Have you ever felt misunderstood by your international colleagues?

It happened to all of us. And taking into account how important is communication to business, nothing to be surprised that you want to work on its efficiency. Let’s think about the role that culture plays in communication.

In a famous metaphor created by Geert Hofstede, culture has been compared to collective programming of the mind. That is where all the intercultural issues lie: we just have different scripts in mind that sometimes (or often) just don’t align. When we learn how to navigate in an intercultural environment, we update and adapt our scripts. In this way, we are able to find a common ground.

In this article, we want to show you the concept of high- and low-context cultures, and how it affects daily cooperation. The second part of the article is all about actionable tips so that you can improve your intercultural communication skills.

High- vs low-context culture

One of the most problematic differences is with no doubt the level of context needed for flowing communication.

What does context mean in this situation? It refers to the degree to which the speakers rely on other things than words to convey meaning. To properly read the message in a high-context culture, you should take into account the circumstances, who are you speaking with, and the time and place of the meeting. Without this data, the message will seem vague and unclear.

E. T. Hall, an American anthropologist that described this differentiation, started from existing division into Eastern and Western cultures. He noted that in general, Western communication norms emphasize direct messages when Eastern norms opt for beating around the bush.

Let’s get into more details with high- and low-context communications and the differences between them.

Low-context cultures

These cultures rely in a higher degree on words, not circumstances. They tend to be more direct and straight-forward. The clarity of the message is highly valued, together with providing data, facts, and ideas.

The most prominent examples of a low-context culture are Switzerland, Germany, Scandinavia, and the States.

High-context cultures

In this group, people are used to perceiving more from the non-verbal message than from the words themselves. Elements like time, place, and person who’s speaking can completely change the meaning of the same message. Also, the listener is expected to find out what is the message about, so the speaker doesn’t have to be specific.

You also can’t miss the importance of silence. When in low-context cultures silences are avoided in general, here they usually carry some meaning.

You can expect this approach when dealing with partners from the Far East, Arab countries, and Latin America.

Something in between

Of course, the world isn’t only about extremes: the context required by certain cultures lies on a spectrum. Later, when you take into account all the additional factors and individual preferences, the divisions get even more blurry.

The most important differences

One of the most striking differences in terms of communication is the level of directness. In low-context cultures, people tend to speak out clearly, directly, and precisely. In contrast, high-context culture representatives usually talk around the point and require the listener to figure out the underlying message.

You can also be surprised by the way those two groups perceive communication. For the high-context group, it is all about engaging somebody and it is far more personal. For low-context cultures, communication is about exchanging ideas and information.

Tips on efficient intercultural communication

When you find yourself in an intercultural environment, and you get to communicate with each other, you might face a big challenge. Take a look at those 9 tips and bring your intercultural communication skills to the next level.

Know your style

The first step to communicate efficiently, not only in an intercultural environment, is to gain more self-consciousness. Read about the characteristics of your country and look for patterns that you can spot in your own communication style. If you work closely with foreigners, it might be a good idea to ask for their feedback, opinions, and views.

Adapt an individual approach

All the intercultural theories and descriptions are fairly good indicators of how a representative of a given culture may behave, but they are not determinants. That means you should pay attention to how people actually act, and not look for specific behaviours that comply with your assumptions.

Avoid jokes or metaphors

Jokes and metaphors are usually deeply rooted in cultural level – they can be misunderstood even by members of the same nation, yet different environment. That is why usually in such situations you should avoid stepping into humour. Pay special attention if it’s a formal moment, or you don’t know the group members well.

Make sure you understand each other

This point can be a little tricky, especially if your partner isn’t well aware of differences between high- and low-context cultures and the repercussions they have on communication processes. You can try out techniques of active listening, paraphrasing what your interlocutor said, and asking if you get the idea right.

Keep all the details handy

To avoid confusion, you should share important details in a written way. A good example are meetings. Depending on your needs, you can prepare more or less detailed meeting description and share it with your invitees. Some of the elements you can include are, apart from time and place, the participants, the goal of the meeting, or agenda.

In this case, a good solution is to use tools. When you hold a lot of international meetings, a good scheduler will also take care of the time zone chaos. To make sure you’re as flexible as possible, try out Harmonizely. It is a CalDAV scheduler and it works with all the online calendar systems.

Limit the communication noise

Other barriers that can hinder your communication are various communication noises. They don’t refer only to sounds you can hear. The noise can come from tiredness, unsuitable temperature, daydreaming or other factors that not always depend on ourselves.

As soon as you spot some interference of that kind, check if there is anything you can do about it. Even taking a moment of break can improve your communication efficiency.

Think twice about your assumptions

Whenever you make an assumption about the given culture, double-check it. It can help you in avoiding being misguided by first impressions. This tendency to evaluate fast comes from being in our native environment: it would take too much effort to think through each human interaction. That is why we base on intuition, which is fairly accurate when it comes to our culture. The challenge starts in a new environment.

The cure for that is to take all the conclusions you draw out with caution.

Analyze your experiences

The best source for learning are real-life experiences. Make the most out of them by analyzing the situation and drawing out conclusions.

Let’s take a look at things you should investigate. You can start with behaviours or reactions that confused you, and those that were bizarre for the other side. Think if you achieved your objectives, and what were the outcomes that you hadn’t expected. Also, reflect on the differences in beliefs that you noticed.

With every analysis, you’ll notice an increase in the efficiency of your communication process.

Ask for feedback

Don’t hesitate to get another opinion. If you have friends or colleagues that either come from the culture you’re working with and are more aware, or are well-acknowledged with it. They might give you some insights on how your behaviour was understood or how to interpret the other side.

Where to look for information?

When you are looking for some useful resources to learn more about cultural differences and approaches, we’ve got some good links for you.

Hofstede Insights

Hofstede Insights is a training agency, focused on intercultural communications. They are based on Geert Hofstede’s theory and research. The anthropologist created a model that includes six dimensions: Power Distance, Individualism, Masculinity, Uncertainty Avoidance, Long Term Orientation, Indulgence. Each country scores between 0 to 100 on each dimension, so you can easily compare the given aspect of various countries.

On their site, you can find a country comparison site based on Hofstede’s research. It may provide you with a little guidance on how your teammate or partner approaches reality.

The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business

Erin Meyer goes deeply into the impact that cultural differences have on business. She also includes practical advices on finding the common path in an intercultural environment.

This book is a must-read when you want to deepen your intercultural understanding.

Let’s recap

Intercultural communication may be a tough nut to crack, yet it’s become a standard in today’s world. That is why it’s well worth your time to research various models of cultural differences.

Our tips will help you in developing your cultural awareness and sensibility. Those traits will better the efficiency of your communication.

You should also dig into resources that will help you understand better the subject and different approaches to reality. Try to talk with people, get feedback, and analyse the situations you take part in.

Use solutions that support you in leading a global business. See how Harmonizely streamlines international cooperation.