Cultural variation and communication technology in Sweden, China and Japan

”Cultural variation and communication technology in Sweden, China and Japan” is a research project at SSKKII, Göteborg university, which is financed by KFB. Professor Jens Allwood together with Ph.D. Magnus Bergquist and Associate Professor Magnus Mörck organize the project. The project will be conducted between 1998-2000.

The study focuses on intercultural communication in a multicultural work situation and on how information technology affects the outcome of this communication, relating both problems and opportunities. As empirical focus, Ericsson, a Swedish telecom company operating on an international level, with subsidiaries in Japan and China, has been chosen.

The method is to compare the work situation related to the cultural environment. We wish to study communication between actors representing different ethnical backgrounds. We are focusing on actors’ explanations of their experiences of intercultural communication through ethnological ’in-depth interviews’.

For a more comprehensive outline of the research project, please look at the research project description.

To get some information of what has been achieved during 1998, look at the results (Only in Swedish).

Pictures of project members and affiliated researchers.

The following articles and papers have been written so far:
Magnus Mörck: Stereotyper

Magnus Bergquist och Magnus Mörck: Making Asia Manageable. Stereotypes and Metaphors of Asia in a Swedish Business Magazine

Magnus Bergquist och Magnus Mörck: Bortom orientalismen. Framställningar av Asien på Internet


The study focuses on intercultural communication in a multicultural worksituation and on how information technology affects the outcome of this communication, relating both problems and opportunities. As empirical focus, Swedish companies operating on an international level, with subsidiaries in Japan, China and Sweden, will be chosen. The different companies will all be studied from the Swede’s ’point of view’.

The method is to compare worksituation related to the cultural environment. We will focus on actors’ explanations of their experiences of intercultural communication through ethnological ’in-depth interviews’. Another important goal is to relate the interviews to research results which are attained with the help of ’participant observation’, a method that focuses rather on ’what’s going on’ then on how people talk about their experiences.

We wish to study communication between actors representing different ethnical backgrounds. As a hypothesis the relations between three groups are of major interest:

  1. Swedes working as engineers, and other Swedish staff members in the company.
  2. ’Foreign’ workers and local dealers.
  3. ’Foreign’ employees at the Swedish companies whom function as ’cultural mediators’ between different cultures.

The Swedes represent transnational business interests in a foreign milieu were they must cooperate with their counterparts in order to get their job done. Language difficulties and other cultural differences can make communication with workers and dealers difficult. In some situations information technology could be a way of overcoming these problems. Another strategy is to communicate via cultural mediators who in some ways are familiar with Swedish language and western standards of behaviour and business strategies. In which situations does culture make a difference and in which situations is it of minor importance? How are information technologies, such as telephone and e-mail, related to cultural differences and when are cultural differences of minor importance or even neutralized by technology?


To get hold of aspects of Swedes understanding of Chinese and Japanese culture, a biographical approach will be taken. Being a Swede in a foreign milieu calls for an analysis of people’s backgrounds: the general cultural necessities of the work situation, which include historical backgrounds of the employees. Education, earlier employment (in Sweden and abroad), language knowledge and experiences of different cultural settings shape peoples attitudes towards their field of activities. It also forms the way in which the host country, worksituation and work organisation, and other employees are encountered. The development of transnational business with subsidiaries around the world, has, according to many writers, given rise to a new group within the service class, the cosmopolitans, with great cultural knowledge and ability to adjust oneself to changing work conditions.

Through interviews we will try to reach the way a particular Swedish employee develops his/her understanding of China or Japan, from school years to adult age and arrival at the actual workplace in China. We will look into different aspects of this understanding: history, politics and knowledge of every-day life with dimensions such as family, food, television and folk-psychology, but also the understanding of behaviour in different respects – authority, group-individual dynamics, humour or handling of conflict.

