Watch people as they talk with each other. Observe their hand gestures, watch their body language, listen to the tone of their voice. Are they speaking frankly, directly, saying exactly what they think? Are they brief and to-the-point? Or are they giving elaborate explanations, displaying impressive vocabulary, being tactful and circumspect? What you’re observing is the Communication Dimension, and there’s a great deal you can learn about culture by observing it.

Of all eight Dimensions in the CultureWizard Intercultural Model®, Communication encompasses the full range of all cultural behaviors. Of course, this isn’t surprising: Communication is the way we demonstrate so many of our values. It’s how we share beliefs and ideas from one person to another.

The Communication Dimension, with its spectrum extending from “Direct” to “Indirect,” is actually multidimensional—the observable confluence of several cultural values. For example, it reflects the Hierarchy Dimension because people use polite and deferential terminology. Many languages, for example, have hierarchy built into them—familiar or formal words to use depending on who’s being addressed.

So, the Communications Dimension becomes extremely important to people working in intercultural business, in which cross-cultural awareness emerges as key to business success.

Communication styles refer to:

· How societies use language, both verbal and non-verbal.

· The amount of information people need to receive—or share—to communicate a message.Is it brief and task-relevant or must there be background information as well?

· The explicitness or subtleness of the language people use.

· The way people use words or gestures to express feelings and display mood.

· The importance of harmony and saving face.

Cross-cultural Communication is Always a Challenge

The way a society communicates gives you remarkable insight into the way its people think … and conduct business. In fact, Communication style transcends the actual words. It encompasses the way people transfer verbal and non-verbal messages through voice, body language and actions. And it’s one area where lack of cross-cultural awareness can result in miscommunication that can bring unintended results.

For example, a question that's phrased in an inappropriate manner or accompanied by a gesture that is unexpected, can send the opposite message from what you intend. Moreover, people from different backgrounds require differing amounts of information and context in a message. Think about it: if you provide too much information to a person from a Direct culture, the recipient might not understand which partof the message is important and may even get impatient, whereas if you give too little information to a person from an Indirect culture, he or she might not have enough background to fully understand.

Let’s look at all the Communication Dimension components, one at a time.

Diverse Intercultural Communication Styles: Direct and Indirect

You can tell whether a culture is Direct or Indirect Communication by the importance of verbal versus non-verbal information, how much context is in the message, as well as the subtlety in the language. Is the message conveyed entirely by the words or is it in the entire presentation, including gestures and tone-of-voice?

Direct Communication cultures value succinct messages that are to-the-point. People say what they mean as clearly and briefly as possible without adding a lot of background information. While they use some body language, it isn’t an important part of the main message. Direct Communicators like to be “taken at their word.” They make eye contact and may openly express disagreement without being considered disrespectful.

At the other end of the spectrum, Indirect Communicators value the way the message is relayed, the amount of context, and the elegance of the language. Tone of voice, facial expressions, body language and non-verbal gestures are all important parts of the message. In addition, the context in which the conversation takes place is important. In an Indirect culture, your eloquence and ability to elaborate is extremely significant and will be part of the way your friends, colleagues and subordinates perceive your message.

Communication in Indirect cultures is far more nuanced. It’s important to accurately interpret the meaning of those gestures, tones and context that come from below the surface.

For example, in the US or Germany—cultures that are Direct Communicators—you might hear a manager who was under pressure say “I need that report done--and done perfectly by 8 a.m.” But in the UK, which values more tactful, Indirect Communication, a manager under similar pressures would more likely say, “Sorry about the rush, but schedules have been pushed forward a bit and I'd appreciate it greatly if that report can make it to my desk by 8 a.m. tomorrow. Thanks again.”

In the UK workplace, there's more nuance in the message and the urgency is implied more than stated; there's also a great show of respect in the delivery, even if a manager is talking to a junior employee. It also understates the urgency—which to a knowledgeable recipient doesn't make the message any less urgent.

High- and Low-Context Messages

Years ago, I had a first-hand lesson in cross-cultural awareness that taught me the differences between high- and low-context individuals. (High context is the need for a lot of background and signals an Indirect Communicator. Low-context communicators give only the bare facts that you need to know.)

