When people from different cultures collaborate, there are often communication problems, which can be exacerbated when using online platforms. A working knowledge of how different societies use context to convey meaning can help avoid misinterpretations and confusion.
Anthropologist Edward Hall refers to high context and low context communication to indicate how much speakers rely on things other than words to convey meaning. High context societies place more value than low context societies on how something is said rather than what words are used. Many online platforms rely on low context communication; it’s important to keep this in mind when using these tools to share information with a global audience.
Here are a few tactics for communicating effectively in a low context environment:
- If you have the space to write more, do: In business communications, one is taught to be direct and to the point. However, writing concisely never means sacrificing clarity for brevity. If you feel more details are necessary for your audience to understand your message, include them. This is especially important when communicating with an international audience, who will expect your writing to reflect some recognition of cultural differences.
- Create your own context: There are multiple ways technology can be used to bolster the text of your message. For instance, when making an introduction, consider using an online template that mimics the professional style of a business card. This indicates you take the meeting seriously, and also gives the presentation a sense of formality.
- Do not underestimate the power of punctuation: Punctuation helps a reader make sense of text, and is universally recognized. For instance, how many times have you received an email you weren’t sure was sarcastic or encouraging? If the author used appropriate punctuation, you wouldn’t have to guess.
As participants in a global community, the ability to predict how others perceive our messages is crucial in both professional and personal dealings. This is especially true in high context societies like those found in Asia, where the two spheres are not mutually exclusive. In her article, “The Language of Discretion,” Chinese novelist Amy Tan summarizes the differences in communication this way: “An American business executive may say, ‘Let’s make a deal,’ and the Chinese manager may [ask], ‘Is your son interested in learning about […] business?’ Each to his or her own purpose, each with his or her own linguistic path.”
Hence, the problems that can occur when communicating internationally can be avoided by remembering the following:
- High context cultures value the group over the individual and have a strong sense of tradition and history. Therefore, when communicating with individuals in these types of societies, expect a lot of group deliberation and formality. For example, messages should be circulated amongst every member of the team and rarely sound “casual.”
- Low context cultures, like the United States, prefer to limit communication to select groups of people, sharing only “necessary” information. While some may argue that social media has made all societies much more “open,” it is important to observe how members of low context cultures still attempt to separate their personal and professional lives via the use of different Twitter handles or Facebook accounts; one for coworkers, and one for close friends and family.
Recognition of these cultural differences in communication will not only improve your business relations, but also make your international connections more meaningful. Perhaps as we communicate more with our global audiences via low context technologies, we will develop a hybrid approach that benefits both types of societies.
Megan Jeffrey is a graduate student in the MCDM program at the University of Washington. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and public relations from Cal Poly University, San Luis Obispo. She has worked as an account assistant for Verdin Marketing Ink, a community manager for Serra Media, and as a HubPages.com columnist. Megan is currently the social media strategist for the UW School of Drama.