Decoding Communication across Cultures

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English is a global language, but navigating through the various cultures makes communication a treacherous terrain. Isn’t it easy to fall into cultural traps and ruin a presentation, disrupt a team or destroy trust? How can we succeed in managing across the diverse cultural contexts of today’s workplace?

Sitting here with my coffee, I reflect on working and living over ten years in Japan, and I realise that the way to consider communication is first to think about context. What do I mean by that?

Well, when I worked in pharmaceuticals for many years in England I learned that a mixture of ironic or sarcastic jokes told with a deadpan face was completely okay, and in some instances, expected. When I presented I did so in very concise, clear and methodical ways and finished with a recap about what had been decided. Everything was expressed at face value and repetition was okay if it was to help clarify the situation. This is called low-context. The opposite of low-context, not surprisingly, is high-context. Why am I making this point, because Japan has the distinction of being the highest-context culture in the world.

I arrived in Japan in 2005 and soon learned the term 空気読めない, which means “unable to read the mood.” At that time, I wasn’t completely sure what it meant. Now I am very aware of the high-context, communicating between the lines style of speaking that Japanese people use. Although I am far from being an expert, I now have a good understanding of how different cultures can use their home style of communicating and adopt it to suit the style of operation here in the Japanese business culture. Where are you on the communicating scale? Well, somewhere between Brazil the US as the lowest-context culture and Japan as the highest.

How can you communicate successfully in such a high-context culture? First, listen more carefully to what is meant instead of what is said. This means reflecting more, asking more clarifying questions, and making an effort to read body language cues. If a question like “Can you complete the project by next week?” leads to a deep intake of breath or an unclear answer: “I’ll do my best”, then it’s probably a “No.” Second, don’t form opinions too quickly. Listen more and speak less, to everyone involved in the process. You might need to work through several people to resolve the riddle in your mind. Don’t, as a low-context person, assume the other person is keeping information from you, just ask to clarify. Finally, don’t keep repeating yourself, stop talking and wait to learn whether saying it once is enough.

If you’re Japanese and you’re working with low-context cultures, like the UK, Denmark and the US, then the advice I give to you is to be as transparent, specific and clear as possible. If you’re calling, explain why you’re calling, assert your opinions clearly and show all your cards up front. At the end of the call, recap all the points or send an email. If you are not 100% clear what is required, don’t read between the lines, ask for clarification and follow up with an email. Remember, it’s all relative. Communicating across cultures requires an understanding of where the culture is on the communicating scale. Be aware of the differences and understand how to modify your style or explain your style to allow for these differences and therefore avoid misunderstandings. More next time, see you soon.

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