Understanding the other is a good way to navigate the cross-cultural minefield

Understanding the other is a good way to navigate the cross-cultural minefield

When working in a multinational environment, it is sometimes hard to understand the cultural code of others. In such situations, the easiest way is to blame the other, but this approach is clearly not very productive or culturally savvy. We are working with people from India to the UK, and we have learned a lot about multicultural communication. An approach that we find helpful is the Hall’s theory for low-context and high-context cultures.

High-context cultures emphasise interpersonal relations, non-verbal language, communication hierarchy and implied messages, all of which the people you are talking to are supposed to decode. Time in high-context cultures is polychronic, meaning that multiple tasks could be conducted simultaneously. Examples are Japan, Korea and the UAE. On the other hand, low-context cultures people tend to appreciate words more and make communication rather straightforward. Such societies are monochronic, that is, task-oriented.

This model explains why an English person should not be surprised when a Korean colleague interrupts a Skype conference call with some small talk – it is normal for the Korean society. It is also important to mind the jokes, especially with someone from a high-text culture.

Naturally, Hall’s theory is rather simplistic for the complex world we live in. In a multicultural environment, there are more things to consider and learn to ensure productive interactions. However, this simple tool can become a first step in becoming more culturally savvy and capable of working with a multicultural team.

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