How cultural differences affect your communication

One of the things I always tell my clients is: not all communication problems come from language itself!

What usually happens is that, every time there is a misunderstanding in our communication, we tend to blame our lack of proficiency in English. However, a misunderstanding can be caused for different reasons, one of them being culture. When talking to someone from the Western culture, for example, you may have to be more explicit in your communication while Asians may expect you to be more implicit.

In this article, I will bring some interesting points presented by Erin Meyer in her book The Culture Map. I strongly recommend it to those who work with people from other cultures. It’s fantastic! The book is very eye-opening and will help you be more efficient in your communication and become a better listener.

Erin Meyer developed an eight-scale model to represent key areas we should be aware of when communicating across cultures. In this article, I will focus on the “Communicating: low-context vs. high-context” area.

Low-Context Cultures

People from low-context cultures tend to be more explicit in their communication, which means that they DON’T expect you to read between the lines. In a low-context culture, speakers understand that they are responsible for expressing their ideas as clearly as possible. In other words, they assume that if the interlocutor doesn't understand their message, it’s partly their fault. As you can see on the map above, the US is the lowest-context culture in the world. For an American, being a good communicator is having an explicit communication, including details and providing background knowledge, among other things.

“When interacting with someone from another culture, try to watch more, listen more, and speak less. Listen before you speak and learn before you act." Erin Meyer

High-context Cultures

On the other hand, in high-context cultures, the best communicators are the ones who convey their messages implicitly. This way, it is assumed that the listener also has to play their role so that the communication can be successful. Part of this role is to be able to read between the lines. Being too explicit with somebody from a high-context culture may upset them as they might think you are underestimating their capacity to understand the message. Japan is the highest-context culture in the world.

How cultural differences impact your communication

Can these communication differences make a big impact on your daily communication? The answer is YES, and Erin gives several examples from her own clients to prove that. The example below was given by one of her clients, Pablo Díaz, a Spanish executive who worked in China for fifteen years. Below, Días recounts one interesting interaction that he had with one if his Chinese employees:

Mr. Díaz: It looks like some of us are going to have to be here on Sunday to host the client visit.

Mr. Chen: I see.

Mr. Díaz: Can you join us on Sunday?

Mr. Chen: Yes, I think so.

Mr. Días: That would be a great help.

Mr. Chen: Yes, Sunday is an important day.

Mr. Díaz: In what way?

Mr. Chen: It’s my daughter’s birthday.

Mr. Díaz: How nice. I hope you all enjoy it.

Mr. Chen: Thank you. I appreciate your understanding.

Well, it turned out that Mr. Chen didn’t show up to host the clients, for Mr. Díaz surprise. Being from a very high-context culture, Mr. Chen probably thought Mr. Díaz had understood that, due to his daughter’s birthday, he wouldn’t be able to work on Sunday. The fact that Mr. Díaz responded with, “How nice. I hope you all enjoy it”, probably made Mr. Chen think that he was implicitly saying “Oh, never mind then. Just enjoy your time with your family. No need to come on Sunday”.

"You may be considered a top-flight communicator in your home culture, but what works at home may not work so well with people from other cultures." Erin Meyer

Understanding the culture map

One point that Erin makes very clear is that you shouldn’t try to understand the map just by looking at one specific culture. In order to understand how communication works across cultures, you should compare two or more cultures using the map.

Let’s take Brazil and Japan as an example. If you just look at Brazil on the map you will see that Brazilians tend to have a high-context communication. But how can this information help you communicate with Brazilians? In this case, you need to compare Brazil to your own culture. Let’s say I am Japanese. Well, Japan is also a high-context culture. Does it mean that Brazilians and the Japanese communicate in the same way? The answer is NO. As you can see on the map, Brazil and Japan are on opposite extremes on the map regarding high-context cultures. Therefore, if you are Japanese and you have a Brazilian colleague, you may perceive their communication as very low-context. However, if you are an American working with a Brazilian, you may think he/she is very high context.

When working in an international environment, you shouldn't underestimate the role that culture plays in your daily communication. Otherwise, it can even have a negative impact on your team and delay decision-making processes. In her book, Erin mentions many cases to illustrate that and also suggests strategies to deal with cultural differences. This article was a very brief overview of some ideas presented in her book.

If you want to learn more about Erin's work, I recommend watching the video below.

Fernanda Carvalho is a Fulbrighter, certified Neurolanguage® Coach with a Master's in TESOL. She believes in a holistic approach to language teaching, which involves people's development as a whole and not only language itself. You can find her on facebook @languagenextlevel and on her website Schedule your first neurolanguage® coaching session for free and check how she can help you improve your communication in English.