a team’s effectiveness and jeopardize its viability. Although cultural diversity has potential advantages for team effectiveness, heterogeneity presents team members with tremendous challenges (Dube & Pare, 2001).

In a context of culturally diverse teams, the participation of team members who must speak a foreign language may be reduced; however, technological mediation enables equalization and increased participation (Dube & Pare, 2001). Not only language barriers, but also differing verbal and nonverbal styles of team members affect intercultural communication (Gudykunst & Ting-Toomey, 1988). Although nonverbal miscommunication does not occur via e-mail, differences in verbal style can either increase miscommunication or improve communication among team members.

It is essential to gain a better understanding of the effects of cultural diversity and virtuality on team effectiveness (Dafoulas & Macaulay, 2001; Dube & Pare, 2001; Evaristo, 2003; Jarvenpaa & Leidner, 1999). The effect of cultural diversity may be diluted, similar, or amplified in the virtual setting as compared with a traditional setting. In particular, it is possible that selection and implementation of the appropriate types of information technology could facilitate group processes and overcome potential barriers created by heterogeneity in GVTs (Dube & Pare, 2001).

This study was designed to discover how members of GVTs perceive the influence of e-mail use on intercultural communication and to understand how e-mail mitigates or amplifies the impact of cultural diversity on team effectiveness. A qualitative, naturalistic approach was applied in order to collect from participants, in their everyday settings, descriptions of how they understand and manage actions related to their operations.



Cultural differences among GVT members increase the potential barriers that teams face, because individuals from different national and cultural backgrounds communicate differently (Adler, 1997; Gudykunst & Ting-Toomey, 1988). Team members must speak a common language, typically English; this causes lower participation by non-native speakers, resulting in less relevant input for decision making.

When global virtual team members communicate with each other, the differences that have been present in face-to-face intercultural communication are mediated by the technology used for communication. It is possible that when team members are using email, these differences in verbal styles will be amplified or mitigated compared to faceto-face communication.

The purpose of this study was to develop an understanding of how e-mail mitigates or amplifies the impact of cultural diversity on team effectiveness. In particular, an effort was made to explore the impact of e-mail on intercultural communication. For that purpose, a qualitative, naturalistic approach was used to collect data from participants in their everyday settings and to elicit descriptions of the ways participants understood and managed actions related to their operations.

The source of data was individual open interviews with 41 GVT members; some interview subjects belonged to more than one GVT. Thirty-five participants worked for a Fortune 500 multicultural corporation in the computer industry. The corporation’s top management is based in the United States; divisions are located around the globe, with employees in various countries in Asia, Europe, North and South America, and Australia. Nine participants in the study were members of an interorganizational GVT that was created for a research and development project and financed by the European Union under the Information Society Technologies Program. This GVT was spread over six European countries and involved employees of seven organizations; of the 9 team members interviewed, 2 were in France, 2 in Germany, 2 in Israel, 1 in the Netherlands, and 1 in the United Kingdom.

Theoretical sampling was applied, finalizing the sample size during data collection; data collection ended as theoretical saturation was attained (Glaser & Strauss, 1967). The 41 participants in this study were from nine countries of residency, with 1 to 15 participants in each country. The sample include the following numbers of participants per country of residency: 2 in France, 2 in Germany, 14 in Israel, 1 in Italy, 2 in Japan, 2 in the Netherlands, 1 in Switzerland, 2 in the United Kingdom, and 15 in the United States. The data were collected from 16 face-to-face interviews and 25 telephone interviews, which took place over nine months, from June 2002 to February 2003. Thirty of the participants were engaged in software research and development tasks; 11 performed sales and marketing tasks. An interview protocol with open-ended questions was developed.

Participants were asked to describe the context of their work with GVTs and to focus on their use of technology for communication. They were asked to elaborate specifically on their use of e-mail. They were also asked to describe the impact of cultural diversity on their work in GVTs and to elaborate on how technologies, and e-mail in particular, are utilized in this context. They were also asked to describe the impact of cultural diversity on their work in GVTs. Further questions were developed in response to answers the participants gave during the interview. Follow-up questions provided additional explanations and clarification.

After the interviews were transcribed, the text was analyzed using an interpretive approach (Miles & Huberman, 1994). An inductive approach was used for interpretation and for developing categories from the data. Concepts from the data were then sorted according to the categories. Data analysis focused at the individual level of analysis. The data analysis was supported by the use of NVIVO 1.3 software, which was designed for qualitative analysis by the developers of NUD*ist software.

GVT members interviewed in this study used multiple technologies for communicating and sharing information with each other. Participants reported on their use of e-mail, chat, e-meeting, teleconference, and team room, in addition to their faceto- face meetings. The use of media channels was based mainly on corporate-wide use of Lotus groupware, which provides support for e-mail, Sametime (chat and e-meeting), team room (shared electronic workspace), and other applications.

Participants reported that e-mail was used more than any other medium of communication among GVT members. Participants in all GVTs perceived e-mail as a widely used communication channel; they reported that e-mail was used to address messages to individual team members, subgroups, or the entire team, and to communicate across team boundaries. It was evident from the interviews that e-mail was a standard medium of communication. E-mail was repeatedly mentioned as the most favorable channel for effective intercultural communication among dispersed members, despite its high cost of interaction due to the time it takes to type.

Two important aspects are to be considered regarding the benefits and limitations of e-mail in the context of GVTs. These are (a) the benefits and limitations that are innate in the technology and (b) the benefits and limitations of e-mail for intercultural communication. Innate benefits of e-mail technology include the capacity to support work at different times and places; limitations include the reduced capability of e-mail to convey social and nonverbal cues. In intercultural communication, however, the benefits of e-mail remain, while some of the limitations transform and become beneficial. More specifically, the lack of nonverbal and social cues reduces miscommunication due to cultural diversity. Thus, participants claimed that e-mail lessens the negative impact of cultural diversity and reduces intercultural miscommunication.


This study suggests that intercultural miscommunication due to language, verbal cues, and nonverbal cues is mitigated by the use of e-mail. This effect decreases process losses due to miscommunication and therefore increases team productivity of heterogeneous teams that use email (compared with those that do not). First, compared with spoken language, e-mail provides normative speakers with more potential for accurate word choice. This improvement is due to the rehearsability characteristic of the technology-that is, the ability to rehearse communication prior to the communication action (Dennis & Valacich, 1999). Similarly, miscommunication is reduced because the accents of normative spoken language do not create this type of “noise” in a lean textual channel of communication such as e-mail. Therefore, the language problems that cause miscommunication are mitigated in the virtual setting.

Second, e-mail reduces the negative impact of differences in verbal style. The message is written in direct verbal style, and the verbal communication is also more accurate than it might be in spoken English. In addition, e-mail gives the text in a sequence that does not include “silence” or pauses for interpretations. This straightforward text helps overcome differences between succinct and elaborate verbal styles.

Third, since intercultural nonverbal misunderstandings are not evident in the virtual setting, their negative effects are reduced. This is because most communication incidents between team members are conducted using lean media. These lean channels, such as e-mail, do not convey nonverbal cues; therefore, misunderstandings due to misinterpretation of nonverbal cues are reduced.

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