Let’s analyse the first dimension today!
This post is a part of the series where I’d like to share some of my cross-cultural experiences and stories. It will be based on the book entitled The Culture Map by an INSEAD professor and cross-cultural specialist Erin Meyer. I believe that this book is a great source for reading about cross-cultural differences. It triggered a lot of thoughts and memories when I was reading it. You can read a short introduction to the series here.
The first scale is Communication, with a spectrum from low-context to high-context. What does that mean? Meyer defines them as follows:
Low-context: “Good communication is precise, simple and clear. Messages are expressed and understood at face value. Repetition is appreciated if it helps clarify the communication”
High-context: “Good communication is sophisticated, nuanced, and layered. Messages are both spoken and read between the lines. Messages are often implied but not plainly expressed.”
Here is the graph showing UK and Polish cultures compared with my preference on the Communication scale.
This did not come to me as a surprise although it triggered some thoughts on that topic. Meyer in her book mentions that there are a couple of factors influencing countries’ position on that scale. It includes language (countries using Anglo-Saxon ones are usually closer to the low-context, Asian countries lean clearly more towards the high-context) and history (high-context cultures tend to have a longer shared history than low-context cultures).
What is important to remember when analysing these graphs is that we can’t definitely say whether a culture IS a low or high context. It is crucial that we compare the cultures in relation to each other on the graph. To give you an example, in comparison to Asian countries such as Japan, China or Indonesia both UK and Poland could be described as rather a low-context culture. When we look at only the two however, it turns out that even though UK and Poland are so close to each other on the scale, you can still feel the difference in the communication style.
Poland is definitely a culture of a higher context than UK. It is mostly connected with the country’s history, a long period of occupation and fighting for own identity. Polish language is also more complex than English, both grammatically and structurally, which has its impact on how we communicate with one another and what we expect in communication.
I hope that at this point you more or less get the idea of what the Communication Scale involves. I would now therefore like to share some of my examples and experiences related to this dimension.
I know that the British are often characterised as masters of sarcasm and irony. In my eyes however that’s nothing in comparison to what the Polish are capable of. In my opinion Polish sarcasm is however very often related to some linguistic games or is bound to historic events or leaders. It is therefore of a higher context than the British one. When it comes to British humour however, I totally get it (if I understand the vocabulary of course, cause sometimes sadly I don’t 🙁 )! I heard opinions that it’s weird, stupid, not-funny-at-all, that’s also a widely held stereotype about that culture. Personally – I love that type of humour, I think it reveals the high-context nature of the British. If you’re not used to it you can either ignore it or get easily offended as they use sarcasm a lot, usually in a form of statement about a reality (eg. I really like how loud you play your music.” or “Aah, sorry, I can’t be friends with someone who doesn’t drink tea”) – know that, been (or still am?) there.
When it comes to external business communication however, my experience is that the British are closer to the low-context end of the scale. In emailing, running workshops, structuring the work and presentations – it’s important that all the ideas are stated clearly, asking clarifying questions is encouraged. Business is business.
In my opinion switching from high-context culture to a low-context one is much easier, technically, than the other way around. There are still emotional difficulties involved of course, but it is technically easier to focus on facts than to understand the communication based on hundreds years of complicated history and customs. While working in multicultural teams therefore important to state the fact that there are currently various cultures involved in the project. This statement needs to be followed by creating a set of team rules which lean towards the low-context ways of communication as well as agreed upon by all members. Then, there is a much bigger chance for success.
In relationship-based cultures, eg. India, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, low-context approach in business might create additional misunderstandings. Although Poland and England are not so far away from each other on the communication scale, I had moments when low-context behaviours were annoying for me.
There was a time when I attended a meeting where a decision has been made on the task split and further steps of the project. Each of the participants (culturally diverse team) was making notes on their particular tasks as well as general goals of the project. If something was not clear, the team was asking clarifying questions easily. I left the meeting happy with all the information that I received and ready to start working on my tasks. An hour later I got an email from the person leading the meeting with a list of tasks assigned to each person and description of each of them. My first thought was not “Oh cool, good to have that in writing”, but “Why did she bother sending that to us? Doesn’t she trust us?”. Well, typical. With time I actually started to appreciate most of these minutes after meetings and sometimes I don’t even take notes any more if I know the lead will send a summary afterwards!
This experience just brought my attention to these deep-lying beliefs that are connected to the culture we were raised in. When realising the way the British work, I managed to easily adjust to their style. To do that, I needed to put the relationship-approach aside and realise that whether the person was sending minutes after the meeting or not had nothing to do with trust. It was simply a reflection of the need for being 100% clear in the message and avoiding any misunderstandings.
In general, for me as a Polish person UK approach doesn’t seem extremely far away from what I’m used to. I can feel the differences of course, but it’s nothing extremely surprising – rather something you need to get used to. Also, my personal preferences come into play, which are closer to the low-context part of the scale.
It’s important to understand that for an American for instance (America is located to the very left of the scale, by the low-context), both British and Polish cultures may seem very high-context and combining that with a tendency to use sarcastic humour – cultural shock guaranteed! Being an American and moving from a lower context culture to a higher context culture, you will experience different emotions and challenges than moving from higher context culture to the lower one. If you’re interested I would be happy to continue that topic and describe the possible challenges of moving both of these ways.
I would like to close this article with a recommendation as I feel like it can really be an interesting read for you. There is a great blog of an American living in Poland that I would like to recommend to you as it’s a very interesting perspective to learn about. This is my favourite post on Polonization blog, but I recommend it all to be honest. It’s always great to get another perspective on cultural differences!
Here’s a 4-minute speech from Erin Meyer on this topic as an extra source: click.