I was working with a colleague who lived in Italy, and between the time zone differences (I was in Los Angeles) and our work schedules, it had been difficult for us to find a time for an extremely important conversation. She was about to attend a high-level meeting, and I had to share some information with her before the meeting began.

It was 4:30 am in LA when we finally connected. I briefly explained that one of the people in the meeting was going to become the new Head of Learning and Development and that most of the people at the meeting would be aware of it. I was sure she would want to know.

I gave her the message and was about to say good-bye when she asked me for more details. I shared a little more background and again was about to get off the phone when she asked me to explain how this might affect our work together. I shared what few insights I had and was about to end the conversation when she again asked for more details as to how it would impact the team she was meeting. 

We continued like that for a few more rounds, and finally I realized that in comparison to her, I am a low-context communicator—sharing the minimum details—while she was struggling to get the details she needed to feel fully informed. As this occurred to me, I recognized that what I provided would have been sufficient for low-context people on my team, but wasn’t equipping her with enough information for her to do her best job. As I volunteered more and asked her if she had any more questions, I could tell that she was a lot more confident.

It was a strong lesson to me about the diversity of background information that people need. Experience has also taught me to be more patient when high-context individuals are communicating to me in their style. There is a great risk for low context people getting impatient with high context communicators.

Non-Verbal Clues

People convey non-verbal communication through body language, eye contact, hand and body gestures, seating positions at business meetings—even how much time you spend with one another. In many Indirect societies, how people look when they are saying something—as well as the way they look at another person—can be more important than the words they use.

UCLA professor Albert Mehrabian has demonstrated that only about 7% of communication consists of the actual content of the exchange; the rest is non-verbal. CultureWizard contributor Allan Halcrow thoroughly explores non-verbal cues in his post, Great! You Learned The Language—Now You’re 7% Fluent In Intercultural Communication.

Body Language and Smiles. The way people use their bodies to deliver their messages mirrors underlying values in the society. Bowing, for example, illustrates deference in hierarchical cultures; sitting straight or standing tall may indicate respect in egalitarian societies.

Facial expressions are also important. People smile for different reasons. Does a weak smile mean, “Yes, I agree,” or does it mean, “I have listened to you and don’t want to openly disagree”? Managers who come from Direct Communication cultures are often confused, not knowing how to interpret the critical subtle messages from people who are Indirect. Don’t assume that what a smile or a nod or any other familiar gesture means in your own culture can automatically be interpreted to another. Sometimes it does, but often it doesn't.

When I lived in Japan, I learned that since the Japanese value group harmony, they try to maintain an impassive expression when listening. They will voice their disagreement subtly and privately. Since I was unaccustomed to such subtle body language, it was difficult for me to decipher.

I had to learn to watch for expressions such as inhaling through clenched teeth, tilting the head, and scratching the eyebrow or back of the head. I also had to learn not to misinterpret a smile, which can mean anything from "I agree" to "I understand” to “I do not agree but cannot tell you now.” A smile can also mask the discomfort of someone conveying bad news.

In many Middle Eastern societies, common ways to denote negative responses include raising the eyebrows with the head tilted back, clicking the tongue to make a "tsk" sound, and repeatedly moving the forefinger from right to left. Shaking the head from side to side often indicates a lack of understanding rather than disagreement.

Eye Contact. As with body and facial gestures, eye contact is culturally bound. In many Latin American cultures, eye contact with those in superior positions is generally an indirect way to demonstrate proper respect. However, intense eye contact might be misinterpreted as aggression. Some Asian cultures consider it disrespectful to stare into another individual’s eyes, particularly those of someone who is senior in rank. Some might take prolonged eye contact as a challenge, while brief eye contact can communicate interest in the other person.

In China and Japan, avoiding eye contact also allows a sense of privacy. Many Japanese will even close their eyes during meetings or while riding in an elevator—but do not mistake this for falling asleep! At the other end of the spectrum, in many Middle Eastern countries, eye contact is critical while conversing. If you glance away it might be taken as lack of interest in the discussion or even lack of respect towards the speaker. And, in many Direct Communication Western cultures, eye contact is crucial and represents sincerity, strong intent, and engagement.

