Monday, April 13, 2009

Are you high context or low context?

I have taught writing in the School of Information Systems and Management at Carnegie Mellon University for ten years. Over that time I have taught hundreds of fine young people from India, South Korea, Japan, China, Thailand and just about every other land!

During one of the first classes I ask my Indian and Asian students if they communicate differently from Americans.

"Yes," they answer, "most definitely."

Then I ask them, "How do you communicate differently?"

After some shifting around in their seats, typically the Indian students respond with the obvious things, like British spelling. But, in some deeper part of themselves they know they communicate in a fundamentally different way. After they think about the question for a while, a forthright student will say, "We are less direct than the Americans. We are less forceful."

This style of communicating serves my non-American students well in business in India and Asia. In those places, the more direct style of communicating doesn't work. Direct-speaking Americans interacting in the Near and Far East are often seen as aggressive, abrasive and boorish. Conversely, the less assertive “Eastern” style of communicating doesn't work as well here.

I asked a colleague of mine, Vidhyu Rao, who works for a very successful company with many employees from India, what she thought of this phenomenon. She explained it this way:

“This whole behavior gets clear when we understand Edward T. Hall’s model on cultures,” Vidhyu, wrote. “Hall categorizes culture as high context and the low context. Asia, Africa, the Middle East and southern Europe are all high context cultures. The Americas, England, Australia and northern Europe form the low context cultures. Low context cultures rely on spoken and written language for meaning. High context cultures use and interpret more of the elements surrounding the message to develop their understanding of the message.”

It helps to explain the behavior of one very successful Indian company I know. This company clearly recognizes this difference between high context and low context cultures. In fact they have begun to ask their employees to "push back" on their American customers. They have asked me, a communication consultant to them, to stress this in the engagements I have with their employees (to date I have engaged with nearly 700 of them). Understand that the “push back” they refer to, and the one Vidhyu has discussed with me, is not rudely aggressive. Quite the contrary, this company simply asks its employees to articulate opinions and arguments better.

Why would any company want its employees to push back on their American customers? A company with thousands of employees and some of the premier customers in the world can only have one good reason: their American customers have asked them to be more forceful. Their customers have essentially said, "Look, we pay you well to help us do things we can't do for ourselves. We want you to tell us when we're wrong. We don't want you to accept what we say.” Or, as Vidhyu has said, “We do not want you to learn our ways and become one of us. This will not allow us to evolve and improve. It's nice but it doesn't help us. Tell us when we're wrong!" In other words, their clients want to be coached/ pushed back.

But, how do people from a high context cultures, some of which were colonized for centuries, cultures that know how to get along, cultures that are beautiful in their gentleness and passivity, become more aggressive and assertive overnight?

I tell my students from India, China, Thailand, and the other high context cultures to begin by changing their language, particularly their writing, when they communicate with Americans. I tell them to be less passive.

For example, I ask my students this question: who uses passive voice more, Indians and Asians or Americans. They don't hesitate for a second: Indians and Asians! I ask them: Who uses conditional language (should, would, could might), Indians and Asians or American. Again they don't hesitate for a second.

So, I tell them that in my classes I don't want them to use passive voice or the conditional (indecisive) mode of verbs. I want them to say, "We will do this," not "We could do this." I want them to say, "You did not complete the project on time," not "The project was not completed on time."

Then I tell them that I love them, I love their culture, I love their sincerity, their kindness and their goodness. I ask them not to change those things but to change their communication style with Americans, particularly with American business people and especially through their writing. I tell them to push back!

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