Communication Design for Avoiding Uncertainty
Cultural diversity, if not handled well, can be a source of inefficiency, frustration, and stress at work. Let's examine high context vs low context cultures.
Join the DZone community and get the full member experience.Join For Free
It was Monday morning and I was anxiously waiting in my cubicle for Bob to come to the office. I had made up my mind to tell him clearly that the new project timelines are very rigid and there’s no way we would be able to pull it off. I was at the client site in Massachusetts and Bob was handling the entire program from the customer’s side.
At the first sign of his appearance, I marched to him hoping to convey my discomfort in signing up for the project. This is how our conversation went:
Me: Hey Bob. Hope you had a great weekend. What did you do?
Bob: It’s my wife’s birthday in a week. I was mostly busy planning the surprise birthday party.
Me: That’s great. I am sure she’s going to love it.
After a little more beating around the bush, I finally got to the point.
Me: I was hoping we could discuss this new project. It sounds really tough.
Bob: Yes, it’s a tough project. There will be a good reason to celebrate once we are able to pull it off.
Me: Yeah. I guess so. What do you think about the project plan?
Bob: We have done a detailed job of breaking down the project into smaller milestones so that we can track progress along the way. Do you think we have missed anything?
Me: No, I guess we have covered everything.
Bob: I am sure your team will do a great job.
Me: I hope so too. It will be a difficult one to pull around but I will do my best.
During my entire conversation, I never once mentioned my direct concern for the timelines of the project. Yet, I assumed that I had conveyed my point and expected Bob to read between the lines. When the project didn’t go so well and Bob turned to me for an explanation, my response was “I told you that we wouldn't be able to meet the timelines." Bob was furious. According to him, we not only missed the timelines, but I also never expressed my concern over it.
From my perspective, Bob was wrong for ignoring my message and from his perspective, I was clearly the one who messed up. Well, this was 14 years ago and I later learned that we were both right in our own ways. Coming from a high context culture in India, I expected Bob to pick up my subtle hints and Bob being an American from a low context culture wanted me to be direct about it.
This is just one of the many conflicts we may encounter as we cross global boundaries for work and step out of our own cultural cocoon to interact with people all over the world. Whether it’s a face-to-face conversation, connecting over a zoom call, or interacting via slack or email, if we wish to communicate effectively, we need to understand how culture affects communication.
Why Culture Is Important in Communication
Cultural diversity, if not handled well, can be a source of inefficiency, confusion, frustration, anxiety, and stress at work. When we don’t appreciate the cultural differences in how others convey and interpret information, we are more likely to misunderstand them.
What happens when people from other countries and cultures don’t behave according to our cultural norms? We fall for the fundamental attribution error and attribute their behavior to their personality, assuming their behavior is representative of who they are. We also find it convenient to go with cultural stereotypes without making an attempt to understand how culture plays a role in their style of communication.
"Subtle differences in communication patterns and the complex variations in what is considered good business or common sense from one country to another have a tremendous impact on how we understand one another, and ultimately on how we get the job done" — Erin Meyer
Techniques that made us successful with a group of people from one country may not work with another group from a different country. To be collaborative, we need to embrace cultural diversity and open ourselves to learning different communication approaches and making adjustments along the way. We need to learn, unlearn, and relearn new strategies to communicate effectively with different groups of people.
“By sidestepping common stereotypes and learning to decode the behaviour of other cultures, we can avoid giving (and taking) offense and better capitalise on the strengths of increased diversity”, says Erin Meyer.
American anthropologist Edward T. Hall developed a metric to measure communication differences across cultures using high context and low context in the 1930s. He examined factors that impede or enhance communication between people from different cultural backgrounds.
Once we understand how communication in high context and low context culture varies, we will be able to appreciate these differences and take steps to reduce the communication gap instead of being trapped by the cultural differences and causing misunderstanding and unnecessary conflict
High Context Culture Vs Low Context Culture
"In a low context culture, if I give a presentation, I should tell you what I am going to tell you, then I tell you and then I tell you what I have told you. Why do I tell you the same thing three times? Because everything is about the simplicity and the clarity of the message. In a high context culture, we assume that we have a much larger body of shared reference points. In these cultures we believe that good effective professional communication is much more sophisticated, more nuanced, implicit and layered." — Erin Meyer.
Let’s learn the difference in expectations when people from high context and low context cultures communicate.
High Context Culture Requires Reading Between the Lines
In a high context culture:
- Communication is indirect, implicit, subtle, layered, and nuanced.
- Nonverbal cues like tone of voice, eye movements, gestures, and facial expressions carry a great deal of meaning.
- The true intent of a message is not communicated verbally and is often left to the interpretation of the individual which requires contextual understanding and reading between the lines. In other words, the verbal message is indirect often talking around the point, and requires shared cultural context to carry meaning.
