Body Language Across Different Cultures – It was Monday morning and I was anxiously waiting in my cubicle for Bob to come into the office. I decided to make it clear to him that the deadlines for the new project are very tight, and there is no way we can meet them. I was with a client in Massachusetts and Bob handled the entire program from the client side.
At the first sign of his appearance, I went to him, hoping to express my dissatisfaction with the registration in the project. Here’s how our conversation went –
Body Language Across Different Cultures
Bob: Yes, it’s a difficult project. There will be a good reason to celebrate as soon as we can pull it off.
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Bob: We’ve done a detailed job of breaking the project down into smaller milestones so we can track progress along the way. Do you think we missed something?
Me: I hope so too. It will be difficult, but I will do my best.
In all my conversation, I never once mentioned my direct concern about the timing of the project. However, I assumed I had conveyed my point and expected Bob to read between the lines.
When the project didn’t go so well and Bob approached me for clarification, I replied, “I told you we couldn’t meet the deadline.” Bob was furious. According to him, not only did we miss the deadlines, but I never really expressed my concern about this.
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From my point of view, Bob was wrong in ignoring my message, and from his point of view, I was clearly the one who ruined everything. Well, that was 14 years ago, and I later found out that we were both right in our own way. Coming from a high-context culture in India, I expected Bob to pick up on my subtle hints, and Bob, being an American from a low-context culture, wanted me to talk about it.
This is just one of the many conflicts we may face as we cross global borders to work and emerge from our own cultural cocoon to interact with people around the world.
Whether it’s a face-to-face conversation, connecting via Zoom, or interacting via Slack or email, if we want to communicate effectively, we need to understand how culture affects communication.
Cultural diversity, if not handled properly, can be a source of inefficiency, confusion, frustration, anxiety and stress at work. When we don’t appreciate cultural differences in how others communicate and interpret information, we are more likely to misunderstand them.
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What happens when people from other countries and cultures do not behave in accordance with our cultural norms? We fall into the fundamental attribution error and attribute their behavior to their personality, which is who they are. We also find it convenient to stick to cultural stereotypes without trying to figure out what role culture plays in their communication style.
“Slight differences in communication patterns and complex differences in what is considered good business or common sense in different countries have a huge impact on how we understand each other and, ultimately, how we do our job,” says Erin Meyer, Professor of Organizational Behavior and Intercultural Management Specialist at The Culture Map.
The methods that have made us successful with a group of people from one country may not work with another group from another country. In order to collaborate, we need to embrace cultural diversity and be open to exploring different approaches to communication and making adjustments along the way. We need to learn, unlearn and relearn new strategies in order to communicate effectively with different groups of people. “By circumventing common stereotypes and learning to decipher the behavior of people from other cultures, we can not be offended (and not accept) and better use the strengths of increased diversity,” says Erin Meyer.
American anthropologist Edward T. Hall developed a metric to measure communication differences between cultures using high and low context in the 1930s. He researched the factors that hinder or improve communication between people from different cultures.
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Once we understand how communication differs between high and low context cultures, we can appreciate these differences and take steps to narrow the communication gap instead of getting caught up in cultural differences and causing misunderstandings and unnecessary conflicts.
“In a low context culture, if I’m making a presentation, I have to tell you what I’m going to tell you, then I tell you, and then I tell you what I told you. Why do I tell you the same thing three times. Because it’s all about the simplicity and clarity of the message. In a high-context culture, we assume that we have many more points of reference in common. In these cultures, we believe that good effective professional communication is much more complex, more nuanced, implicit and layered,” says Erin Meyer.
Erin Meyer has developed an eight-scale model showing how cultures change across the spectrum from one extreme to the other. She says: “Culture is too complex to be meaningfully measured in just one or two dimensions. When studying how people from different cultures relate to each other, what matters is not the absolute position of any one culture on the scale, but the relative position of the two cultures. It is this relative positioning that determines how people see each other.”
The United States is the lowest context culture in the world, followed by Canada, Australia, the Netherlands, Germany, and the United Kingdom. All Anglo-Saxon cultures are on the left side of the scale, with the UK being the culture with the highest context in the Anglo-Saxon cluster. All Romance-speaking countries, including European countries such as Italy, Spain, and France, and Latin American countries, such as Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina, fall in the middle right of the scale. Brazil is the culture with the lowest context in this cluster. Many African and Asian countries lag even further behind Japan as the world’s highest context culture.
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Instead of criticizing other people’s communication styles and assuming ours is the best, we can use this scale to understand the different communication styles of people on our team, clients, partners, or everyone we work with.
“When interacting with someone from a different culture, try to watch more, listen more, and talk less. Listen before you speak and learn before you act,” says Erin Meyer.
If you’re from a low context culture and you’re working with someone from a high context culture, don’t rely on literal understanding of the words and also try to interpret what’s behind the message. To do this, listen carefully, observe their body language, reflect on their intentions, and ask open-ended questions to get to the core message.
Asking open-ended questions rather than looking for a yes/no answer is very important to understand the purpose of the message. It is always better to clarify your understanding than to assume that you understand each other well.
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When it’s your turn to deliver a message to someone in a high-context culture, try to be less repetitive and see if your message is well received. Use effective listening to determine their level of understanding and use this learning to add missing information or make corrections.
If you’re from a high-context culture and you’re working with someone from a low-context culture, focus on the content of the message without looking for hidden meaning. Feel free to ask clarifying questions if the goal is unclear or the message sounds confusing.
People from a low-context culture will appreciate your being straightforward in your search for clarity, rather than remaining silent and finding out about gaps in understanding later.
When sending a message to someone from a low context culture, be clear and unambiguous. Get the message across first and don’t wait until the end to state what you really intend to convey. Beating around the bush without getting to the point is sure to lose their focus and cause confusion. It would also be a good idea to summarize key findings both orally and in writing.
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When working with people from different cultures, sometimes it’s best for the team to develop their own language to communicate with.
By being part of a shared context, by understanding cultural differences and the misunderstandings that can arise from those differences, the team is better equipped to appreciate those differences and develop a strategy that benefits everyone.
Another advantage of creating a communication structure is to explicitly obtain consent from all team members and hold each other accountable for complying with it. By signing up explicitly, team members will feel more comfortable moving away from their usual communication style to explore one that works for all team members.
Pablo Diaz, a Spanish executive who worked in China for fifteen years at a Chinese textile company, remarked: “In China, the message that goes ahead is not necessarily the real message. My Chinese colleagues hinted, but I did not understand them. Later, when I thought about it, I realized that I missed something important. Diaz talks about the discussion
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