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Inclusive and effective communication – we need to learn to ‘read the air’

I’ve just finished reading Erin Meyer’s fabulous book, The Culture Map (https://www.waterstones.com/book/the-culture-map/erin-meyer/9781610392761) and I wanted to share some of its content with you because she’s opened my eyes to some surprising and immensely useful tools which can help us all communicate more effectively and more inclusively.

Meyer is an INSEAD professor. Her ideas on cross cultural communication draw on three decades living and working around the globe.

She’s identified the differences which exist between cultures in 8 areas – general communication, giving feedback, persuading, leading, decision making, trust, disagreeing and scheduling. And her premise is that if we understand these differences, we can adapt our communication style and habits to achieve better outcomes. And we can avoid judging others negatively through our own cultural lens.

Important to say here that Meyer (and I) acknowledge that personality is also important. She encourages us to understand and appreciate cultural differences while also respecting individual differences.

One area in particular has caused me to reflect on, and adapt, my own communication style.

Low/high context cultures

High context cultures (eg India, Japan, China) communicate with nuance and subtlety; they imply; they speak between the lines; they make unconscious assumptions. The Japanese call it ‘reading the air’. In French, there’s ‘sous-entendu’ and in Spanish ‘sobretenido’.

Low context cultures (eg USA, Netherlands, Germany, Australia) communicate plainly, simply, clearly, explicitly, at face value. There’s no hidden meaning.

The UK incidentally, is towards the low context end of the scale but not as far along as USA.

Why the difference? Because of history.

If we compare Japan and USA, Japan is an island, geographically isolated from the rest of the world and with thousands of years of shared experience and common reference points. Its people therefore have learned to pick up each other’s messages.

The USA only has a few hundred years of shared history. It was made up of multiple groups of immigrants from across the world. There are few common reference points. There’s a high level of cultural and linguistic diversity so the best way to communicate is clearly and simply, with no room for misunderstanding or ambiguity.

It’s like a married couple. After decades together, they can read each other’s gestures and subtle facial expressions, finish each other’s sentences. Newly weds need a more literal style of communication.

Take the example of an Iranian (high context) woman who arrives late at a friend’s house, to stay the night. Her host offers her food. She refuses. The host offers a second and third time. Only on the final invitation does she accept. This is a sign of good manners in Iran, and the host knows he has to offer multiple times. If she were being hosted by a low context culture, she might very well go to bed hungry!

In a work environment, in written form, there’s the potential for missteps between high/low context individuals. The British tend to expect a prompt reply to an email (even if the recipient can’t give the answer immediately), and will be concerned if none arrives. A Spanish recipient might send no response for three days, then email to say ‘job done’.

In fact, the need for written communication at all is a tricky area. As a general rule, the lower the context (eg USA, UK), the more we tend to put things in writing. Many high context cultures (eg Indonesia) have a strong oral tradition so would consider it unnecessary to send written confirmation of the content of a ‘phone call. In fact, they might interpret a written confirmation as a sign that the colleague doesn’t trust them to complete the task they verbally committed to.

Saying ‘no’ is an area full of potential booby traps for the unaware. In Asia, ‘no’ might be communicated between the lines eg “it will be difficult but I’ll do my best”. This could easily be misinterpreted as a ‘yes’ by anyone who hasn’t read Meyer’s book.

So how do we adapt our communication style, to avoid misunderstanding, to achieve good outcomes and to create an atmosphere of inclusivity? In particular, how best to manage cross cultural teams (containing both high and low context individuals).

Meyer suggests that such teams need low context processes – ie clear, simple, literal communication, and that the ground rules (and the rationale behind them) should be established within the team. For example, at the end of a meeting, someone will orally recap the key points; each attendee will orally summarise their next steps, and another person will send out a post-meeting written recap.

Essentially though, the most valuable tool for interacting with different cultures and achieving truly inclusive communication is to listen and watch more and speak less. As Buddha said: “if your mouth is open, you’re not learning”.

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