(44) How do you communicate in a cross-cultural product organization? — Part 1

I have been fortunate to have worked in varied countries in different continents of the world. After my formative years in India having worked in a few US-based product companies, I worked in Singapore for a more than four years. And now for close to a year, I have been working in Germany at TeamViewer. And in most of these companies, I had cross-cultural teams to work with.

I would be very surprised if I still found someone not believing in the idea that diversity is critical for an organisation’s ability to innovate and adapt in a fast changing environment. In fact in my previous organisation Autodesk, just before I left Singapore, we had hired a Director for Diversity & Inclusion. At my present company, we have pushed the envelope even further on the spirit of diversity. Diversity is one of our core organizational beliefs. We boast of being a company that employees people from over 50 countries who speak more than 30 languages. Hence, it provides a perfect petri dish of vibrancy and the experience is invigorating. It also provides an opportunity to experience and improve ourselves as a human being in a cross-cultural environment.

However, I would be lying if I say it has been an easy ride for me. Managing communication with teams from different cultural backgrounds is always challenging. No amount of self-awareness can help you succeed if you have not strived to learn and understand the cultural origins, learnt and adapted their communication styles. So, how do you cope with such diversity? What are the various means to communicate effectively?

One of the contrasting styles of communication that I have noticed in close quarters is often referred to as low-context and high-context communication. I learnt about this from Erin Meyer’s book, The Culture Map.

In low-context cultures, effective communication must be simple, clear, and explicit in order to effectively pass the message. The United States is the lowest-context culture in the world, followed by Canada and Australia, the Netherlands and Germany, and the United Kingdom.

“Tell them what you are going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you’ve told them.” This is a philosophy of low-context communication in nut-shell.

In low-context cultures, you speak as clearly and explicitly as possible. Then repeat what you understood and say as clearly and explicitly as I can. The technique is designed to help people quickly identify and correct misunderstandings, thereby reducing (if not eliminating) one common cause of needless, pointless debate.

In high-context cultures, good communication is nuanced, layered and sophisticated. Being direct and straight to the point can be considered impolite and rude. In Japan, as in India, China and many other countries, people learn a very different style of communication as children, which as high-context languages. In these languages, there are relatively high percentage of words that are interpreted in multiple ways based on how and when they are used. High-context cultures tend to have a long shared history.

In France, a good business communicator uses second-degree communication in everyday life. While giving a presentation, a manager may say one thing that has an explicit meaning everyone understands. But those who have some shared context may also receive a second-degree message that is the real intended meaning.

Japan has the distinction of being the highest-context culture in the world. Being an island society with a homogeneous population and thousands of years of shared history, a significant portion of which was closed off from the rest of the world.

The following figure puts different cultures in a low to high context scale:

The lack of understanding of the context from different cultures may pose varied challenges. If you’re from a low-context culture, you may perceive a high-context communicator as secretive, lacking transparency, or unable to communicate effectively. On the other hand, if you’re from a high-context culture, you might perceive a low-context communicator as inappropriately stating the obvious or even condescending and patronizing.

The moral of the story is clear: You may be considered a top-flight communicator in your home culture, but what works at home may not work so well with people from other cultures. You need to understand which context your working culture is most suited with and adapt yourself to that.

Fortunately, if you are leading a multicultural team, there’s no need to count the number of team members from the left and right hand of the scale and multiply by the number of members to figure out what to do. The book proposes that there is just one easy strategy to remember: Multicultural teams need low-context processes.

Do let me know if you work in a cross-cultural environment and what communication strategies do you put to practice.

Here’s something more I had learnt about low-context communication style at Autodesk: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/mature-directness-carl-bass-doctrine-ravi-kumar-sapata

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Ravi Kumar.

Building nextgen real estate platform at PriceHubble & podcaster at productlessons.com. I blog about products, business around products, and growth strategies.