Personal Space and Touching. The use of touching, the distance people stand from each other when they speak, and even where people are positioned around a conference table are indicators you should observe carefully. In some cultures, touching is appropriate during almost any kind of communication; in others it is offensive and is reserved for close friends and family.

In many Latin cultures, it is not uncommon to use big gestures, to touch shoulders or hold the arm of the other person while conversing to emphasize a point or show involvement and camaraderie. If you withdraw from these gestures, someone might see it as an insult.

In other words, if you wish to be cross-culturally aware when working with people from other cultures, you need to learn how to be sure that your body language and gestures are consistent with the message you’re trying to deliver. And, when some of these gestures surprise you, be patient.

Delivering Bad News

An important aspect of both Direct and Indirect Communication is how the culture delivers bad news. Some cultures, such as Americans, respect the idea of giving direct, hard-hitting information. They say, “Tell it to me straight. I can handle it. I’m a big boy.” People will often say, “Let me tell you to get it over with.” The rush to get past the unpleasant experience of conveying bad news may cause the speaker to omit important details that a high-context person needs.

On the other hand, some Indirect Communicators cannot convey information in a way that low-context, Direct Communicators want to receive it.

For example, we often hear about Western managers who complain that their Indirect Communicating subordinates and colleagues won’t give them the “straight story.” In a similar way, certain Germanic cultures can be confused by the subtle way their English colleagues give negative feedback and may often miss the core of the message. Their English colleague is likely to cushion the bad news by “sandwiching” it between the positive messages they can find.

One of my American colleagues had a performance review by his British manager. The American walked out saying, “Ah, that wasn’t too bad.” Unfortunately, he never understood that the manager was giving him negative feedback because it was conveyed with nuance and tactful language. Just a few months later he couldn’t understand why he didn’t get a salary raise.

Using Silence and “Yes” to Avoid Conflict

The use of silence may be difficult to interpret by those from Direct Communication cultures and makes many people uncomfortable. But, make no mistake, silence is as much a part of the message as the words you utter.Perhaps one of the most misinterpreted aspects of communication, silence is often a way of showing contemplation and respect for the speaker; many societies consider it rude not to show that you are giving adequate thought to what you’ve been told.

Hesitancy is another form of silence. Indian communication, which values harmony and, thus, subtlety, has historically relied heavily on non-verbal language. This Indirect Communication culture tries to avoid giving an outright negative response, which could possibly offend. Sometimes silence and reluctance to offer a dissenting position are ways to show disagreement without creating friction.

When you’re working with people from cultures where harmony is important and “saving face” is a strong cultural value, it’s a good idea to be alert for long pauses, evasive responses and non-verbal cues such as avoiding eye contact. Communication is meant to allow both parties to retain face, which means that they avoid overtly showing anger and other negative emotions.

In general, you should consider responses such as "maybe," "probably," or "I’m thinking about it," as "perhaps," while the response "I’ll consider it" is frequently negative. It is often a good idea to ask the same question several different ways to ensure that you have understood the response you receive.

The Impact of Language

Finally, when operating in a multi-cultural environment, you want to be sensitive to different levels of language fluency and comprehension. Even though people might speak well, their comprehension of the language in which business is conducted may lag behind, especially when situations are complex, stressful or virtual.

In international business we’re often dealing with people whose first language is other than the one being spoken. The result? Oftentimes at least one person in a multi-cultural group struggles to comprehend or select the right words quickly, affecting spontaneity, clarity of expression (vocabulary and pronunciation) and willingness to express ideas. Add to this deciphering accents, jargon and idiosyncratic word choice.This, plus nonverbal communication that might be misinterpreted, and the potential for problems begins to expand exponentially.

If you frequently interact with people who are less than fluent in the business language, be sure to give them time to reiterate important points and to fully express themselves. It’s also a good idea to send an agenda before a meeting and summary notes afterwards.

Communication in a Multi-Cultural Environment

As complex as Communication style can be, both Indirect and Direct Communicators can learn to recognize and appreciate the other style. Each has its strengths, and each can be used to advantage at different times.

The more proficient you become at understanding a wide range of Communication styles, the more you’ll be able to “flex” your own style to be sure that crucial messages are being sent and received as you intend.

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