Understand communication through culture

Globe on a desk
Global communication

If you've worked with people from around the world, you may have noticed very different communication styles. 

Some people are more direct, ask more personal questions, and often want to know why. Other people are indirect and tend to wait for information. The difference is called "low-context" and "high-context" communication.

Context confusion

Some cultures are low-context: communication is clear. The speaker says exactly what they mean. The listener doesn't need context because the message is stated clearly. America, Australia and New Zealand are low-context.

Other cultures are high-context: the speaker considers context to be very important. The message is often stated indirectly. Communication is more subtle. People want you to show respect and understand who you are speaking to. Japan, Italy and Thailand are high-context.

It can be confusing for someone from a low-context background to understand high-context speakers. 

First of all, speakers from high-context cultures like Japan, Italy, and Thailand require a lot of background knowledge. In high context cultures, people 'can read between the lines' because they share the same history, language and cultural references. 

High-context speakers tend to present lots of background information before the main point. But someone from a different country who doesn't share the same cultural references often can't connect the points together until they know what the main point is.

Low-context cultures tend to have a lot of diversity—the UK, North America, Australia, New Zealand. Therefore, people often don't share exactly the same history, they may speak different languages, so the use of English has to be more precise, more direct. They don't rely on others sharing the same context so it's important to state the obvious to avoid misunderstandings.

Cross-cultural communication

Interestingly, it can even be hard for people from different high-context cultures to work together. For instance, a Thai person and an Italian person would not automatically understand each other easily, despite both coming from high-context cultures, because they don't share each other's culture. So, ideally, they should use low-context communication to avoid miscommunication. 

Therefore if you are from a high-context culture, you may need to spend time and effort politely but directly giving your opinion, giving feedback, dealing with problems, and always stating the obvious. 

Practical advice

It can be helpful to think of delivering information like spoon-feeding a baby. Give your listener information a little at a time, rather than all at once. So you need to prioritize and break information down into manageable 'chunks' of language. Give the most important details first, particularly your main point and reason. After that, you can add background information and more details, to define the context. That way, you give your listener time to process each piece of information.

An excellent resource is The Culture Map and author Erin's Meyer's article on holistic or specific thinkers

Also, most importantly, work with your teacher at The English Farm to express yourself in the clearest way possible.