A cultural lens and communication

Communication is the key to mutual understanding and trust-building. Research has shown that communication facilitates relationship building and trust development (Ferrell & Kline, 2018; Lin et al., 2008). Moreover, communication impacts individual performance through trust (Sarker et al., 2011). It might be further concluded that a high level of trust among team members helps teams to achieve better performance. Accordingly, communications plays important role in building high-performance teams.

There are different communication theories (for more information please refer to the Encyclopedia Of Communication Theory by Foss & Littlejohn, 2009) However, to put it simply, we can describe communication as a process of exchanging information. Communication is effective when a message sent by a sender to a receiver is understood in accordance with the senders´ intention. As many factors are impacting the communication process, e.g. a communication channel or language, there might be some difficulties in understanding messages correctly. Global communication requires additional effort to be effective. This, because of a cultural lens that has a great impact on the way we communicate.

Let me introduce you to the concept of low-context and high-context cultures. Low-context cultures are the following: the USA, all Anglo-Saxon cultures, Germany, Netherlands and some Nordic countries, whereas high-context cultures are African and Asian cultures. Countries that speak Romance languages (for example Italy, Spain, France, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina) fall in the middle with a tendency to be high-context cultures (Meyer, 2014).

You might wonder how belonging to one or another cluster might impact communication. Let me start by presenting you the main differences between those two aforementioned groups (Meyer, 2014). Low-context cultures communicate explicitly and clearly. Messages are straight and transmitted verbally to the communication partner. People coming from low-context countries feel the necessity of clarifying things and asking their partners for verbal confirmation of the received message. In a business setting, it is a common practice to sum up meetings and verbally recap what has been decided. The need of being precise and clear manifests in the written communication too – responding to the emails within 24 hours, no matter if the answer can be provided straight away or the partner needs to wait a bit longer, is considered trustworthy and polite in low-context environments.

On the other side of the scale, there are high-context cultures. For people coming from those cultures, verbal communication is just one of the elements in the communication process. The real meaning of messages could sometimes be hidden between the lines of what is expressed verbally. As Meyer (2014) describes, children in Chinese culture learn to put the attention not only on what is heard, but also on how something is said, and what is not said. Meyer (2014) further stresses the ability to read between the lines to succeed in communication with people from high-context cultures. In opposition to their colleagues from low-context cultures, high-context business partners do not have a habit to recap meetings in any way. All participants are supposed to simply know what has been decided without going through the conclusions once again. In written communication, avoiding unnecessary repetition might result in waiting for a response until the expected action is done, or the correct answer is found. Such behavior might be confusing for team members from lower-context environments, as they expect some feedback, even though the issue is not yet resolved.

As you can see, cross-cultural communication is challenging, especially when there is a blend of many cultures cooperating in one team. That is why, bearing in mind differences in communication styles helps you better understand your communication partner´s behavior, and respond accordingly. According to what has been said in the beginning, effective communication in global teams helps to build stronger relationships based on trust, which in turn positively impacts performance. That is why raising awareness on this matter is crucial in the global business world that we are all a part of.

Author: Gabriela Anna Zoltek, GeCCo 2020/21 Local Organizer from YC Poland

Ferrell, J., & Kline, K. (2018). Facilitating Trust and Communication in Virtual Teams. People & Strategy, 41(2), 30–35.
Foss, K. A., & Littlejohn, S. W. (2009). Encyclopedia of Communication Theory. SAGE Publications, Inc. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=e000xww&AN=495591&site=ehost-live
Lin, C., Standing, C., & Liu, Y.-C. (2008). A model to develop effective virtual teams. Decision Support Systems, 45(4), 1031–1045. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.dss.2008.04.002
Meyer, E. (2014), The Culture Map: Breaking Through The Invisible Boundaries of Global Business. PublicAffairs.
Sarker, S., Ajuja, M., Sarker, S. & Kirkeby, S. (2011). The Role of Communication and Trust in Global Virtual Teams: A Social Network Perspective. Journal of Management Information Systems, 28(1), 273–309. https://doi.org/10.2753/MIS0742-1222280109

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