- Focus on long-term relationships to derive meaning which makes explicitness unnecessary.
- During meetings, do not summarize the key takeaways or follow them up with written communication with the implicit assumption that everyone got their part right.
- Individuals who value high context communication find low context style of communication as extremely detailed, distrustful and a waste of time due to repetition of message. “If you are from a high context culture, you might perceive a low-context communicator as inappropriately stating the obvious—You didn’t have to say it! We all understood! or even as condescending and patronizing—You talk to us like we are children”, says Erin Meyer
- High-context cultures often exhibit less-direct verbal and nonverbal communication, utilizing small communication gestures and reading more meaning into these less-direct messages. High context defines cultures that are usually relational and collectivist, and which most highlight interpersonal relationships, those in which harmony and the well-being of the group is preferred over individual achievement — Wiki
Low Context Culture Requires Stating as You Mean It
In a low context culture:
- Communication is concise, straightforward, explicit, simple, and clear.
- Requires attention to the literal meanings of words than to the context surrounding them.
- With emphasis on sending and receiving accurate messages, nothing is left to interpretation and actual intent is conveyed in words. Repetition is often used to provide the necessary clarity.
- The purpose and outcome of the communication take precedence over interpersonal relationships. Focus on following standards and procedures leads to short-term relationships. This requires that more value be placed on logic, facts, and directness of the message.
- Summarising the key takeaways from the meeting and nailing things down in writing are expected to avoid confusion and set clear expectations.
- Individuals who value low context communication find high context communicators as lazy, undisciplined, secretive, lacking transparency, unable to communicate effectively, or those who waste a lot of time in trying to build relationships as opposed to getting the work done.
- Low-context cultures do the opposite; direct verbal communication is needed to properly understand a message being communicated and relies heavily on explicit verbal skills. In low context, communication members' communication must be more explicit, direct, and elaborate because individuals are not expected to have knowledge of each other's histories or background, and communication is not necessarily shaped by long-standing relationships between speakers. Because low-context communication concerns more direct messages, the meaning of these messages is more dependent on the words being spoken rather than on the interpretation of more subtle or unspoken cues - Wiki
The Cultural Scale of Communication: Mapping Communication Across Cultures
Erin Meyer developed an eight scale model that shows how cultures vary along a spectrum from one extreme to the other. She says, “Culture is too complex to be measured meaningfully along just one or two dimensions. When examining how people from different cultures relate to one another, what matters is not the absolute position of either culture on the scale but rather the relative position of the two cultures. It is this relative positioning that determines how people view one another”
From Her Research
The United States is the lowest context culture in the world followed by Canada, Australia, Netherlands, Germany, and the United Kingdom. All Anglo-Saxon cultures fall on the left-hand side of the scale, with the United Kingdom as the highest context culture of the Anglo-Saxon cluster. All the countries that speak Romance languages, including European countries like Italy, Spain, and France, and Latin American countries like Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina, fall to the middle right of the scale. Brazil is the lowest context culture in this cluster. Many African and Asian countries fall even further right with Japan as the highest context culture in the world.
This is an important aspect when comparing communication styles across cultures.
Instead of criticizing others' communication styles and assuming ours is supreme, we can put this scale to use to understand different communication styles of people on our teams, clients, partners, or anyone else we work with.
Strategies To Work Effectively With People From High Context and Low Context Cultures
Follow these 4 key strategies to communicate effectively across cultures:
1. Identify Your Style
Before implementing effective communication practices across cultures, identify your own style:
You use high context communication if you rely on both verbal and non-verbal cues often implicitly stating what you intend and expect others to derive meaning from the context. In short, you expect others to read between the lines.
You are a low context communicator if you explicitly state what you expect by being more direct to help others make sense out of your words without having to interpret what you intend to say. In short, you say what you mean.
2. Working With People From High Context Culture
“When interacting with someone from another culture, try to watch more, listen more, and speak less. Listen before you speak and learn before you act”, says Erin Meyer.
If you are from a low context culture and working with someone from a high context culture, don’t rely on making literal sense of words, also try to interpret what's behind the message. To do this, listen carefully, observe their body language, reflect on their intent and ask open-ended questions to get to the underlying message.
Asking open-ended questions instead of seeking a yes/no response is critical to get to the intent of the message. It’s always better to clarify your understanding than to assume you have understood each other well.
Watch out for these phrases as a sign to extract more information:
- I will think about it.
- I guess so.
- I will do my best.
- It will be very difficult, but I am going to give it a try.
When it’s your turn to pass on a message to someone from a high context culture, try to repeat less and observe if your message has been received well. Use effective listening as a way to determine their level of understanding and use that learning to add the missing information or make corrections.
