If you work with people who come from all parts of the world—each with their own culturally specific ways of communicating and assumptions—you know it’s easy to misunderstand each other! Working together productively and harmoniously means understanding cultural differences and adjusting your style.
To help navigate this complex terrain, Erin Meyer has mapped differing cultural behaviours, assumptions, and expectations into eight categories. I’m most interested in the first category: How we communicate and whether we need to provide a lotor a little context to understand each other. In other words, how direct do we need to be, and how much prior knowledge can we assume?
Americans are the most low-context culture, expecting people to explicitly spell out ideas, background, and details. Close on the continuum are Canada, Australia, the Netherlands, Germany and the UK.
Conversely, Japanese assume the highest amount of shared context. China, Korea and Indonesia are close behind Japan. Unlike Americans, Japanese share unconscious assumptions about common reference points and shared knowledge. High-context communicators learn how to “read the air,” or read between the lines of what is said. It’s not necessary to be direct and explicit to clearly convey your message.
The difference between American and Japanese communication styles makes sense when you consider that the Japanese have a long-shared history and a homogenous population. Additionally, Japan is an island and was closed off from the world for many years. The US, on the other hand, is only a few hundred years old, comprising immigrants from all over the world, who share little context.
So, what can you do when you’re communicating to someone from another culture or to a mixed group?
Low context to high context: If you come from a low-context culture and you’re in dialogue with someone from a high-context culture, don’t assume the other person is purposely omitting information or is unable to communicate clearly. Ask for clarification instead.
High context to low context: Conversely, if you come from a high-context culture and you’re communicating with someone from a low-context culture, recognize when you expect the other person to read between the lines and get in the habit of being more explicit. Start the conversation by stating your main idea, make your points clearly and recap at the end. Don’t be afraid to ask, “Am I clear enough?”
Mixed: When you’re working with a group with members from different cultures, know that multicultural teams need low-context processes and communication. Remember that people from different cultures high-context cultures will interpret the same message differently. To ensure your message gets though to everyone, be explicit.
If you work with people in different parts of the world, or you have a multi-cultural team, this book is a must read. It’s full of great anecdotes that bring the concepts to life and contains excellent advice for low- and high-context communicators.