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Communication: Cross Culturally - It's not what you say, it's how you say it!

by Deborah Rinner, Vice President, Chief Learning Officer, Tero International


Joe felt pretty optimistic when at the conclusion of his sales presentation to a Japanese client, the client paused and thoughtfully said "Ah, yes". Joe assumed the client was ready to buy. What Joe did not know was that in his client's culture, "no" or contrary thoughts are not always expressed directly, in so many words, or to a person's face. Non-verbal cues (such as the long pause) can be as valid and communicative as words spoken aloud to cultures that rely on implicit messages rather than explicit explanations.

It has been said that when Americans want to say 100 things, they will verbalize 150 things for they are explicit in their use of language in communication. When the Japanese verbalize 70 things, they are trying to get the other person to understand 100, for they are using implicit understandings and at times non-verbal cues to get their point across.

What are the differences in verbal communication that are rooted in culture? How do they influence our success in doing business internationally?

Edward T. Hall, a cultural anthropologist, found that cultures can be separated into two groups with regard to communication. High context cultures (such as East Asian, Latin American, Southern Mediterranean and Arab countries) are commonly homogeneous, and share a history of common values and assumptions passed on by strong family structure and educational systems. When people of high context cultures communicate, it is not necessary for them to say everything explicitly, a kind of shorthand can be used (similar to how we communicate within our families!). Non-verbal cues often communicate what is not said, and silence can have great meaning!

In parallel to this are low context cultures (such as America, Canada and Western European countries). These communicators tend to verbalize background information, prefer clear descriptions, unambiguous communication and are highly specific. Low context communicators do not often rely on or trust shared understandings in business communication.

So how does this play out when high and low context business persons go about communicating?

High context communicators might assume a greater level of shared understanding than actually exists, thus communicating in a fashion that can appear ambiguous to low context folks. Because of their approach to communication, people of high context cultures can sometimes be unjustly regarded as sneaky, or non-disclosing. And, like the Japanese client, high context communicators might infuse important nonverbal messages and seemingly misleading comments that have implicit meaning.

On the other hand, low context communicators can appear excessively talkative and redundant. When talking to a high context person, we can appear as if we are saying things we would not need to if there were a shared understanding. Too often we look to our cultural counterparts to answer us back with the same enthusiasm for speech and background information we feel compelled to provide.

How can we bridge this communication gap?

The gap is more about the language of behavior than language use itself. And it can be bridged by focusing on the key necessary to unlocking business in any form and at any level or relationships!

When establishing business in high context regions, such as Asia, relationship-building can be the most critical initial component. Contextual difference in communication styles is just one of the reasons why.

High context cultures value the relationship - knowing the history and character of who they are dealing with can be as important as the facts of the deal itself! A solid relationship supports a high context culture's natural implicit communication preference, thus it is to our advantage to devote time and attention to relationship-building, early in the process.

Being aware as low context communicators that we may be perceived as moving too fast and as overly talkative can inform us to slow down, approach the communication through developing understandings rather than just by giving explanations, and let our relationships percolate before trying to seal (or even propose) the deal.

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