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.