Understand the culture, then communicate

In ‘The Culture Map, Decoding how people Think, Lead, and get things Done Across Cultures’ (2014), the author Erin Meyer talks of low-context and high-context communication.  Cultures from countries with strong oral traditions, for example Asian, Latin America and Africa, convey messages implicitly (high context).  This is different in the United States and Anglo-Saxon cultures. In these cultures, people communicate as explicitly and literally as possible (low-context).

In the ‘high-context’ cultures, oral communication is key as one can identify nuances and non-verbal cues that may not be clear in written communication.

A practical example: explicit meets implicit communication

Recently, MDF Eastern and Southern Africa, Regional Director, Maurits Spoelder, a Dutch whose culture leans strongly towards explicit communication (low context) was preparing for a training session in Malawi.

This is a country rich in traditions, with an implicit communication style. Spoelder communicated and agreed via e-mails the preferred arrangement of the training room and listed the required materials. Upon arrival however, he found the arrangements had not been made as requested. The reason? The team was waiting for his physical presence, verbal instructions, and face-to-face interaction in keeping with their communication style. 

Communication is creating understanding

Another related example. Some young professionals drawn from Mali, Ghana, Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso (all West African countries) shared their experience while working with Dutch nationals during a team building session.  

“The Dutch write everything – memos, emails, et cetera. The expectation is that issues are resolved, planned or agreed-upon….” For this particular group of West Africans, they see things differently. Communication is often in spoken language, either face-to-face or over the phone, but not often in writing. The spoken word reaffirms the written word. This creates understanding that the message is received as intended.

Management Tip 1: A mix of communication tools is ideal when communicating about work tasks or when giving instructions.  If you work in multi-cultural teams, some prefer short and clear emails, while others like to discuss work matters over the phone. Better still, in person.
Management Tip 2: When interacting with people from different cultures from ourselves, we need to be aware of differences in communication norms. As we mentioned in our previous blog, it is important not to form opinions or make judgements. Instead, ask more questions to find the meaning behind the communication. Accept and understand that each cultural context affects communication differently.

Does your team need to become more culturally sensitive? Contact Jacinta or Michelle for a tailor made session, team building event, or inter-cultural communication training!