The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.
- George Bernard Shaw -
One of the main characteristics of intercultural communication is that it usually takes place between "strangers": people born and raised in different environments, accustomed to often divergent sets of values and beliefs, which every party considers to be the norm.
During the communication process - that requires both a sender (the party who initiates the communication) and a receiver (the target of the communication) -, a message must be:
- encoded (the sender needs to find a way to make their thoughts understandable to the receiver through the use of words, images, symbols, body language, etc.);
- transmitted through a variety of potential channels, both verbal and non-verbal;
- decoded (the receiver is expected to understand and interpret the message correctly).
Among the several factors that might have a negative impact on the communication process - e.g. the choice of a wrong channel, background noise and other types of distractions, specific jargon only known to one of the parties involved, etc. -, lack of familiarity with the context in which the exchange occurs plays an important role, for people whose cultural backgrounds are dissimilar may interpret verbal and non-verbal messages differently.
What is context, then, and why does it matter?
"The frame, the definition, is a type of context. And context determines the meaning of things. There is no such thing as the view from nowhere, or from everywhere for that matter. Our point of view biases our observation, consciously and unconsciously. You cannot understand the view without the point of view."
- Noam Shpancer -
Interpersonal communication is contextual: therefore, without a proper understanding of context, the communication process is highly likely to be flawed, ineffective, and unsatisfactory.
Context can be:
- Physical: the setting in which communication takes place. The location, the noise level, the time of the day, the weather conditions, are all environmental elements that contribute to a more or less successful communication exchange;
- Social: mostly based on psychological factors, social context refers to individual and group norms, behaviors, social dynamics between the people involved (relationship type, level of familiarity with each other, degree of expected formality, etc.);
- Temporal: it considers how communication develops in relation to other events (for instance, the communication process will be vastly different depending on whether two people discuss a happy event or sudden bad news);
- Cultural: it encompasses all aspects - both conscious and unconscious - of a culture (values, beliefs, behaviors, lifestyles, language, power dynamics, etc.).
"Culture hides more than it reveals, and strangely enough what it hides, it hides most effectively from its own participants."
- E.T. Hall -
In 1976, anthropologist E.T. Hall developed the iceberg analogy of culture: he theorized that if culture was an iceberg, some of its aspects (above the water line) would be visible and obvious to everyone, while most of them (the unconscious aspects) would be hidden below the water line and only accessible to outsiders after a certain amount of time spent observing and learning about the new culture.
What do people value the most, a legal document or an informal agreement? Words they can hear/read or the meaning in what is not said? How likely is an Asian customer to appreciate an attempt to get straight to the point during a business meeting?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, our audience can only be fully understood once we gain insight into their "inner functioning": is our interlocutor a member of a high- or a low-context culture? And what are the main differences between the two (note: according to Hall's research, approximately 70% of the world cultures are estimated to be high-context)?
Let's find out.
- Messages are implicit, indirect and require a certain degree of interpretation to be understood (understanding of what is said is "internalized", knowledge is both relational and situational). Context is more valuable than words;
- The use of non-verbal communication (voice, gestures, etc.) is significant;
- Reliance on written communication is low: knowledge of unwritten rules tends to be assumed;
- Relationships develop over time, tend to last long, and are the element around which decisions are made;
- Rules and procedures are somewhat flexible (as per previous point, relationships are the priority);
- Identity and status may be disclosed "non-verbally" and require proper acknowledgement;
- Learning occurs by observing first and then replicating the process;
- Accuracy and thoroughness are valued.
- Messages are explicit, direct, easily understandable by both insiders and outsiders;
- The use of non-verbal communication is limited;
- Written communication is common and relied on, contracts tend to be long and extremely detailed;
- Sources of knowledge are usually external, public, ideally accessible at any time by anyone. Knowledge is easily transferable;
- Business relationships are mainly of practical nature, they are forged fast and they don't last long;
- Decisions are made after evaluation of facts and data and they revolve around needs and responsibilities;
- Rules and procedures are followed closely;
- Learning occurs by following clear instructions and explanations of others;
- Speed, efficiency and goal-orientation are valued;
- Strong compartmentalization tendencies are the norm: relationships, tasks, activities, do not mix.
[Note: no culture is entirely low- or high-context. For example, in North America (low-context) people may resort to high-context communication when dealing with family members or close friends, while the Japanese (high-context) are likely switch to low-context communication when dealing with foreigners.]
