2 Perspectives to Improving International Communication

Posted on May 21, 2019 | 0 comments

2 Perspectives to Improving International Communication

Effective communication is everyone’s goal. We know it reduces conflict and improves productivity. When operating in an international or intercultural environment, here are two key perspectives that can improve understanding and increase more effective exchanges.

Collectivism vs. Individualism

While no country or culture is completely homogeneous, most have a generally dominant approach to communication. Countries in Asia and Africa tend to have a Collective perspective. This approach focuses on communicating from a “we” point of view and emphasizes harmony and respect for elders and authority. Tradition and precedent are highly valued. This is a contrast to countries in Europe and the Americas that tend towards an Individualized “I” perspective that focuses on individual needs and rights.  Competition, growth and progress are seen as priorities.

An illustration of this could be found in an adult classroom. Students with an Individualized background feel empowered to ask lots of questions and demand answers of the teacher; indeed, this type of behavior in this context is seen as showing active interest and participation in the class. Interruption may indicate active involvement. A professor teaching this audience might reward such participation or expect continued interactive engagement. A student with a Collectivized background, on the other hand, might be uncomfortable to see a teacher—the figure of authority in the room—so boldly questioned. From this communication perspective, it may be seen as rude or inappropriate to directly question the “elder” in the room.  A teacher for this audience would need to understand that a lack of questions does not signify complete understanding or agreement; it might just mean the audience is reluctant to appear to forward.


High-context vs Low-context

Along the same lines, the terms “high context” and “low context” are helpful in effective communication. High context communicators tend to be collective; they may prefer indirect communication, and the meaning of words/phrases may be dependent on the situation. Non-verbal signals are highly relevant to understanding the message. For example, a high-context “no” may have a variety of meanings depending on the situation: “Do you have any questions?” “No, thank you.” This exchange may indicate the high-context speaker is unwilling or reluctant to ask a question, so the questioner needs to understand more clarification may be needed.

A low-context speaker, communicating from an individualized background, channels clear, direct communication. Meaning is precise and consistent regardless of the situation. To illustrate the contrast, if a low-context communicator answers the question “What do you want to eat?” with “anything is fine,” that speaker is being literal: Any type of food will satisfy. If a high-context speaker gives the same answer, it signifies they are not actively participating in answering the question. This type might need more time to speak up, or more specifications about options, or a clearer understanding of the group dynamic. This type of speaker might find a direct answer to such a question from a low-context speaker to be too blunt or familiar.

Understanding what approach fits the audience can lead to better communication. For example, in an individualized setting, a manager might find it most motivating to praise specific individuals for accomplishments and achievements, while a collectivized setting might be more motivated by receiving praise for the efforts of the team as a whole. While all cultures have numerous sub-cultures and subtleties that can’t be easily boiled down, it’s worth considering where they fall along this spectrum and tailoring your communication approach accordingly.


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