Cultural Communication 101

April 27, 2018

I had a video conference call with my first studio partner from Brazil at 8 a.m. Earlier in the week, I sent an e-mail with the deck I’d be presenting, and a few notes and bullet points listing the subjects. I followed up with another email a few days later to make sure they had received everything.

Then the day of the videoconference rolled around. I hadn’t heard much from the partner. My presentation deck looked great. I had my talking points lined up and I had prepared for just about every question I could imagine.

I dialed into the call, waited for a minute and then the Brazilian team joined. They were happy and smiling and pleasant. We had introductions, talked about the weather and life for a little bit. Then they asked me a question that threw me for a loop.

“Why are we having this meeting again?”

That was my introduction into how communication differs around the world.

It didn’t occur to me that along with language differences, people from other countries and cultures might look at and process information differently than me. It was an illuminating moment.

One way to grasp intercultural communication is understanding high-context versus low-context communication.

A high-context culture often relies on implicit communication and nonverbal cues. In high-context communication, a message typically cannot be understood without a great deal of background information. Asian, African, Arab, Central European and Latin American cultures are considered high-context cultures.

High-context cultures often display the following tendencies, according to C.B. Halverson’s book Cultural Context Inventory.

Association: Relationships build slowly and depend on trust. Productivity depends on relationships and the group process. An individual’s identity is rooted in groups (family, culture, work). Social structure and authority are centralized.

Interaction: Nonverbal elements such as voice tone, gestures, facial expression and eye movement are significant. Verbal messages are indirect, and communication is seen as an art form or way of engaging someone. Disagreement is personalized, and a person is sensitive to conflict expressed in someone else’s nonverbal communication.

Territoriality: Space is communal. People stand close to each other and share the same space.

Temporality: Everything has its own time, and time is not easily scheduled. Change is slow, and time is a process that belongs to others and nature.

Learning: Multiple sources of information are used. Thinking proceeds from general to specific. Learning occurs by observing others as they model or demonstrate. Groups are preferred. Accuracy is valued.

By contrast, low-context cultures (most Germanic and English-speaking countries) expect messages to be explicit and specific. Low-context cultures often display the following tendencies, according to Halverson.

Association: Relationships begin and end quickly. Productivity depends on procedures and paying attention to the goal. The identity of individuals is rooted in themselves and their accomplishments. Social structure is decentralized.

Interaction: Nonverbal elements are not significant. Verbal messages are explicit, and communication is seen as a way of exchanging information, ideas and opinions. Disagreement is depersonalized; the focus is on rational (not personal) solutions. An individual can be explicit about another person’s bothersome behavior.

Territoriality: Space is compartmentalized. Privacy is important, so people stand farther apart.

Temporality: Events and tasks are scheduled and to be done at particular times. Change is fast, and time is a commodity to be spent or saved. One’s time is one’s own.

Learning: One source of information is used. Thinking proceeds from specific to general. Learning occurs by following the explicit directions and explanations of others. Individual orientation is preferred, and speed is valued.

My new Brazilian friends had received my email and were excited to talk, but they hadn’t looked over the presentation deck, or any of my many notes and bullet points. They were waiting until we talked to get some background on what was happening. They wanted to take their time to understand the whole story before getting the details all at once.

My first international cross-cultural video conference started out a little rougher than I had hoped, but wound up turning into a great conversation and a tremendous learning experience. We took a step back and were able to get to know each another more on both a personal level and professional level. It wasn’t long before a well-rounded trust and comfort developed. Later, we dove into my presentation and my many bullet points with a better understanding of each other and knowledge of how we would best work together.