Author: Jamie B. Gelbtuch (C’ 01)
Many communication exchanges seem simple enough. You state a question clearly and succinctly, “Will the reports be finished by Friday?” and the answer comes back swiftly, “Yes.” Then, you sit empty-handed in your office on Friday afternoon, playing these eight words over and over in your mind, with confusion and frustration mounting at some of the seemingly unreliable colleagues on your team.
When working across cultures and lacking the advantage of a shared native language, a common tactic is to boil communications down to simplistic levels. This often results in the excessive use of yes/no questions. However, many cultures tend to use a “yes” response, even when the answer is “no” in order to avoid disappointment, embarrassment, or loss of face. The “yes” may often be accompanied by subtle contextual cues that indicate that this is in fact a “no.” This is called high context communication and it indicates, per its name, that a high degree of contextual information beyond words is necessary to fully understand the message being sent.
The reality is that when looking at the world by region, most of Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America communicates in a relatively high context manner. These cultures tend to be strongly group and relationship oriented (which provides given context), and languages tend to use more indirect grammatical constructions. Answers on the surface are generally “yes”, or some variation thereof. Don’t be fooled, however. While “no” is an infrequently used word, it’s not a seldom used message.
On the other hand, North America (excluding Mexico) and Europe ranges from low to medium context communication on the same scale. The message is more in the words and non-verbal cues are weighted less. It is more probable that yes is yes, no is no, and maybe is maybe with less reading between the lines.
When trying to determine if an answer is a “yes-yes” or a “yes-no”, keep the following strategies in mind:
- Hold yes/no questions to a minimum. Instead, use open-ended questions that will require the other person to provide additional information. In the example above, rephrase the question by asking “By when will the reports be ready?”
- Ask more follow-up questions. If the answer to the re-phrased question above comes back as “Friday,” consider asking how much of the reports has already been completed or what items are currently missing to get a better sense of where the project realistically stands.
- Be on the lookout for non-verbal background signals. These may be tone of voice/silence, eye contact/avoidance, facial expressions or posture. Reflect on age, title, gender, dress and appearance, or choice of meeting location. While low context communication requires listening primarily with the ears, high context communication involves listening for a message with more of the five senses.
- Consider the channel of communication. Many of the means that we use today greatly reduce the ability to provide context. From the highest to lowest, reflect on: Face to face, video conference, phone, email, text message or even Twitter. With each step down, an element of context is lost, whether it is facial expressions, tone of voice, or simply the number of characters we can use. Choose channels appropriately and when possible, use higher context channels with higher context communicators.
- Re-train your mind’s definition of these small words. Chances are that when working on a global team, you may be using the same words, but not assigning them the same meaning. Don’t fall prey to assumptions. High context communicators are not necessarily being dishonest, nor are low context ones trying to be curt. Examples of phrases that may be interpreted differently from low and high context perspectives are:
|Phrase||Likely low context interpretation||Likely high context meaning|
|We will think about it.||They are thinking about it||We are not interested.|
|Yes, but it may be difficult.||Yes, but there are still issues to work out.||It won’t be possible.|
|We will get back to you.||They will get back to us.||We won’t be getting back to you.|
While this topic is the worthy subject of entire books, lengthy articles, and day-long courses, it is also something easy to start paying attention to right now. We spend most hours of most days in communication with others, which provides us with ample opportunities to make choices not only about what we say, but also about how we listen and interpret. Remember, as philosopher Paul Watzlawick once said, “Communication is what the receiver understands.”