With regard to outsourcing and offshoring, it must be noted that, according to Statista, in 2018 the global outsourcing market amounted to 85.6 billion U.S. dollars: KPMG's Global IT-BPO Outsourcing Deal Analysis reported that in 2017 84.2% of outsourcing deals originated from the US (Anglo cluster, low-context, monochronic, individualistic, low Power Distance society), while the AT Kearney Global Services Location Index 2017 indicated India, China, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brazil, Vietnam, Thailand, Chile, Cambodia, and the Philippines as the top destinations for outsourcing deals (Confucian-Asia, Southern-Asia, Latin America clusters, high-context, polychronic, collectivist, high Power Distance societies) based on "financial attractiveness, people skills, availability, and business environment scores".
Communication style aside, a major difference among the countries/societies listed above can be observed in the context of the cultural dimension known as "Power Distance", the extent to which societies and organizations accept power inequality among their members. This factor is especially relevant in outsourcing/offshoring scenarios because "the Mum effect" (or "code of silence") - a situation in which at least one of the main stakeholders either withholds or purposely distorts critical information in order to avoid facing negative repercussions -, appears to be a common occurrence in IT Project Reporting, especially when external vendors are involved. Some of the main factors that are highly likely to negatively impact the outcome of a project are: urgency (at what stage of a flawed project is the need for remedial action required?) and personal accountability (to what extent is one of the parties involved in a troubled project willing to take responsibility for its failure?).
While both outsourcing and off-shoring can provide a wide range of benefits, failure to acknowledge and efficiently manage the fundamental cultural differences between the parties involved and their impact on communication, personal interactions, productivity, power dynamics, time management, etc., might turn any outsourced/off-shored project into a costly fiasco.
BONUS KNOWLEDGE, READING MATERIAL, FINAL NOTES
"What do ‘beans for the kids’ in Kinshasa, ‘a glass of wine’ in Paris, and ‘little carps’ in Prague have in common? ‘Variations in local cuisine’ may spring to mind, and rightly so. However, they are also ways of referring to informal economic practices – described by many as corruption or bribery – in each of these places. And as with regional variations in cuisine, informal economic activities come in many culturally diverse guises and with many different labels that reflect local customs, histories and practices. Language, in short, is a constitutive part of all semi-legal and illegal practices, as well as the models of informality through which scholars have studied them. What, then, can expressions and euphemisms like these tell us about the way informal economic and political activities are practised and understood in different cultural and institutional contexts? Academics, policy makers, and third-sector actors have until recently paid very little attention to local vocabularies of informality, preferring instead universal definitions of corruption, which take little account of the socio-economic or cultural difference across time, space and context.
Although they reveal considerable variation in approaches and attitudes to informal practices, local euphemisms from across the world all have one thing in common: an aesthetics of deception. They work to deflect attention from a corrupt practice or minimise its importance. Whether it happens on the street, or in the boardroom, informality rests on the abuse of power and privilege. But popular euphemisms often deny this reality and present corrupt behaviour as altruistic ‘favours’ for friends. In Azerbaijani, the word commonly used for bribe (hörmət) is inter-changeable with the word for respect. An official requesting a bribe (hörmətimi elə) will therefore ask you to ‘do him a favour’ or ‘pay him some respect’. In many regions, what is technically ‘illegal’ may in fact be acceptable or even moral. In China, for example, health care workers and government officials might expect a ‘little token of gratitude’ (yidian xinyi) for their services. As it is said in Russia, ‘you cannot put "thank you" into your pocket’ (‘spasibo v karman ne polozhish’). The language of bribery is also closely related to that of gifting. In Hungary, doctors and nurses can expect a ‘gratuity’ (hálapénz) from their patients in the form of an envelope containing money, while in Slovakia the term pozornosť denotes a token of appreciation given in dealings with officials, including public services such as health and education. In Poland, gifts in kind turn a faceless bureaucrat into an ‘acquaintance’ (znajomość) who may be able to ‘arrange things’ (załatwić sprawy) for you in the future."
"In contemporary China, guanxi channels are deployed for a myriad of situations and needs: to get a job; to acquire a scarce commodity; to get a child into a good kindergarten or sought-after school; to get into a high-quality hospital; to get official approvals and permits to start up a business; to get a lighter sentence for crime; to avoid penalties for violating the birth control policy; to connect up to electricity, water and gas for new buildings or residences; and so forth. Thus, guanxi are often used to skirt around the cumbersome bureaucracy, or to reach a government official, clerk or person in charge of giving permission or making selections of the recipients of some desirable good or opportunity."
The above are excerpts from the "Global Encyclopaedia of Informality, Volume 1: Towards Understanding of Social and Cultural Complexity", available here.
You might have noticed the mention of euphemisms, informal language, gift-giving practices, power dynamics: some of these topics have been previously discussed on this blog (e.g. gift-giving etiquette in the Confucian-Asia cluster, the concept of "guanxi", giving, saving, and losing face, moral relativity, etc.), and further articles will follow soon.
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