Communication one of life’s biggest assets yet also one of life’s greatest issues. Everyone uses communication – everyone in every walk of life, in every country, everywhere. There is no way around it. We depend on communication for nearly everything. “Communication is the vehicle by which meanings are conveyed, identity is composed and reinforced, and feelings are expressed. As we communicate using different cultural habits and meaning systems, both conflict and harmony are possible outcomes of any interaction” (LeBaron, 2003). Proper communication is one of the keys to success.
One would think that given its importance, communication would be held in higher regard and more effort would be put forth in communicating correctly. Mary Guffey and Dana Lowey discuss the five key elements of culture in their book, Essentials of Business Communication, to help improve our understanding of cultural communication. Those five elements are as follows: context, individualism, formality, communication style, and time orientation. Guffey and Lowey say that “context is one the most important cultural dimensions, yet it is among the most difficult to define”.
In one idea, context can be considered to be the environment from which one’s perceptions are attained. There are both low-context cultures, like the US and high-context cultures, like Asia. Low-context cultures tend to be more direct, and think everything needs to be explained. They do not mind confrontation or making demands. They rely on facts, data, and logic. They are more relaxed about power and wealth, but do value competence regardless of job or position. They take words at face value. High-context cultures value group decisions and rely on relationships ore than data.
They avoid confrontation and emotion in business transactions. They value position and status over competency. They may not take words literally. (Guffey & Loewy, 2010) It is easy to see why context is important to our communication. If these differences were understood or at the very least known about before communication begins, misunderstandings and offenses can be avoided. “An attitude of independence and freedom from control characterizes individualism” (Guffey & Loewy, 2010). Low-context cultures, such as Americans, generally value individualism, while high-context cultures tend to be more collectivist.
Individualism represents independence, self-assertion, initiative, competence, and personal achievement. Collectivism represents a more group-oriented mindset. Their identity is found in the group, rather than themselves as an individual. Then you have some cultures that cannot be characterized as either individual or group oriented primarily. (Guffey & Loewy, 2010) When communicating to these different groups, it is important to highlight the ideals that they value. Formality is another element. Some cultures hold tradition, ceremony, and social rules in high regard, while others do not.
Americans, generally informal, can be quite offensive to more formal cultures. For example, Americans are friendly to most and develop friendships easily. We share information and are “comfortable” with authorities (teachers, bosses, etc. ) in our lives. We also address people by their first names, something that is not done by formal cultures. Titles are heavily used in formal cultures and names are reserved for only close friends and family. The Western, informal, culture is more relaxed about social status and position of power.
Formal cultures hold authority figures in very high regard. In Egypt, Turkey, and Japan students stand when their teacher enters the room and bows to them when they pass them on the street. (Samovar, Porter & McDaniel, 2010) So again, when communicating with a group or culture that is different from you, especially communication from an informal culture to a formal culture, it is vital to know the culture and mold your communication appropriately. Communication style is another important element that cultures approach differently. For example, “to
Americans and Germans, words are very important, especially in contracts and negations. People in high-context cultures, on the other hand, place more emphasis on the surrounding context than on the words describing a negotiation” (Guffey & Loewy, 2010). Americans approach contrast as final, Japanese approach contracts as intentional but changing, and Mexicans approach contracts as ideals in a perfect world. Americans are straightforward in communication and are somewhat distrusting of individuals who are not for full disclosure. Americans like to work through negotiations quickly.
The Japanese, or high-context culture, tend to drag out negotiations because they have realized others cultures concede over time. They are often quite and meticulous in negotiations. Realizing the differences in communication styles will be of tremendous asset to one’s business dealings. The fifth element that separates cultures is time orientation. Americans view time as an important commodity. They value productivity and efficiency. They see time as money. They, as a general rule, do not keep people waiting for business meetings.
For one, that would not be a good business practice and two, that would be exceptionally rude. While this is true for American cultures, there are many other cultures that do not look at time the same way at all. Hispanic or Caribbean cultures have a far more relaxed view of time. They, generally, are not in a hurry. According to Guffey and Lowey, ” the perception of time and how it is used are culturally learned”. Having an understanding of how a culture uses their time becomes important as you begin to have dealings with them.
Each culture has its view on these different elements; each culture communicates differently, each culture values differently, and so on. It is important to realize these differences and learn to adapt to the culture in which you are currently dealing. Adapting to a particular culture could possibly be there difference in making or breaking a deal. Life, as a whole, is about compromise and balance. Communication is simply another element of compromise. As stated earlier, communication can be one of life’s biggest assets or one of life’s greatest issues. Words and actions must be chosen wisely to communicate effectively.