One Message, Many Cultures: Best practices for global communication

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Corporate communication is the lifeline of any organization—crossing cultures, perceptions and language barriers to reach employees around the globe. Messages must be delivered accurately, while strengthening the organization’s position, building trust between the organization and the employee, and communicating a message that is not only current to local issues, but relevant to each employee.

It is important to develop an awareness of what is meant by culture. So often this term is bandied around without a full understanding of its meaning and how it influences our communication style, makes particular issues relevant, decides timeliness of delivery, and determines who should receive what information.

What is culture?
Milton Bennett, an interculturalist with the Intercultural Communication Institute, who has conducted extensive research about the development of cultural awareness, defines culture as “the learned and shared values, beliefs and behaviors of a group of interacting people.” This definition may appear simple, but it is actually very complex, and expresses the challenges we face when interacting with cultures different than our own.

Culture is learned, not something found in our genes. We learn from interacting with others: our family, friends, and religious and educational institutions. These learned beliefs, values and norms are visible in our behaviors. What we have learned becomes what we express.

Because culture, and our own culture in particular, can be silent to us, we may not be aware of our own cultural behaviors. Anthropologist and interculturalist Edward Hall describes culture as being a “silent language,” in his book of the same name. Through the years, we have picked up beliefs and behaviors from everyday interactions without knowing it.

What does culture look like?
Hall describes all cultures as being on a continuum between what he calls high context and low context, implicit and explicit, with all cultures having some aspects of both. He highlights these differences as reflections of how we communicate, based not only on words, but on sensory cues and other external factors that happen while we communicate.

In low-context cultures, such as the U.S., the U.K. and Germany, the context (external factors) and sensory cues are not so important to the total message. The words spoken provide the message. Low-context cultures focus on the central message: the words, sentences and in some cases, gestures. The message is explicit.

With high-context cultures, such as Japan, Italy and Mexico, the message is implicit, with valuable meaning not only in the words but also in the gestures, the relationship between people, the status of those involved, and many other cues that will be obvious to the high-context communicator. These cues provide full meaning to the message, and without them, or without at least understanding them, the message will appear vague or incomplete.

Here are several aspects of Hall’s theory that are closely related to corporate communication:

High context Low context
Implicit communication style Explicit communication style
Less emphasis on written communication and more on verbal communication Emphasis on the exact meaning of the written word
Message is circular, with stories, metaphors, analogies and examples Message is direct and to the point
Context is very important (people, non-verbal and situation) Context is less important
Internalized understandings of message Knowledge is external, accessible to all and transferable
One must understand verbal and non-verbal messages Messages are clear, with little to no need for understanding non-verbal clues
Knowledge and information are situational and relational
Communication is more of an art form, a way of engaging people Communication is a way of exchanging information, ideas and opinions
Face-to-face relationships are important, with an emphasis on one person having authority Decisions and tasks are focused on what needs to be done; responsibilities are divided
The needs of people can influence schedules, and more than one task at a time is performed Tasks are scheduled at a particular time; one thing at a time
Change is slow; tradition, history and accuracy are valued Change is quick, and efficiency is valued
Japan, China, Korea, Latin America, France (to a certain extent), Middle East, West Africa, Black South Africa The U.S., the U.K., Germany, Scandinavia, Switzerland, Australia, New Zealand, White South Africa

Applying cultural knowledge
I can imagine you’re saying, “All of this is fine, but what do I do with this information?” A very good question! Paying close attention to these cultural characteristics can help you align your messages and positively influence the reader or listener.

Aspects to consider:

  • Self-awareness is the first step. What is your cultural communication style?
  • In high-context cultures, who delivers the message can be as important as the specific words, if not more.
  • In many cultures, especially Asian cultures, honor and status are very strong factors in messages. Many low-context cultures, especially those found in Western countries, consider it honorable and open to admit personal mistakes and challenges. These same admissions will be considered as a loss of face and honor in a high-context culture. Becoming embarrassed or dishonored can occur in any culture, and consideration should be taken to avoid communication that could cause this response.
  • Most high-context cultures value the efforts of each person on the team and will want everyone to be recognized for their successes.
  • Many low-context countries consider information such as age, religion, martial status, and salary to be private and personal. Many high-context cultures consider this type of information as a way to get to know the person. Take precautions when asking questions that may be considered challenging and invasive.
  • Humor translates poorly across cultures. The subject and context may not be known or understood.
  • Western countries can be informal, and titles are seldom used. Note whether certain industries, regions or businesses follow a more formal protocol.
  • Watch relative words—such as many, few, costly, expensive, late, soon—these words can have different meanings, based on the context and cultural perspective of the reader or listener. Refer to specific figures, measurements, times, etc., to reduce misunderstandings and misinterpretations.
  • Will your message be delivered through print, face-to-face interaction, video, intranet, Internet, e-mail, meetings, personal telephone calls? Which format works best for which culture? High-context cultures will benefit more from a message with a more personal touch such as those from a supervisor, or face-to-face versus written. Low-context cultures will appreciate the opportunity to engage with upper-level leadership in two-way conversations along with written messages.
  • How quickly can you get the message to everyone who needs it? Low-context cultures will want information fast.
  • Ensure that employees feel included, regardless of their location around the world. Coordinate messages so that everyone gets them at the same time.
  • The corporate communication department can become the vehicle for engaging cultures and conversations. Create ways for employees to share information, ideas, best practices and case studies around the globe through message boards and blogs.
  • Become a good listener. Listen both for what is said and what is not said. The best way to communicate a good message is to have heard, really heard, what the receiver wants and needs to hear.
  • Suspend judgment, assumptions and stereotypes.

Communicating across cultures is the way of life in today’s global business environment. The challenges and complexities can appear daunting. However, the rewards of successful communication are immeasurable, helping you not only reach financial goals but increase morale, build trust and teams, inspire new and creative ideas, and most of all, develop an employee group motivated to be highly productive and loyal to your corporate goals.

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