I live and work in a real multicultural environment. Communicating among all those different people, bearing not only their personality but also they own culture is really challenging sometimes.
The city where I live, Brussels, hosts about 150 different nationalities. I am not Belgian, I belong to one of the 150 nationalities.
The place I work with is the European Commission (EC) where all the 24 European Union nationalities are represented. Have a look at the above link of the EC, it shows all the languages of the Member States.
Obviously different languages mean different cultures.
Sometimes it is difficult to communicate with each other, one has to pay much attention to others’ sensitivity, emotions and feelings.
Day after day, I learned that each culture has its own approach to communication.
I found a very interesting book by the anthropologist Edward Hall, Beyond Culture. It helped me a lot with the challenges of communicating across cultures.
Edward Hall identified the importance of context in communication and raised the attention on the “invisible” type of communication, by which groups of people understand and interpret the world.
The framework proposed by Hall for approaching intercultural communication is high-context and low-context cultures, which refer to the values cultures place on indirect and direct communication.
It is important to note that no culture is completely high-context or low-context, since all societies contain at least some parts that are both high and low. For example, the United States is a low-context culture while doing business, but during family gatherings tends to be high-context.
Let’s see now the main features of the two cultural context types.
A high-context culture relies on implicit communication and non-verbal cues. In high-context communication, a message cannot be understood without a great deal of background information. Asian, African, Arab, central European and Latin American cultures are generally considered to be high-context cultures.
With people belonging mainly to high-context cultures, you may encounter the following:
- Misunderstanding when exchanging information
- Impression of a lack of information
- Large amount of information is provided in a non-verbal manner, e.g. gestures, pauses, facial expressions
- Emphasis on long term relationships and loyalty
- Unwritten rules that are taken for granted but can easily be missed.
A low-context culture relies on explicit communication. In low-context communication, more of the information in a message is spelled out and defined. Cultures like the Germans, Scandinavians, Americans and Australians are generally considered to be low-context cultures.
Dealing with people belonging mainly to low-context cultures, you may find the following:
- All meaning is explicitly provided in the message itself
- Extensive background information and explanations are provided verbally to avoid misunderstandings
- People tend to have short-term relationships
- People follow rules and standards closely.
To avoid “diplomatic incidents”, I try to pay much attention to my interlocutor languages and “imitate” them using the technique of the mirror, namely, repeating the body language, the type of words they use, and how they overall handle the conversation.
What about you? Which culture do you think you belong to? Which technique do you use to better communicate across cultures?