The purpose of assessing a cross-cultural situation is to increase your awareness and to allow you to digest new information more easily.
The terms low and high context were coined by Edward T. Hall.
Low context cultures tend to focus on individual accomplishments. They follow the rules, and focus on fairness and quality, and use many words to communicate messages in mostly a forward, direct manner.
- Individual accomplishments
- Follow rules
- Focus on fairness
- Direct communication
- Team oriented
- Flexible on rules
- Indirect communication
In high-context cultures, communication is implied. Intended messages are often meant rather than explicitly stated. Intact groups need fewer words to explain a complicated message because everyone shares standard references.
Collectivist, high-context cultures are much more team-oriented. High context cultures value teamwork above individual performance. As such, teams from high context cultural areas tend to work more collaboratively.
1. Individual and group-focused features
When you work in a new culture, one of the differences you often notice is whether people identify more with a group or the focus is on the individual.
Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede studied collectivism vs individualism.
- Share common values
- Personal accomplishments
- Individual goals
- Independent decisions
People from a collectivist culture struggle to balance self-promotion and modesty in the USA. I apply a mix of solid individual thinking and flexibility within a team to produce collective results.
2. Direct and indirect communication
Direct and indirect communication styles often are closely related to personality. Still, they also can reflect the general tendency or style of how people in a culture or a country communicate.
(North America, Scandinavian, German)
- Are forthright
- Give feedback
- Get to the point
- Say no without inhibition
(South Europe, Asian, South American)
- Subtle messages
- Nonverbal communication
- Difficulty saying no
People that utilize indirect communication often avoid saying a definitive "no" wherever possible. It is seen as impolite and could damage the relationship.
3. Status and equality
Power distance, the power distribution in a society or a country, is the communication distance between the most powerful and least influential person in a group.
- First name basis
- Open communication
- Less hierarchical
- Less formal
- Dress to impress
- Expect respect
- Act formal
Assess a situation before you even ask questions. Do lower-ranking members of an organization openly ask questions of their seniors? Do higher-ranking members always sit at the head of the table in a meeting? Who gets introduced first when formalities are followed?
4. Relationships versus rules
In particularist societies, relationships dominate. They focus on individual needs. There is room for negotiation, more options for making changes, and setting new standards according to particular circumstances. People take time to build trust—relationships open doors.
Universalist societies follow the rules. Systems and regulations in place. Consistency and fairness. Rules are sacred. Quicker discussions and disagreements are expressed openly. They treat everyone fairly.
5. Risk and restraint
Just as some people avoid risk or thrive on it, so do cultures.
- Welcome change
- Tolerate outside opinions
- Lower bureaucracy
- Deep history, avoid risks
- Less comfortable with change
- Higher bureaucracy
- Expect formalities
- Must validate arguments
- Lower outsider acceptance
- Practice nepotism
In a low-risk aversion setting, outside opinions are accepted far more frequently. Change is welcome, even encouraged, and new ideas are appreciated.
When the country's history spans thousands of years, it can be a real challenge to get multigenerational workplaces to see things from a fresh perspective (high-risk aversion.) Certainty is tied to tradition. Certainty is tied to history.
When it comes to doing business it's crucial to be aware of what to expect and how to manage perceptions that others have of time.
In The Silent Language, Edward T. Hall defines time orientation:
- Time is linear.
- Time is saved, not spent.
- Tight schedules
- Advanced planning
- Call to action
- Time is cyclical
- People move a little slower
- Multiple projects are managed at once
- People tell stories
How people and cultures handle time varies. As a result, these differences affect interactions in the business world. Being aware of monochronic and polychronic time orientations will help you be better prepared and be more effective on some occasions.
Neither monochronic nor polychronic time orientation is more efficient than the other. Businesses from both backgrounds have found big success. What is important is that you understand the time orientation of the group you work with to communicate more effectively.
7. Locus of control
Locus of control relates to the degree to which people accept personal responsibility for what happens to them and believe they can control.
- “Doing” oriented
- Fate not important
- Believes that situations can change
- Asks more often
- Self-help/DIYLife coaches, personal trainers
- Predict the weather
- Plan into the future
- “Being” oriented
- Believes in fate and luck
- Waits patiently
- Astrological charts
An eye in the future versus a “God willing” mindset. Be patient if you come from a country with an internal locus of control. If you come from an external locus of control, expect planning, proposals, benchmarks.
Most importantly: ask questions
A cross-cultural mindset involves assessing the situation and then strategizing your approach to fit into it. What you know and assess about a new culture is one side of the puzzle. How you adapt to it is your key to success.
- When you observe people’s interactions, do they seem formal or casual? You might want to watch people in several settings.
- Do people smile to one another?
- Do strangers greet one another?
- Do people who are familiar with one another use close personal space? Is there much close personal contact? Do people sit or walk alone or in groups?
- Are people animated with their gestures?
- Do voices intonate a lot when they speak? Can you hear emotion in their voice even if you don’t know the language?
- If you observe a workplace, what is the dress code norm? Does it look more formal, fashion polished, or pretty casual?
- Are people well groomed? Are they wearing accessories (watches, jewelry, sunglasses, or perfume)?
- If you get to access written word (email or memos), does the tone seem formal or casual? Are recipients addressed by first name?
- Looking more specifically at the external environment, what is the political situation?
- How important is the role of government in people’s lives?
- Is there a current political, social, athletic, and religious event that involves this culture directly?
- If the culture you are observing seems pretty direct, does that match your style?
- If not, do you need to have access to a “cultural translator,” someone who can help you interpret some of the messages sent?
- Have you interacted with this culture or a similar one in the past?
- Can you draw from any past experiences to build rapport with new acquaintances?
- If not, do you know of anyone who has experience in this same culture?
- If you are not familiar with the conversational tone in the new setting, do you need to study any previous communication documents?
- If this is a new setting, are you familiar with any history, literature, or current events so that you can ask some informed questions
Developing a cross-cultural intelligence mindset is an ongoing process, a cyclical pattern that you re-visit with every new assignment. It's not about having all the right answers and knowledge, success is about having awareness and asking all the right questions.
Developing Cross-cultural intelligence. Course by Tatiana Kolovou.
Beyond Culture. Book by Edward T. Hall.
Geert Hofstede. Website.
The Silent Language. Text by Edward T. Hall.