Different from me does not mean less than me; others may have a better solution. It can be far too easy to judge others’ behavior as not acceptable based on our expectations of what is appropriate. But how do we form those beliefs? What drives our perspective? 

What is culture?


Culture at its essence is based on a commonly shared history that enables us to interpret meaning and intent from a similar perspective. Throughout our lives we experience different perspectives. Sometimes we are drawn into a new or different cultural circle through school, making new friends, or travel. For some of us, that can happen quite unintentionally, from a sudden medical condition, a physical accident, or through the actions of a third party. Aggression, acts of war, disease, or accidental disfigurement can truly hurl us into an unfamiliar world, where the actions and reactions of those around us do not follow recognizable patterns.  Since our personal understanding of the world is shaped by our own unique interactions, the more we experience, the more we grow, the more we learn, the more we change, the less we are tied solely to one culture. 

We do seem to have a natural drive or desire to feel that we belong to a familiar group, often defined by family, ethnicity, language, values, ethics, or shared experiences. In fact there is a very comforting reassurance when we are in the company of people with whom we share those common bonds. For some the act of “coming home” is an attempt to return to that safe environment to reenergize or just relax by removing the mask that we feel a need to wear in the outside world. Knowing that we are in the company of familiar friends is enabling because it means we can be intuitively understood by members of our “tribe”, without the need for explanations. 

High versus Low Context Cultures and Communication

One way to begin to understand the nature of communication differences between groups is through the concept of High vs Low context, as introduced by the anthropologist Edward T. Hall in his book Beyond Culture (1977). A High Context (HC) group or culture shares a common set of expectations and behavioral understanding. Their group norms are created over time and facilitate communication within the group because everyone understands the messages without a need for explicit details. Many Asian countries like Japan and China have a HC cultural communication approach. As a small group example, whenever Dad jumps out of his chair, opens his eyes wide, and growls we all know it’s time to take cover. An outsider to the family would not intuitively understand what that means. 

A Low Context group or culture is one that does not have shared knowledge and all communication is explicit, direct and intended to clearly contain all the information needed to convey the intent of a message. The USA is an example of a country with a typically Low Context communication style. That is not surprising when you consider that the USA is a nation of immigrants from different ethnic backgrounds. The adage learned in business school to prepare for presentations of “Tell ‘em what you’re going to tell ‘em, then tell ‘em and finally tell ‘em what you told them” is a fundamentally Low Context approach. Using that approach when presenting to a group from a High Context culture may cause a reaction from mild irritation to anger as the audience is thinking “Why do you keep repeating yourself? Do you think we’re stupid and need to be told the same thing multiple times?” 

Communication can be complex. What works in one location may be misunderstood in another. The key is to consider your audience and behave accordingly. If in doubt, ask in advance, or review your approach with someone familiar with the “local” customs.

Company-Centric Communication

Your own company, business group, or department may have developed its own context rules. Consider what a new employee needs to know about unwritten rules, like who speaks first, who has the last word, use of email or voicemail, unique acronyms that are only meaningful to a limited number of insiders. This is also true when communicating with vendors or customers. Consider how you can flex to their world. 

Expectations for behavior are framed by our cultural perspective. This may explain why a new employee’s expectations for their role and responsibilities can be very different from the hiring manager’s perspective. Without clear purposeful communication both parties may be disappointed. To avoid that conflict those role expectations and key accountabilities for success must be clearly articulated during the selection process and reinforced during a structured on-boarding process designed to welcome the new hire to the new “family” they were expecting to join.