Communicating Effectively Across Cultures

Working on a team that is globally distributed is a great experience which also presents opportunities for deeper analysis and understanding. Since SPS is a multi-national, and thus multi-cultural, company, I will be writing eight individual blog posts over the coming months which follow the eight scales of cultures outlined in Erin Meyer’s book, The Culture Map. This post will cover the Communication scale of The Culture Map.

Much of this content is either directly taken from, or is a summary of, Chapter 1 of The Culture Map, with some examples added for clarity. I’ve personally benefited from having this book available in my team’s “library” and hope that some of my learnings will be beneficial to others.

High & Low Context Communication

  • Low Context: Good communication is precise, simple, & clear. Messages are expressed & understood at face value. Repetition is appreciated if it helps clarify the communication.
  • High Context: Good communication is sophisticated, nuanced, & layered. Messages are both spoken and read between the lines. Messages are often implied but not plainly expressed.

For a breakdown of where SPS’s offices fall on the Communicating Scale (Low → High Context), see the below:

Low Context <————-> High Context

Note: Countries represented: US = Unites States, AU = Australia, CA = Canada, UA = Ukraine, IN = India. These are the locations that I work most closely with, though we have team members in other global locations as well.

When thinking about communication styles for your team members, understand that you need to view the other cultures in comparison with your culture - it’s all relative. For example, even though the US, AU, & CA are all on the lower end of the communicating scale, Australia & Canada would still be perceived as “high context” compared to the US because they are higher-context comparatively speaking. Similarly, Ukrainian and Indian team members, while both falling on the high-context side of the scale, would still view one another as low, or high, context in comparison with their own culture because of their relative position on the scale (India is higher-context than Ukraine, so Ukrainians would view Indians as being high-context, and Indians would view Ukrainians as being low-context)

What is Low Context Communication?

Low context communication assumes little shared context (few shared reference points, low implicit knowledge, background, or stories connecting speaker & listener), and thus communicators from these cultures are taught to be as specific and precise as possible with their communications. While there may be implied messages included in communications, the mindset, especially in business, is that “Being explicit is simply good communication” (phrased another way, “Say what you mean, & mean what you say”).

What is High Context Communication?

High context communication depends on unconscious assumptions that there are common reference points and shared knowledge between speaker & listener. In these cultures, it is not only unnecessary, but often inappropriate (or rude) to be too explicit when communicating messages. Good business communicators may often use what are known as ‘2nd degree meanings’: while there is a 1st degree meaning in any given communication (the meaning when the message is taken at face value), the real, intended, meaning is conveyed via the implied, 2nd degree meaning (this comes from shared context, subtext, etc. This is all indirectly communicated via shared background between communicators), and understanding the 2nd degree meaning requires ‘reading/hearing between the lines’.

Why do Issues with Communication Occur?

  • If you’re from a low-context culture, you might perceive a high-context communicator as being secretive, lacking in transparency, or unable to communicate effectively.
  • If you’re from a high-context culture, you might perceive a low-context communicator as inappropriately stating the obvious, or worse yet, condescending and patronizing.
  • Ultimately, issues with communication occur when perceptions/assumptions become beliefs/“facts” about another culture, and these beliefs are left unchecked instead of seeking to understand the other culture and their communication norms.

A Real Life Example of Low → High Context Miscommunication:

Note: The miscommunication below occurs between two speakers who both come from the same low context culture (one of whom is myself). This was a follow-up chat message after a virtual language club lesson that I had missed. All of the context was there with the green person’s first message stating that he/she uploaded the recording (a high context communicator would have understood this right away), but it took me asking for clarification (i.e. a more precise location) multiple times before the message was clearly understood. If miscommunications like this occur amongst two low context communicators, this should give an idea of how easy it can be to have miscommunications across low ↔ high context communicators.

Strategies for Working with High-Context Cultures

  • The biggest thing to remember is that communicating is not just about speaking, but also listening. This is especially true & necessary when listening to messages from high-context culture team members. Practice listening more carefully. Work to ‘hear between the lines’.
  • Practice active listening, reflect more on what has been said, ask more clarifying questions, and be receptive to body language cues (when available).
  • Don’t assume that the other person is actively/consciously omitting important information or unable to communicate explicitly.
  • When speaking to high-context culture team members (i.e. if you are going Low-context → High-Context): There will be less of a need to repeat yourself (and, in fact, it might be considered rude to do so). Before repeating yourself, stop talking (most likely, the person you’re communicating with got the message loud and clear).
  • When miscommunications occur: Self-deprecation, laughing at yourself, and using positive words to describe the other culture are your best bets. Take the blame for the miscommunication, and move forward (“I’m sorry, I’m so used to repeating myself in meetings here in Minneapolis that I didn’t even realize that I was doing so. I know you’re intelligent and understood me clearly the first time.”)

Strategies for Working with Low-Context Cultures

  • If you’re ever less than 100% clear on what has been communicated, don’t attempt to ‘hear between the lines’. Instead, ask for clarification.
  • When speaking to low-context culture team members (i.e. if you are going High-Context → Low-Context): Be as transparent, clear, and specific as possible. Focus on recognizing times when you are expecting the listener to ‘hear between the lines’, and practice conveying your message more explicitly.
  • Start the conversation by stating the main idea, make points clearly, and at the end of the discussion, recap what was communicated/decided, along with any proposed action items or next steps (your low(er) context team members will appreciate this :) ).

When you have a Multi-Cultural Team

  • When you have a multi-cultural team, this means that you will have team members that land on various points across the communicating scale. Multicultural teams typically need low-context processes (specifically, aligned with the lowest-context culture’s business / communication norms).
  • This may require more things to be spelled out clearly, and agreed upon, in writing. If/when putting things in writing, make sure that everyone understands why this is occurring: i.e. you’re not doing this because low(er) context team members don’t trust high(er) context team members, but to reduce confusion and save time for the team overall.

Perceptions != Facts

Remember, perceptions about another culture are not the same as facts. For best results in communicating across cultures, keep the above points in mind & put in the effort to understand the other culture’s communication style. This really goes a long way when communicating with your co-workers, peers, friends, family members, neighbors, etc.

Curious to read more? Check out my article, The Benefits of Global Diversification. I’ll also be authoring articles on the remaining 7 scales of the Culture Map in the coming months, so keep your eyes out for those too!

Jon Beattie @JonMBeattie