How can you be a better business partner in a high-context culture?

Can I tell you something? It surprises me a little that some clients think they can translate their business communication directly into English and assume they’ll be successful business people in English. There are words that have a different meaning for example date refers to a romantic meeting in English, or slipping in has also a lot of different meanings other words depend on the context. You can be grammatically correct but still no efficient communicator. 

 

Would you offend your business partner because you lack the understanding of his culture?

 

Let‘s have a look at an example. In Germany it might happen when you ask for a deadline to hand in a proposal that your business partners says: “You must hand in your proposal by Friday 1 pm.” Because it is perfectly normal to use the German meaning (muss, must) of the word must and when you translate the sentence directly from German into English this is what comes out. This would not be rude or shocking for me but it might be taken badly by an English-speaking partner.

 

In English criticism is never so direct. It might be mentioned like: “I am not really very happy about your proposal. How do you feel about changing its conditions?“ This would mean I have to change the proposal immediately.

 

In Germany it is perfectly acceptable for business people to simply say: “Again” when they want you to repeat something. In English this would be completely unacceptable as it is like an order. Instead you would say: “Could you repeat that, please?“

 

Intercultural communication: Are you being honest and direct … or rude?

 

Although it is the same language the above-mentioned examples are two completely different ways of speaking it. You can clearly see the cultural influence. 

 

What is the difference and where does it come from? The first example is much more direct than the second one. The person comes from a so-called “low-context culture“ (German) and the other one from a “high-context culture” (English). Here it is interesting that in German you rely a lot on words to make your information as clear as possible. Communicators might assume the listener knows little and everything needs to be “spelled out”. Whereas in English the information is embedded in context so you need to read between the lines. Aspects of cultural behavior remain implicit because people know what to do and think from years of interaction with each other. This is also shown by the use of metaphors or idioms in English. German in comparison is an explicit language leaving less space for interpretation.

 

So sometimes German native speakers might think that somebody is not as honest when speaking in English because the person has simply left some space for interpretation. This can lead to misunderstandings because, in German culture, being direct is seen as being honest - and highly valued. Such directness might not have as much value as being polite or tactful in your business partner’s culture. Your business partner is not being dishonest, simply more tactful.

 

How can you improve your communication style in a high-context culture?

 

Being too direct in an anglophone culture can alienate and annoy your business partner. It might take a little while to get used to these different ways of communicating but it is definitely worth it. You improve understanding your business partner and at the same time his/her language. 

 

Here it is especially important to be open-minded and not to judge immediately. Try and reflect on your way of speaking and learn from your mistakes. This way you also grow personally as a business person.

 

 

 

Low-context culture

High-context culture

You must give me your name

Would you mind telling me your name, please?

I can’t eat this. I think it is very strange.

I’d like to try a little of this if I may.

I cannot do this.

I’m afraid I can’t do this.

You must wait here for a short time.

Could you just wait a minute, please?

I don’t agree with you at all.

Actually, I see things a bit differently.

 

 

 

This is maybe not something that you will learn overnight. Your business partners and/or employees will not be likely to help you with this or correct you on it. So you might do well to work with a coach for a bit, to see if you are being too direct or honest and tactful.

 

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