In Erin Meyer’s book The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business, she outlines eight dimensions that any given culture can be mapped onto. The first chapter talks about cultures which are “high-context” vs. cultures that are “low-context”. The basic word to describe communication in a high-context culture is implicit, whereas the basic word to describe communication in a low-context culture is explicit.
Japan is a high-context culture because if there is a matter which belongs to the shared cultural context, it does not need to be stated explicitly. The United States, a country filled with immigrants who come from cultural backgrounds which are different, is a low-context culture, and there communications are done in such a way that which makes messages explicit and clear as possible to avoid misunderstanding or ambiguity.
This is even reflected in the grammar of the two languages. If you are looking for something, and you are broadcasting your success to your co-workers, you would say “I found it!” The Japanese equivalent would be “Mitsukemashita!” It is the past tense verb form from the verb “mitsukeru” meaning “to find”. The “I” is understood because if you are making a statement, most of the time you are referring to yourself and so the Japanese omit the subject in a declarative sentence if it is referring to themselves. And the “it” is also not stated because if you say “found!”, it implies that you found “something”, and so it is also not explicitly stated.
The heart of the chapter contains strategies for dealing with people from different cultures with respect to the high-context/low-context distinction.
1. Low-context people working with high-context people
a. Practice listening more carefully to your high-context culture colleagues so you can search for implicit cues.
b. Verify your understanding with open-ended questions rather than asking for a yes-or-no response; this kind of open-ended question will be more comfortable to respond to for high-context people. In the story I related in the last post, an American manager found that pressing his Japanese counterparts for a “yes-or-no” response from the very beginning was a very unfruitful way to start negotiating.
c. Remember that high-context people are not purposely omitting communication nor are they unable to provide communication explicitly, it’s just in the nature of their culture NOT to be explicit. When I was working for a Japanese company, many Americans would joke that they were given information on a “need-to-know” basis, meaning that if you were an American, you didn’t need to know. After having lived in Japan for five years working at the Tokyo headquarters of the company, I could understand that this judgment was unfair to the Japanese but on the other hand I could also understand that this was how Americans perceived their lack of explicit communication.
d. If you are sending as opposed to receiving a message from a high-context person, then say what you need to say once and don’t repeat yourself. An American style of giving a speech that you learn in Toastmasters clubs in the United States is “tell them what you’re going to tell them, then tell them, and then tell them what you’ve just told them.” Can you imagine being told something three times if you got it the first time?
2. High-context people working with low-context people
a. Be as transparent, clear, and specific as possible.
b. At the end of conversations, recap the key points again, or send an e-mail repeating these points.
3. High-context people and low-context people working in a multicultural setting
Although it would seem that high-context people would have fewer misunderstandings, that only implies if they are from the SAME culture. High-context people have the highest likelihood of misunderstandings with high-context people from other cultures, because high-context communication only works if the context is SHARED.
If you are leading a multicultural team, you need low-context processes that are explicit because you are dealing with people from different cultures. That is what they low-context of the United States developed for exactly this reason, because we are made up of immigrants who ARE from different cultures.
This is where the idea of recapping points orally and then in writing after discussions is helpful, because potential miscommunications can be rooted out early. The “in writing” is important because not only are we dealing with a multicultural context for the team, but often a multilingual one, and people who are learning English as a second language will be able to read more facilely than they can understand spoken English.
If you are laying ground rules out to the team regarding explicit communications, something they may not be comfortable with doing when they are working with colleagues from their own countries, you need to explain WHY you are doing it. It’s not because you are using what is most comfortable for you if you are coming from a low-context culture, but because this method is what has proven most effective for multicultural teams.
And one of the best ways I have found personally in dealing with a multicultural team is to do as much as you can to learn about the culture and even learn some of their language(s). I got so much more enthusiastic assistance from colleagues at Toastmasters who are originally from India when they learned I was studying Hindi. I can do no more than use greetings at this point, but the effort is certainly appreciated nonetheless. Why? Few people take that step towards them, which acknowledges that they have made supreme efforts to walk in the other direction, towards you.
The next post is on the second dimension of cultural difference, that of how negative feedback is given: whether in a direct or an indirect way.
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