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This is Why They Don't Understand You Overseas

What's the difference between a high-context and a low-context language? If that's a stumper, I hope you're not a graduate of the Thunderbird School of Global Management. And I certainly hope you were never a student of Thunderbird's Professor Emeritus Robert Moran, the author of Managing Cultural Difference.

Moran says that an appreciation for the differences between a high-context language and a low-context one is the most important thing students can learn at Thunderbird--and the key to effective cross-cultural communication. Here, Professor Moran talks with BNET about language, listening, and Japanese oncologists.

What exactly is high-context language and a low-context one?

In a low-context language, such as English, German, and the Nordic languages, the best way to figure out what someone means is to listen to the words they say. Verbal communication in high-context languages, such as Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Saudi-- to a lesser extent Italian and Spanish--tends to be indirect and ambiguous, and conversations often seem circular. To understand what someone means in a high-context language you have to be much more aware of facial expressions, of who speaks first and who doesn't speak at all, of what's said in public versus what's said in private. There's more feeling, more nuance, more subtlety.

Why is the difference so important to business leaders?
I'll give you an example. I'm leaving tomorrow to work with 44 Japanese oncologists. And they are working with Americans and Swiss and Germans, all of whom use low-context languages. The chances for miscommunication are staggering.

How can a speaker of a low-context language improve their communication with someone who speaks in a high-context language?
You cannot ask a question such as "Do you understand?" or "Will you do it?" You'll almost always get a "yes" to avoid embarrassment. If we are not more respectful, more nuanced, more indirect, we will learn very little. Really, you should never ask a "yes" or "no" question.

If you can't ask a straight question, how can you get a straight answer?
You probably won't. But you can get the information you need.

If an Asian tells you, "We're having some problems but I think we can sort it out," some Americans might say, "Thank goodness, they recognize there's a problem, and thank goodness, it looks like it'll work out." Well, it doesn't mean that at all. It means "We have to consider this a little more." You need to engage them in a dialog. Ask them what they're doing, ask who else is involved, ask if there is documentation they can show you. Ask if there's anything you can help with, or any information you might have that they might like to see.

That all takes time. I was at a dinner once where it was four hours before I really discovered the purpose of the meeting.

That sounds maddening! Is it possible to make that time more productive?
You can't make that back-and-forth "productive." You try to make the environment acceptable to them, and they will tell you a whole lot of things you would not have learned if you said, "Okay, I need to know why we're here. I only have one hour."

What types of low-context speakers do well when they need to interact with someone who speaks a high-context language?
The kind of people who do better are good listeners. As a people, Americans are really well-trained in sending out a message. Asians and other high-context people are quite excellent at listening and interpreting. You need some basic listening skills, and you have to learn to be comfortable with ambiguity.

How are your listening skills? Have you found it difficult to connect with people from other types of cultures, and what did you do to make it easier?

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Photo courtesy of USDA
Kimberly Weisul is an editor, writer and consultant. Follow her at www.twitter.com/weisul.
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