Multi-Cultural Leadership- Part 2 (High/Low Context Communication)

away message-smallIn Part 1, we talked about how hard it is to be a leader in multi-cultural situations. Yet, most of us find ourselves in exactly this kind of circumstance in today’s world. Today we’re going to talk about how to improve our multi-cultural communication skills.

Communication- what is it?

Recently, I met a pilot who is from a Middle Eastern country and flies for the local airlines. I asked him how much he uses Arabic (his native language) and how much he uses English when he is flying. He told me that when he is flying he is not allowed to use Arabic at all and must use English.

Communication is critical at 10,000 meters in the air when the lives of dozens of people are in your hands. That is why everyone who pilots an airplane or controls the movements of those airplanes from the ground must use the same language so that there can be good communication between all parties. Communication is also critical for us as we manage and lead in international situations.

It takes more than just a common language, though, to have real communication. Even when we all speak the same language it’s possible that communication can be misunderstood because of other cultural ideas besides words.

Two of the biggest differences between cultures in communication is High-Context/Low-Context communication and Direct/Indirect communication.

High/Low Context Communication

Cultures that are high context rely on a lot of background information for communication to occur. Think of Japanese culture, for example. Everyone grows up hearing the same stories and revering the same great people from the past. So when people communicate they just have to say a few words and it brings a whole story to mind. Communication is not so much in words and can only be understood in context. Sometimes, the most important things are what is not said.

Cultures that are low context rely much more heavily on the words that are spoken for understanding to take place. Think of the United States, for example. A high percentage of Americans are immigrants or have parents or grandparents that were immigrants. They all grew up hearing different stories from different original cultures and have few common fables to help communication. Communication is very direct and very clear. The spoken word is everything.

So how does the leader communicate when she is leading a multicultural team with some members who are high context communicators and some team members who are low context communicators? Here are some things that may help.

1. Bring the problem to light. Make sure members of your team understand that some of the team are high context and some of the team are low context communicators and that they will communicate differently.

2. Double up on communication. Go out of your way to communicate important thoughts in both a high context and a low context way. Understand that just because you say something in a way that you understand, this does not mean that the members of your team will understand it.

3. Go the extra mile. Because it’s easier to communicate in your “native” way, go out of your way to communicate more like a high-context culture if you are from a low-context culture, or vice-versa.

4. Develop a team communication culture. As your team is together help them develop a team culture that may be halfway between high context and low context. When you are in a meeting and you see someone falling back into their native culture communication style, gently bring them back to the team communication style.

In my next post, we’ll talk about another extremely important concept in multicultural communication– direct/indirect communication styles.

Question for discussion: Think of a situation where you need to communicate an idea with a team. Please post an example of how you would do that in a high-context and a low-context format.

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