Shared knowledge: Miss Sophie and the Englishman in Germany

    Business Spotlight 8/2021
    Miss Sophie and her butler
    © ullstein bild - United Archives / Siegfried Pilz
    Von Professor Peter Franklin

    to be completely mystifiedvor einem absoluten Rätsel stehenShortly after starting to work in Germany, I said to a group of Germans I was working with, “OK. Same procedure as last week?” One of the Germans added, “Same procedure as every week, Miss Sophie”, whereupon everybody burst into laughter.

    I was completely mystified. What was so funny? Why should anybody address me as Miss Sophie? Somebody then asked me, “You don’t know why we are laughing?” “No,” I replied. “But you must know Miss Sophie. She’s in a very famous English film. You must know it. Everybody in Germany knows it.”

    This explanation helped me to understand why I was puzzledverwirrtpuzzled. But it did little to reduce my feeling of being stupid and excluded from the group around the table. I subsequentlyspätersubsequently learned that the triggerAuslösertrigger of such merrimentFröhlichkeit, Belustigungmerriment was a sketch shown every year on German television on New Year's EveSilvesterNew Year’s Eve but unknown in the UK.

    Procedures and facts

    Cultures — country cultures, corporate cultures, in-groupEigengruppe, Wir-Gruppein-groups of any kind — share different types of knowledge. One is implicit(stillschweigend) inbegriffenimplicit procedural knowledge. This enables group members to behave and interact together without having to to work sth. outetw. herausfindenwork out how to do so over and over again. We implicitly know, for example, how business meetings tend to be run and how to take part in meetings in our own particular settingUmfeldsetting. And this knowledge may differ between cultures.

    Cultures also share factual knowledge, which may be restricted to the particular group and remains implicit until it is openly addressed or to allude to sth.auf etw. anspielenalluded to. Everybody around the table except me knew that Miss Sophie is a character in a film served by the increasingly drunken butler James, who repeatedly says: “The same procedure as last year, Miss Sophie?” Not having this knowledge excluded me from the in-group. Such feelings of not belonging can lead to relational damage, which may, in turn, to affect sth.etw. beeinträchtigen, beeinflussenaffect the performance of the group.

    This shared knowledge — or lack of it — can be especially critical in intercultural communication. Building such knowledge, especially in unfamiliar intercultural settings, is a key element of intercultural interaction competence, regardless of whether we’re talking about a country culture or organizational culture. It may affect both the quality of relationships and of transactions and their outcomeErgebnisoutcomes.

    When people get to know each other, they may start to build shared knowledge, for example by exchanging information about mutual acquaintancegemeinsame(r) Bekannte(r)mutual acquaintances and shared experiences. Finding common groundGemeinsamkeit(en)common ground in this way is — in some settings, at least — the relational foundationGrundlagefoundation for cooperation, in which the sharing of factual knowledge specific to a country or organizational culture becomes essential for success.

    The lack of implicitly shared knowledge between business partners from different cultures means that much more effort may need to be spent on to depict sth.etw. darstellen, beschreibendepicting the background to a particular request or suggestion so as to make it understandable or convincing.

    Stones in the mosaic

    In intercultural interaction in business, many more of the individual mosaic stones are needed to create the whole mosaic, which is necessary to to make up for sth.etw. kompensierenmake up for what implicit shared knowledge achieves in monocultural interaction. Although it is important to avoid appearing condescendingherablassendcondescending by stating the the blindingly obviousganz offenkundige Dingeblindingly obvious, it may sometimes be necessary, in the words of a manager I know, to “overcommunicate”.

    This free flow of factual knowledge has another advantage as well. It contributes to the creation of the trust that is crucialwesentlich, entscheidendcrucial in international dealings. Trust reduces the complexity of social interaction, especially with a person or an organization potentially very different from those we are familiar with in our own cultural setting.

    The lack of shared knowledge can also be made up for by gathering information from written sources or, more unsystematically, from trusted cultural “informants”. But this can be an arbitrarywillkürlicharbitrary and lengthylangwieriglengthy process. How long would it have taken me to to come across sth.auf etw. stoßencome across Miss Sophie and her significance in German New Year’s Eve rituals?

    Intercultural interaction competence

    In their book Intercultural Interaction: A Multidisciplinary Approach to Intercultural Communication, Helen Spencer-Oatey and Peter Franklin write that intercultural interaction competence is the ability “not only to communicate (verbally and non-verbally) and behave effectively and appropriatelyangemessen; hier auch: situationsgerechtappropriately with people from other cultural groups, but also to handle the psychological demands and dynamic outcomeErgebnisoutcomes that result from such interchanges.” Intercultural interaction competence consists of numerous subcompetencies, two of which are the building of shared knowledge and information gathering described here.

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