The team lead who’d just joined us from India came to see me days after he arrived. His name was Venkat, and he worked for a global IT company that had been supplementing our company’s software development teams for a couple of years. My department was just getting underway on a significant new project, and Venkat would be leading the “on shore” design team.
He asked if we could speak privately, so we found an empty conference room and closed the door.
“I would like to say something to you candidly,” he began.
“Please,” I encouraged him.
“I have been told that people from our company do not speak up in meetings, and then your people think we are not coming forward with ideas or solutions when there are problems,” he said.
“Yes,” I confirmed. “They do think that sometimes.”
“Before I left India, I received some training in the differences between how our countries like to work and communicate. I have learned how to help my team be more American while they are here,” he said smiling.
“I appreciate that,” I said. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard of such training, but it seems like a good idea.”
“There is something you can do so we don’t have these problems in the future,” he added.
“Anything,” I offered.
“Please tell me if you observe that my team is not all the way at the table. Is that how you say it?”
“If you mean you would like me to let you know if we think your team is not being forthcoming enough, I will do so,” I promised him.
I left our brief meeting impressed by his company’s foresight. Of course you shouldn’t work in another country without understanding its culture, I suddenly realized. This certainly seemed like a positive way to intercept problems we might otherwise have again. It was proactive of them to be teaching key employees about cross-cultural teamwork and the differences that could affect not only our working relationship but also our progress.
That was ten years ago, and since then I’ve learned more about cross-cultural awareness by studying the work of some of the researchers and consultants in this specialized field.
Multi-Cultural, International Teams
Working on teams made up of people from different parts of the world is normal in many engineering and tech companies. That’s why it’s good to keep in mind that our national and cultural origins shape our actions and affect relationships, teamwork, and communication-not to mention productivity. Whether global teams are co-located or scattered across several countries, team members can benefit from understanding cultural differences and not overlooking their potential effects.
There’s no question that cultural differences affect our communication practices-how we speak, write, listen, and even lead. When we’re working on a multi-national team, it’s good to know, for example, whether others on our team consider interrupting to be normal or rude, whether eye contact is polite or disrespectful, whether making an end-of-meeting action-item list is helpful or insulting, and whether owning up to a mistake is an act of professional humility or a horrific personal admission. Depending on where you’re from, any of the above may be true.
I recently read The Culture Map by Erin Meyer, a consultant and professor who helps business leaders “navigate the complexities of differences in a multicultural environment” (from the book jacket). She examines communication challenges and then dives into the various perspectives of people from different parts of the world. Her research and conclusions demonstrate that there’s no right answer to a question she poses, “What makes a good communicator?” What works in the United States falls on its face in Japan; what’s understood in Amsterdam is confusing in Beijing.
A key concept Meyer describes in her book is one of “context”-that is, the cultural basis which tells us whether our messages need to be straightforward and explicit or whether they should be nuanced and implicit. Should we spell everything out, or should we depend on the listener to derive deeper meaning from simple words? In Meyer’s book, these different approaches are “low-context” and “high-context” communication. “Low” context messages are explicit, even stating the obvious, and without hidden meanings. Low-context speakers and writers assume, based on their culture, that there’s not much generally shared knowledge and context between people, so plain and direct are the norm. “High” context means that speakers and listeners depend on shared and understood points of reference within messages, so messages may be imprecise and contain implicit meanings. High-context messages assume a shared understanding, that the meaning goes beyond the mere words.
Lost in the Alps
As I read Meyer’s description of low- and high-context, I was reminded of a time we were on vacation, driving through the Alps in northern Italy on our way to Switzerland, and we were lost. We stopped to ask directions from a group of card players sitting outside a shop-Italians, relatively high context. The men waved toward town and told us to go back that way, then to turn left, up the hill, and follow the road back and forth to the tunnels. As a low-context communicator, I was hoping for something more like “Go one kilometer, when you see the water wheel, turn left onto Mardi Street, and continue 40 kilometers until you reach”¦.” Friendly though they were, their high-context directions were lost on me. We were unable to find Switzerland using their “directions,” and we had to stop several more times along the way to ask for help-all of which was warmly delivered and similarly vague.
Those of us in the United States are members of the lowest-context culture in the world, according to Meyer’s research. We spell out everything because we believe the responsible thing to do is to presume the listener or reader always needs thorough, unambiguous messages. At the opposite end of the context scale is Japan, the highest-context culture in the world. There, Meyer says, communication isn’t complete unless both parties can “read the air,” that is, understand implied meanings. High-context communicators depend on each other to know the cultural references embedded in messages. In a high-context culture, there is no need, for example, to say “no” directly; it is sufficient and expected that one can merely hint at “no,” and everyone will understand that “no” is meant.
Except those of us in low-context cultures. We don’t like hints. We prefer a direct “no” to a hint, even a broad hint. “Just say what you mean,” we think, “and keep saying it until we’re sure everyone is clear.” Meanwhile those from high-context cultures, like Japan, wonder at the amount of time and energy we waste in repetition and on ill feelings that result from confrontation.
Meyer’s research has analyzed and mapped 55 countries’ communication preferences (and other cultural dynamics, not just communication). In general, Asian and southeast Asian countries are high-context, while Germany, the Netherlands, the United States, United Kingdom and other native-English speaking countries are low-context. South American countries, as well as Mediterranean European countries, are also relatively high-context, but not as high as Asia.
Teamwork on Multi-Cultural Teams
What can you do with this knowledge? For starters, you can slap yourself on the forehead as you suddenly realize THAT’S why I found that conversation with Zhouying so frustrating! She was telling me things were off-track and depending on my ability to “read the air,” and I entirely missed her point!
Something else you can do is to recognize, and be patient with, differences. Let high-context communicators on your know team that it’s helpful to be explicit and precise, even if it seems a little unnatural. Let low-context communicators know that it’s customary in many parts of the world for messages to mean more, or something other, than the words themselves. Then listen closely.
Respectfully asking for clarification is a good idea, too-perhaps even explaining “In this country, we need straightforward, direct communication, otherwise we might misunderstand.”
Cultural norms aren’t, of course, fixed. They’re changing. The more we work with others from different places, the more likely we are to adapt to differences, and maybe even to adopt some. But cultural norms also run deep. They are the products of geography, history, religion, tradition, and more, which means that, for now, it’s good to know there are culturally-driven communication differences-recognize them, respect them, and navigate them.