The Challenges of Communicating Across Cultures

I live and work in a real multicultural environment. Communicating among all those different people, bearing not only their personality but also they own culture is really challenging sometimes.

The city where I live, Brussels, hosts about 150 different nationalities. I am not Belgian, I belong to one of the 150 nationalities.

The place I work with is the European Commission (EC) where all the 24 European Union nationalities are represented. Have a look at the above link of the EC, it shows all the languages of the Member States.

Obviously different languages mean different cultures.

Sometimes it is difficult to communicate with each other, one has to pay much attention to others’ sensitivity, emotions and feelings.

Day after day, I learned that each culture has its own approach to communication. 

I found a very interesting book by the anthropologist Edward HallBeyond Culture. It helped me a lot with the challenges of communicating across cultures.

Edward Hall identified the importance of context in communication and raised the attention on the “invisible” type of communication, by which groups of people understand and interpret the world.

The framework proposed by Hall for approaching intercultural communication is high-context and low-context cultures, which refer to the values cultures place on indirect and direct communication.

It is important to note that no culture is completely high-context or low-context, since all societies contain at least some parts that are both high and low. For example, the United States is a low-context culture while doing business, but during family gatherings tends to be high-context.

Let’s see now the main features of the two cultural context types.

High-Context Cultures

A high-context culture relies on implicit communication and non-verbal cues. In high-context communication, a message cannot be understood without a great deal of background information. Asian, African, Arab, central European and Latin American cultures are generally considered to be high-context cultures.

With people belonging mainly to high-context cultures, you may encounter the following:

  1. Misunderstanding when exchanging information
  2. Impression of a lack of information
  3. Large amount of information is provided in a non-verbal manner, e.g. gestures, pauses, facial expressions
  4. Emphasis on long term relationships and loyalty
  5. Unwritten rules that are taken for granted but can easily be missed. 
Low-Context Cultures

A low-context culture relies on explicit communication. In low-context communication, more of the information in a message is spelled out and defined. Cultures like the Germans, Scandinavians, Americans and Australians are generally considered to be low-context cultures.

Dealing with people belonging mainly to low-context cultures, you may find the following:

  1. All meaning is explicitly provided in the message itself
  2. Extensive background information and explanations are provided verbally to avoid misunderstandings
  3. People tend to have short-term relationships
  4. People follow rules and standards closely.

To avoid “diplomatic incidents”, I try to pay much attention to my interlocutor languages and “imitate” them using the technique of the mirror, namely, repeating the body language, the type of words they use, and how they overall handle the conversation.

What about you? Which culture do you think you belong to? Which technique do you use to better communicate across cultures?

Regional and Minority Languages in the European Union

15 thoughts on “The Challenges of Communicating Across Cultures

  1. Interesting – I’ve not hear the terminology before The local language here – Cantonese – is largely made up of slang. Impossible to understand even when it’s translated! Luckily everyone here speaks English – still learning a little goes a long way. I think if you make the effort, others will take often take the time to explain things to you. Thanks for the post Cristiana 🙏

  2. Very well said. I come from a very very orthodox background and I move with special needs community and people associated with it. I have seen and been in both environments. 😀

  3. I think Indonesians, while being Asians, are low-context culture. We tend to be curious and require further information before understanding something. Although, sometimes, depending on the people, I guess, we are still quick to assume and are prone to misunderstanding. We don’t really quickly believe on rumors about someone, but if it’s about public figure, we tend to consider the rumor as true

  4. I spent 15 years going around the world to resolve contract disputes, usually flying into a country to which I had never been before and meeting people that were on the other side on their turf. Often, the other side would talk in one or two languages I did not understand. What I found out, though, was that when you don’t know the language your brain will do a less obstructed job of reading the entire body, including the face, etc. I once told a guy next to me that we were going to get what we were seeking, but we would go to lunch first. Sure enough, the wrapped up their discussion about 5 minutes later and took us to their in house lunch place. When we came back the said they needed some time to put together the contract adjustment document and we went site seeing for the afternoon and signed it the next day.

  5. Wow, great post, Cristiana! It seems the more we are aware of what context the better our chances are of understanding others. I am so inspired and impressed by your effort to decode your colleagues and share the knowledge with us!

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