Friday, December 18, 2009

We all need culture training.

I distributed a detailed plan to the students in my writing class at Heinz College of Carnegie Mellon University and a student from Turkey objected to the plan saying, "We would never give that much detail in my country."

I suspected he wouldn't because of the difference between low and high context cultures. I told him that but he seemed confused because, I presume, he did not know the difference between high an low context (the Edward Hall theory).

I explained the theory as best I could and told him that in the low context USA executives need much detail. He was unimpressed and I had to pull rank saying, "Hey, if you're working with Americans, you need to give them detail." End of story.

I hated myself for that! On the same evening, I told the class they needed to "get a partner." The usual delay ensued as people who sit next to each other but seldom talk had to group up. After a few minutes one male student from Turkey still hadn't a partner, so I asked him again. Still he did nothing but look confused. A little irritated, I asked him, "Who is your partner?" and he said quietly and sincerely, "My wife." Didn't I feel like an %#@hole!

It made me wonder how many similar mistakes I have made over my ten years of teaching people from all over the world at CMU. I know I must have made many mistakes and the students were too polite to tell me. And, if I'm making them and I teach communication, how many mistakes are the rest of the faculty and staff making?

I may be making these mistakes because I haven't taken an opportunity at CMU to learn about our students, the many who come from India, China, Korea, Malaysia, Japan, Taiwan, Turkey, Mexico, Italy and many other countries whose cultures are unlike America. But, I'm not sure any opportunities exist in Heinz College. CMU has a learning center for the whole campus but most of us are too busy teaching to look around.

If it's not happening at CMU where he have programs with 75% of students from Asia, what is happening at UPMC, KFC, or at the little start-up down the street? I know of little such training. If it weren't often funny, it would be sad. For example, I just read about a company that tried to sell baby food in Liberia. The company put a picture of a cute baby on the food jar but no one bought it. Later, the company learned that packages in Liberia show pictures of the food inside the packages!

We are a global community with global problems. How will we ever cooperate if we can't understand each other? We need culture training!


  1. Hey Ed,
    Your post is both eye opening and funny. I have done several cultural awareness sessions of our clients and I will be glad to do such a session for your students/ faculty members too. What have I gotten myself into? :)

    I typically explain the “High Context” vs “low Context” like this. Even though it looks like trivializing the long research Edward Hall did on this subject, my audience always gets it. Be it about being verbose in the communication style, formality or simplicity. While the low context culture’s communication style includes a good amount of details and formality into official and formal communications, the high context culture typically leave a lot of details unsaid and let it to the imagination of the reader. This builds the habit of “reading between the lines” attitude in the individuals from high context cultures.

    It is all about “Context Setting”! The fundamental difference between a high context culture and a low context culture is that typically a person from a low context culture would read the meaning of a sentence or a phrase at it’s face value, because of the typical details provided. A person from a high context culture would build several messages around a sentence or a phrase.

    Let’s say we have two individuals one from a high context culture and the other one from a low context culture. If I send a note to both of them indicating that I would like to meet them individually at 3.30 pm and 4pm today, the low context person would read the note, block his/ her calendar for the 3.30pm meeting and will go about doing his/ her task on hand. The same note typically when received by a high context culture person is for sure going to erupt several emotions and meaning to the one sentence he/she read on the note. The person will now start thinking why I want to meet him/her? What has happened different that I have sent this note? Etc.

    So, I usually advise my participants to set the context before the actual message so that the high context culture team mates/ colleagues need not go through those unnecessary emotional spasms.

  2. This kind of great writing will make a great book. BTW, I was in Google Docs today. More later.

  3. Hi Ed,
    I am still experiencing intensely the difference between communication styles(European and American in my case). I am coming from an European British business environment where people start an e-mail with Dear... ,ask about the weekend or make a comment about the weather first. I remember when we talked about this in class and you told us that we need to learn to communicate like in Texas, very directly. And the ultimate experience in the Texas direct style came from Heinz: I just started the program and was inquiring about career services. I had not been introduced to the person I was writing to so I sent an e-mail on my situation etc. I received an answer back: What is your objective? That was it. No Dear Larisa, no talking about the weather or welcome etc, ha, ha. I learned my lesson, stated my objectives and benefited from the advice given. I am constantly comparing the 2 styles as I like exploring cultural differences.

  4. Good luck, Larisa! Remember the differences between high and low context cultures (Edward Hall). You have come from a high context culture and a more indirect way of communicating. Americans have much to learn about other cultures. In that regard, we also have much to learn from you about communicating!