Participant observation is a way to find other dimensions of the relations between different employees. Data collected through participant observation often differ from people’s own understanding of themselves and their activities in ways that tell us more about the role of culture and its relation to the use of information technology.

From the above arguments the following are interesting dimensions to investigate in workrelated intercultural communication:

1. Individualised understanding – the playing down of cultural differences.

Individual definitions and understandings of work situations could differ between employees in multicultural companies. Communication could sometimes be easier if individuals perceive themselves and others as individualised subjects of differing personalities instead of representations of different national/ethnical cultures. This will be studied through the actors’ conceptions and explanations of different worksituation and their ’stories’ of good and poor outcomes of co-operation.

2. Stereotyping as another way of avoiding having to deal with cultural differences

Another way of avoiding cultural differences in the understanding of work and everyday life is to use stereotypes of differences. Stereotypes are often seen as the result of lack of understanding in a way that makes communication difficult. But they can also make communication easier since there is no need for a ’deeper’ understanding as long as daily business routines function. Stereotypes of national culture, religion, and in this case also of companies rooted in different national cultures, may function as easy and effective ways of explanation. Positive stereotyping is in this context interpreted as practical ways of handling information on a scale otherwise impossible, which is through strictly individualised understanding of the situation. This can also be stated, as a hypothesis where the outcome at the particular situations studied may be different. How stereotyping works (positive or negative) in different situations is an empirical question to be examined.

3. The transnational culture of engineers

Another way of playing down cultural factors is to switch to a more transnational idiom, in this case perhaps broadly constituted through technology itself, the use of a third language, English, and a third culture, that is the transnational culture of engineers. Successful co-operation and cross-cultural understanding depends on an understanding of different actors’ competence as professional people. Culture as operating in terms of occupational culture on a transnational scale is therefore an important aspect. The transnational culture of engineers include the use of a special workrelated terminology based on an international (often American) idiom which is reshaped to fit into different business environments, but also to specific experiences related to the use of technology itself.

4. The role of cultural mediators

Beside professional competence, Swedes can communicate via cultural mediators to make the counterpart understand their ideas of organising work and defining work tasks relating to hierarchies and co-operation. Cultural mediators translate behaviour, customs, organisation models etc. from Swedish to Chinese or Japanese, and back again. Cultural mediators are often employees in middle-management with knowledge about the English language, European ore ’western’ standards of management, work organisation (for example different attitudes towards hierarchies and orders – who is allowed to speak to whom and under what circumstances) and cultural differences.

5. Accumulation of misunderstanding

It is natural to think that understanding and communication will be better as time goes by and the Swedish employees get acquainted with standards of behaviour in foreign countries. But the opposite is also possible. At first the counterparts are prepared for different kinds of misunderstanding which makes them check and double-check that messages are understood right. As time goes by misunderstandings can be heavier because the counterpart act as if they understand more than they do and take for granted that they understand one another (as a result of their behaviour). Over time this can result in an accumulation of misunderstanding.

6. Intercultural communication and the role of technology

Another important topic is whether technology itself supports or works against intercultural communication. Are there any technologically mediated ways of communicating with low or no national cultural content? Is the kind of information technology used more ’suitable’ to some cultures than to others? It is often claimed that information technology is based on a Western conception of communication. But some research show that for example most computer interfaces are developed in a cross-cultural context with inspiration from both Western and Asian concepts (for instance the use of icons and pictures instead of words). >From an ethnological perspective the above discussed questions are important ways of framing the overall question concerning in what ways information technology can function as a medium for understanding. How does the different technologies used at work relate to cultural differences or similarities?

Time Schedule

1/1-31/8 1998.

Background studies in Sweden. Literature studies and a study of western representations of Asia on the Internet.

1/9-31/12 1998

Data collection in Sweden, China and Japan and organisation of the material.

1/1-31/12 1999

Data analysis (transcribing interviews, analysing participant observation studies).

1/1-31/12 2000

Writing a report and comparing results with the Japanese counterparts.