A Cultural Guide

When communicating with people from a different culture, what can you do to reduce misperceptions, misinterpretations, and misevaluations? You can begin by trying to assess the cultural context. You’re likely to have fewer difficulties if people come from a similar cultural context to you. In addition, the following four rules can be helpful.

Assume difference until similarly is proven. Most of us assume that others are more similar to us than they actually are. But people from different countries often are very different from us. So you are far less likely to make an error if you assume others are different from you rather than assuming similarity until difference is proven.

Emphasize description rather than interpretation or evaluation. Interpreting or evaluating what someone has said or done, in contrast to description, is based more on the observer’s culture and background than on the observed situation. As a result, delay judgment until you’ve had sufficient time to observe and interpret the situation from the differing perspectives of all the cultures involved.

Practice empathy: Before sending a message, put your self in the recipient’s shoes. What are his or her values, experiences and frames of reference? What do you know about his or her education, upbringing, and background that can give you added insight? Try to see the other person as he or she really is.

Treat your interpretations as a working hypothesis. Once you’ve developed an explanation for a new situation or think you empathize with someone from a foreign culture, treat your interpretation as a hypothesis that needs further testing rather than as a certainly. Carefully assess the feedback provided by recipients to see if it confirms your hypothesis. For important decisions or communiqués, you can also check with other foreign and home country colleagues to make sure that your interpretations are on target.

Cultural Context: A better understanding of these cultural barriers amd their implications for communicating across cultures can be achieved by considering the concepts of high and low context cultures.

Cultures tend to differ in the importance to which context influences the meaning that individual take from what is actually said or written in light of who the other person is. Countries like China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam are high context cultures. They rely heavily on nonverbal and subtle situational cues when communicating with others. What is not said may be more significant than what is said. A person’s official status, place in society, and reputation carry considerable weight in communications. In contrast, people from Europe and North America reflect their low context cultures. They rely essentially on words to convey meaning. Body language or formal titles are secondary to spoken and written words.

What do these contextual differences mean in terms of communication? Actually, quite a lot. Communication is high context cultures implies considerably more trust by both parties. What may appear, to an outsider as casual and insignificant conversation is important because it reflects the desire to build a relationship and create trust. Oral agreements imply strong commitment in high context cultures. And who you are – your age, seniority rank in the organization is highly valued and heavily influences your credibility. But in low context cultures, enforceable contracts will tend to be in writing, precisely worded, and highly legalistic. Similarly low context cultures value directness. Managers are expected to be explicit and precise in conveying intended meaning. It’s quite different in high context cultures, in which managers tend to make suggestions rather than give orders.

Cross Cultural Communication:

Effective communication is difficult under the best of conditions. Cross cultural factors clearly create the potential for increased communication problems.