Imagine you just got off the phone with a new client from another country who is interested in purchasing property in your market. Should you follow up with an email summary of your conversation, confirming “next steps” and including the usual forms for onboarding new clients?
Communicating across cultures
American anthropologist Edward Hall introduced the theory of high- and low-context cultures— a topic explored in the CIPS designation coursework. His terminology has been adopted and reinterpreted by many other cross-cultural experts.
Regarding communication preferences, every culture falls somewhere along a continuum. At each end of the spectrum:
In low-context cultures, the emphasis is on the written or spoken word. Messages are expressed and understood at face value.
Examples: United States, Canada, Germany
In high-context cultures, messages rely heavily on contextual cues. Good communication is sophisticated, nuanced, and layered.
Examples: Japan, China, Korea
If your client comes from a low-context culture, they are more likely to appreciate—even expect— a detailed follow-up email, confirming key discussion points. On the other hand, a client from a high-context culture might find such messages insulting—because you’re restating the obvious and may be implying that you don’t trust them.
Neither approach is better or worse, nor is it appropriate to make assumptions. However, differences do exist. If you view every international client through your own unique cultural lens, you’re bound to encounter occasional misunderstandings.
What determines where a culture falls on the spectrum?
Many factors play a role, but two of the most significant determinants are:
If you speak more than one language, you probably appreciate how different languages can be. For example, in some languages, one word has multiple and similar meanings. The only way to know which definition is intended is to understand how to interpret various clues.
On the other hand, if a language is rich in words (imagine a very thick thesaurus), it’s easier to select which word, among many similar options, precisely expresses your intentions.
2. Shared history
Is it easier to understand a new acquaintance from another country or a spouse you’ve known for decades? Of course, misunderstandings can occur between any two people. However, if you’ve spent a lot of time together and shared many similar experiences, it’s easier to pick up on subtle intentions and unspoken messages. The same is true for the dominant communication style of a given culture.
High-context communication is harder to achieve when the population originates from different backgrounds that have been in contact for less time. It’s more important to be explicit in your communications to avoid misunderstandings.
Consider the two countries sitting at opposite ends of the communication continuum:
U.S. = Lowest-context culture
Has the greatest diversity in language and ethnicity, with the shortest shared history.
Japan = Highest-context culture
A highly homogenous population sharing thousands of years of closely knit history.
It’s all relative
A culture’s placement on the communication spectrum is much less important than the relative placement of two different cultures. Before working with clients from a different culture, consider whether their communication style is higher- or lower-context than your own.
For example, the United Kingdom and the United States share a language and friendly international relationships. You’d think misunderstandings are rare. However, the U.K. is a higher-context culture than the U.S., which may create occasional communication challenges.
Sometimes, when humor enters conversations, the differences in U.K. and U.S. communication styles become evident. The British are quite fond of deadpan sarcasm, which can leave a U.S. agent suspicious that their U.K. client is joking, but reluctant to laugh and risk insulting the client. In turn, the U.K. client may sigh, presuming the agent lacks a sense of humor, oblivious to the agent’s concerns about exhibiting polite behavior.
East versus West
Consider China. It’s a vast country with substantial regional and generational differences. However, as a culture sitting at the high-context end of the spectrum, business is conducted differently than in Anglo-Saxon cultures, or even French, Spanish, or Mexican cultures.
If a Chinese client expresses an idea or an opinion, the real message may only be implied. Your client may expect you to take an active role in deciphering the message and creating shared meaning. This communication style may come easily to Chinese agents but could confuse agents from other cultures.
Remember, never rely on cultural stereotypes, but do learn about the underlying dynamics that influence cultural conditioning. It’s an excellent first step in building awareness of your own cultural lens—and how it may differ from your clients’.