As business organizations become increasingly global, executives are more frequently responsible for communicating with multinational audiences. These audiences may range from conferences of 500 to face-to-face meetings with a handful of key business associates. To be effective when communicating with such groups, executives need to understand the cultural differences that shape their listeners’ perceptions of the words and images that they use so that their presentations are properly received.
One of the most important distinctions to understand is the difference between “high context” and “low context” cultures.
China, for example, is a high-context culture. This means that in order to understand the meaning of any communication, it is very important to understand not only the words, but also the age and status of the person who uses them, the body language that person employs, the history of the relationship of that person in the organization, and many other factors. In a high-context culture, information is embedded and people have to extract it.
The United States, on the other hand, is a very low-context culture, where people speak explicitly. Say what you mean and mean what you say. It’s very specific and direct.
Chinese speakers start out with background and lead up to a concluding statement. In doing so, they view themselves as considerate, face-saving (for themselves and their audiences), cautious, prudent, and cooperative.
American listeners often find such presentations confusing, illogical, passive, imprecise, and deferential … and usually stop listening. They do not see the structure of what is being presented. Similarly, Chinese people who listen to American presentations also stop listening, but for a different reason -- five minutes into the presentation they already know the conclusion. But they find this direct approach rude, inconsiderate and illogical.
Each approach has particular virtues. The Chinese, with their high-context culture, excel at pattern recognition. Did you ever marvel at drivers in Shanghai or Hong Kong as they maneuver adroitly through the crowded, bustling streets? They can process lots of disparate information at the same time. When it comes to a problem that’s ill-defined, the high-context approach works well. When the problem is well-identified, the direct, low-context model works very well. The two approaches serve different purposes.
Among global corporations, however, the issue is not just how Americans communicate with Asians or Europeans; it’s also how East Asians (from China, Japan, or Korea) communicate with South Asians (from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan or Sri Lanka) and Southeast Asians (from Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam). More and more, global corporations are establishing functional or business unit headquarters outside the United States, because that’s increasingly where the intellectual and production resources are located. India, for example, is a center for offshore information technology, while China has become a manufacturing headquarters for companies around the world.
As a result, international executives are more routinely communicating with diverse audiences through a variety of channels, including speeches, presentations, face-to-face meetings, telephone conference calls, Webcasts, and e-mail. To be effective, these executives need to understand how their listeners culturally process information -- and adjust their communications accordingly.
Diane. L. Simpson is a member of WJM Associates’ executive coaching and cross-cultural consulting faculty.