In an international organization, communication with different cultures can be extremely inspiring and a real innovation booster. However, multi-cultural communication can also lead to considerable frustration, inefficiency and confusion. This may be he case when we fail to appreciate cultural diversity and the differences in how people from all over the world “tick”, or how they convey and interpret communication messages.
In this blog article I give a brief insight into my training programs and workshops on “communication and feedback in an intercultural context”. A topic that has fascinated me for a long time! On the one hand, because the challenges I have faced in my travels to almost 50 countries and by living and working on several continents have had a profound impact on me. On the other hand, because as a communications and marketing expert and a manager in an international corporate context, I have repeatedly faced the following questions:
- Which aspects of communication are particularly important in an intercultural context? To which culturally influenced conversational styles do I need to adapt?
- As a manager in a multicultural environment, what level of communicative awareness should I have?
- What inner attitude and knowledge do I need to have for feedback discussions with people from all over the world, especially in relation to critical feedback?
I first found a tangible view of intercultural communication in Erin Meyer 1. Meyer is the author of “The Culture Map”, a professor at INSEAD business school, and has been a culture expert for many years. Her research benefits global leaders in particular, helping them to master the complexity of cultural differences even more successfully.
A client request last year inspired me to develop training sessions for international managers. In terms of content, I was able to build on Meyer’s insights on the one hand and incorporate my own international experience on the other. And I thoroughly enjoyed it! Especially because the conceptualized content could only really unfold dynamically and creatively during the training itself. This has always been the case when participants from different cultural backgrounds have opened up to contribute their own experiences, learnings and challenges. Often, discussions and small group work not only generate invaluable ideas, but, above all, they confirm one of my most important principles regarding intercultural communication.
“We need to make cultural differences in communication and associated uncertainties ‘discussable’, perceptible and tangible. What is needed is honest and transparent dialogue as well as curiosity and interest, and a benevolent attitude towards a communication culture that is simply DIFFERENT to our own.”
In this way, a company can become more “culturally diverse”, leading to greater efficiency, innovation, productivity and – above all – successful relationships. It can only be an enormous gain for an organization if its people learn to decode the behavior of other cultures or to reflect on their own communication style in order to then tune in to that of other cultures. To orientate oneself exclusively on cultural stereotypes is quite a rather outdated attititude in this day and age!
Understanding high-context and low-context culture
We may have positioned ourselves as top-notch communicators in our own culture, but what works well in our own culture does not necessarily work WELL with those from other cultures. In order to minimize misunderstandings and unnecessary conflicts in intercultural communication, my first concern at the beginning of a training session is to ensure that participants gain an understanding of the distinction between two contrasting communication styles: high-context and low-context communication.
Cultures with a low-context orientation place considerable emphasis on direct communication. Here, the aim is to say what is thought and ultimately what is meant. In these cultures, good communication is clear, unambiguous, explicit, and specific. The USA and Germany, for example, are both considered low-context cultures (although there can of course also be major differences between two low-context cultures… but this is a topic for a whole new article 😉).
Interestingly, low-context (and self-reflective) communicators see themselves as responsible for the correct delivery of their own communication messages. That is, “If the person I’m talking to doesn’t understand me, it’s MY responsibility. I therefore have to change my communication so that it can be understood by the other person!”
For cultures with a high-context orientation, the situation is somewhat different. Usually, more relationship-oriented societies are considered high context – examples include those in Asia, as well as many Arab and Latin American countries. Here, a rather indirect communication style dominates, one that is implicit, subtle and multi-layered. This means that not everything necessarily has to be communicated explicitly all the time – it is much more important to SPEAK, READ and LISTEN between the lines.
Non-verbal communication also plays a much more significant role. And as we know, non-verbal communication holds at least as much potential for conflict as verbal or paraverbal communication (e.g. voice pitch, volume, intonation, pronunciation, speech tempo).
Moreover, SILENCE is highly valued in context-rich cultures. When silence becomes totally uncomfortable for me as a German and almost seems like a breakdown in communication, it is a ‘golden moment’ for my Japanese counterpart… and high time that I learn to “read the air”.
Another simple example: a manager from the Netherlands who is not aware of cultural differences, could assume that an employee from China or Japan is secretive and lacking transparency, and even evaluate him or her unfairly in a feedback discussion. The silence or culture-related reticence might anger the manager and lead him or her to conclude the following “This person simply can’t manage to communicate effectively with me or the team!”
It is therefore extremely important for globally active managers to be aware of and sensitive to such subtle differences and nuances. Only then can they give fair feedback, better empathize with their counterparts, and adjust their communication style sensitively – perhaps even by working together with their counterparts.
Culture scales as a reflection tool: intercultural communication
In my training sessions I use the scales developed by Erin Meyer, which show how cultures differ along a spectrum from one extreme to the other. They are great for generating awareness and discussion as well as for encouraging participants to reflect and look at their team in new ways. The scales map key areas for managers to consider in an intercultural context. In total, Meyer’s research produced eight scales:
- Trusting: task-based vs. relationship-based
- Persuading: principles-first vs. applications-first
- Leading: egalitarian vs. hierarchical
- Deciding: consensual vs. top-down
- Disagreeing: confrontational vs. avoid confrontation
- Scheduling: linear-time vs. flexible-time
- Communicating: low context vs. high context
- Evaluating: direct negative feedback vs. indirect negative feedback
I have used the last two scales several times in my international projects – especially in the context of giving and receiving feedback in international companies. (By the way: you can read more about the topic of feedback and inner attitude in another one of my blog articles).
As Erin Meyer explains herself, “Culture is too complex to be meaningfully measured using just one or two dimensions. When studying the relationship between people from different cultures, what matters most is not the absolute position of either culture on the scale, but the relative position of the two cultures.”
The key, according to Meyer, is therefore cultural relativity. We always need to see the differences of another culture in comparison to our own. If I have a team in which many different cultures communicate and work together, it is of course important to be aware of how these international cultures perceive each other. For example, an Indian has a completely different view and perception of our German culture than an American does.
So instead of always criticizing other communication styles and assuming that our own style must be the BEST, the scales can help us to understand the different culturally influenced communication styles in an organization and to be open to “discussing” intercultural communication.
Incidentally, it becomes increasingly exciting in my training sessions when we take a look at the evaluating scale. This gives us a bird’s eye view of how directly (or indirectly) people from different cultures deal with criticism. And here, several countries suddenly have a completely different position than they do on the Communicating Scale. As an example: American culture is no longer on the far left in the “low-context (direct) corner”, but it instead tends more towards “indirect communication”, since many Americans, as a result of their conditioning, often use positive messages to package negative feedback nicely.
So as not to make this article too complex 😉, I’ll leave it at this for now and not go any deeper into the evaluating scale or strategies to achieve functioning multi-cultural communication.
I would, however, be delighted to discuss this topic in more detail in a personal chat! I am also interested to hear other opinions, fresh perspectives and any feedback you may have on this article!
- Erin Meyer, The Culture Map, 2016