Cross Cultural Communication- Learning from Lizards & Foxes

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Issue: 46  Cross Culture Communication
                   -Learning from Arctic Foxes & Chameleon Lizards          

Please write down today’s date on a piece of paper 

How did you write it? DD/MM/YY, MM/DD/YY or YY/MM/DD?  

These 3 different ways to write the date can be termed  “surface” or “visual’ cultural differences.

Dig deeper, below the surface, and language patterns, non-verbal communication styles, values and belief differences can also be found.

These “non-visual cultural differences” can very hard to detect and can have a huge impact on the effectiveness of your daily communication, especially in today’s highly connected business world.

Edward T.Hall (a well-known anthropologist and cross-cultural researcher) put forward two main communication styles based on culture; High & Low context.

high-context culture relies on more indirect communication and nonverbal cues. In high-context communication, the meaning is more hidden in the context. A message cannot be understood without a great deal of background information. Chinese is considered to be very high context for example. Pls see chart below.

low-context culture relies on direct communication. More of the information in a message is spelled out and defined. Cultures with western European roots, such as the United States and Australia, are generally considered to be low-context cultures. Again pls see chart below.

Speakers/writers, therefore, using a high context communication style (Chinese) will likely cause huge frustration when communicating with people from a low context (USA) one.  This is especially true when Chinese speakers translate directly into English.

Let’s look at an example. Imagine that you wanted to tell your boss that “Project Relocation” will be delayed because of 3 reasons; an IT system problem, a safety incident and lastly the weather.

In Chinese, youwouldsay  因为 reason 1,2 & 3  所以(therefore) project relocation will be delayed.  Notice the indirect or “high context” style with background information first with the result (project relocation delayed) at the end.

However,inEnglish we would typically say “project relocation” will be delayed because of reason 1,2,& 3. Background information at the end with the result at the beginning.

How does this apply to business e-mailing? 
Chinese writers (high context) when writing to Western European/American audiences (low context)  should try to flex and be more direct and to the point. Aim to start communication with the result, action or to do first.

Conversely, when an American is writing to a Chinese/Japanese manager (High context) he/she may want to add 1-2 sentences first to build a connection and try to personalize the message more.

Enter our two animal friends, Arcticfoxesand chameleon lizards. Both adapt & change colour according to their living environments.

In summary;

  1. We need to be aware of cultural differences in our business writing (and oral communication)
  2. We need to be aware of our natural communication patterns and preferences (self-awareness)
  3. We need to flex/adapt to our audience (especially when communicating up) to reduce communication issues  

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Hope to see you in our next post where we will look at the importance of the number 23 in business writing.

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