3. Working With People From Low Context Culture
If you are from a high context culture and working with someone from a low context culture, focus on the content of the message without looking for hidden meaning. Don’t hesitate to ask clarifying questions if the intent is not clear or the message sounds confusing.
People from low context culture will appreciate your directness to seek clarity as opposed to keeping quiet and learning about the gap in understanding later.
While sending a message to someone from a low context culture, be clear and explicit. Convey the main idea first and don’t wait till the end to state what you actually intend to convey. Beating around the bush without getting to the point is sure to lose their attention and cause confusion. It’s also a good idea to summarise the key takeaways verbally as well as in writing.
4. Agree on a Communication Framework
When working with people across cultures, sometimes what works best is for the team to develop their own language for communication.
By being part of the shared context, understanding the cultural differences and misunderstanding that can arise due to these differences, the team is better equipped to appreciate these differences and devise a strategy that benefits everyone.
Another advantage for creating a communication framework is to explicitly seek an agreement from all members of the team and hold each other accountable to adhere to it. By signing up explicitly, team members will feel more comfortable in stepping out of their usual communication style to explore the one that works for all members of the team.
Examples of Communication Differences Across Cultures
Taken from Erin Meyer’s book, The Culture Map:
Pablo Díaz, a Spanish executive who worked in China for a Chinese textile company for fifteen years, remarked, “In China, the message upfront is not necessarily the real message. My Chinese colleagues would drop hints, and I wouldn’t pick them up. Later, when thinking it over, I would realize I had missed something important.” Díaz recounts a discussion he had with a Chinese employee which went something like this:
MR. DÍAZ: It looks like some of us are going to have to be here on Sunday to host the client visit.
MR. CHEN: I see.
MR. DÍAZ: Can you join us on Sunday?
MR. CHEN: Yes, I think so.
MR. DÍAZ: That would be a great help.
MR. CHEN: Yes, Sunday is an important day.
MR. DÍAZ: In what way?
MR. CHEN: It’s my daughter’s birthday.
MR. DÍAZ: How nice. I hope you all enjoy it.
MR. CHEN: Thank you. I appreciate your understanding.
Díaz laughs about the situation now. “I was quite certain he had said he was coming,” Díaz says. “And Mr. Chen was quite certain he had communicated that he absolutely could not come because he was going to be celebrating his daughter’s birthday with his family.”
Díaz has learned from experience how to avoid falling into these communication snafus: If I’m not 100 percent sure what I heard, shrugging my shoulders and leaving with the message that I sort of think I heard is not a good strategy. If I am not sure, I have to take the responsibility to ask for clarification.
Sometimes I have to ask three or four times, and although that can be a little embarrassing for both me and my colleague, it is not as embarrassing as having a production line set and ready and waiting for Mr. Chen, who is contentedly singing happy birthday somewhere else.
Crest Toothpaste Advertisements
Taken from Wikipedia: Two different advertisements, catered to differing context cultures, were analyzed by He Bai with the English Teaching Institute in Beijing.
The First Advertisement
"Now there is something more dentists can recommend for your gums that are proven to help get them healthier. Crest Plus Gum is the only cavity-fighting toothpaste that’s so effective, and it’s clinically proven to help reserve the gum disease-gingivitis. Just what the dentists ordered."
This advertisement, meant for people within low-context cultures, is direct and informative. The information about cavity protection, clinical studies and dentist recommendations is all in the three sentences. People within low-context cultures, because they tend to enjoy direct communication, will find this advertisement helpful.
The Second Advertisement
"Behind that healthy smile, there’s a Crest kid."
The second advertisement, meant for high-context cultures is less directly informative. Because information is implied, the advertisement appeals to people within high-context cultures.
Marketing and Advertising Perspective
Taken from Wikipedia: Cultural differences in advertising and marketing may also be explained through high- and low-context cultures. One study on McDonald's online advertising compared Japan, China, Korea, Hong Kong, Pakistan, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, and the United States, and found that in high-context countries, the advertising used more colors, movements, and sounds to give context, while in low-context cultures the advertising focused more on verbal information and linear processes.
To avoid uncertainty when communicating with people from high context and low context cultures:
- Your style: Identify your own communication style - high context or low context.
- Relative position: Locate the individual on Erin Meyer’s scale summarised earlier and see where they fit. Are they more high context or low context relative to your position on the scale?
- Making adjustments: If they are more high context than you, try to interpret the message by going beyond words to intent, observing body language and seeking clarification using open-ended questions. If they are from a lower context culture than yours, take the message at face value.
- Communication language: When working with a team comprising individuals from different cultures, have the team understand the importance of these differences and then develop their own language to communicate effectively.
Published at DZone with permission of Vinita Bansal. See the original article here.
Opinions expressed by DZone contributors are their own.