Why You Should Localize Your Business Communication

Why You Should Localize Your Business Communication

Andrew Warner

Lauren Supraner

Since founding CAL Learning in 2004, Lauren has helped thousands in the pharmaceutical, life science, healthcare, technology, and education industries advance their language and culture skills.

Andrew Warner

Lauren Supraner

Since founding CAL Learning in 2004, Lauren has helped thousands in the pharmaceutical, life science, healthcare, technology, and education industries advance their language and culture skills.

Companies entering international markets understand the importance of localization. While the impact and importance of culture and language are considered in a marketing strategy, they are often forgotten in daily communication. Are you “localizing” the way you communicate to make your message culturally appropriate, clear, persuasive, and respectful? The ability to recognize different communication styles, and style shift when appropriate, is vital in conducting business internationally. 

Creating a First Best Guess: High and Low Context Communication Styles

Edward Hall’s description of high-context (HC) and low-context (LC) cultures is a useful guide for first best guesses at interpreting cross-cultural interactions. Hall’s model can also be used to develop self-awareness of one’s own cultural communication style and its impact on interactions. While each individual culture is unique, recognizing cultural commonalities can help improve communication. Cultural generalizations are not stereotypes. They are open to change as new learning occurs. Recognizing differences in cultural communication styles can boost self-awareness, identify and avoid potential conflict, and increase understanding and empathy. Cultural communication styles are the unspoken rules of “what to say and how to say it” based on a high- or low-context orientation.

High-context cultures make up the majority of languages and cultures in the world. High-context cultures are indirect, relationship-focused and group-oriented, hierarchical, and seek to avoid conflict. Meaning and intention are mostly conveyed non-verbally — through vocal tone, body language, social customs, and sensing others’ feelings. To understand a situation, one must “read the air” as the Japanese say.
For HC cultures, the context provides an enormous amount of information and shared understanding. What is not said is often as important as what is said. Why say something explicitly when everybody knows? 

Low-context cultures are Germanic-language cultures (English, German, Nordic languages) that look for meaning in the words themselves and highly value the written word. The context of the communication is not usually considered. Low-context cultures are direct, task-oriented, individualist, and comfortable bringing up disagreement. High-context communication seeks to create an experience. Low-context communication seeks to inform. 

Our cultural orientation also creates cultural filters that affect how we perceive others and events. In cross-cultural interactions, our cultural filter can make us see things that aren’t there and miss things that are.

Hall’s descriptions are useful guidelines for understanding cross-cultural communication differences, but they are not absolutes. They are generalization; differences are on a spectrum and not binary, and are influenced by individual personality as well. Furthermore, when Hall developed his theory, people were not holding multicultural Zoom meetings on a daily basis. Constant exposure and interactions with other cultures and languages can lead to increased cultural awareness and new communication skills. Additionally, it is now common for English to be used as a business language without a native speaker present, which is not addressed by Hall’s model.

Figure 1: An understanding of high- and low-context cultures can make the difference in successful communication.

Figure 1: An understanding of high- and low-context cultures can make the difference in successful communication.

While being multilingual improves cross-cultural skills, multilinguals may still be operating only within their own high- or low-context orientation. For example, multilingualism is common in India, although it is mostly among HC people. The relationship focus, hierarchy, and indirect speech are the agreed-upon rules, and limited style shifting is needed. 

Language and culture cannot be separated. Culture is deeply embedded in the grammar of a language. Korean has seven speech levels of formality. Hindi has an elaborate system of honorifics. Thai has the words “yes” and “not yes,” but does not have a direct and unequivocal “no.” What do these languages have in common? They are all vehicles for HC cultures that value relationship and hierarchy. English, on the other hand, with its strong individualist focus, is the only language that capitalizes the first-person singular pronoun “I.” 

Impact on Workplace Communication

Three cultural style differences that are significant sources of workplace conflict and misunderstanding are language functions, cultural thought patterns, and a task or relationship focus. They are all interrelated, inseparable, and reflect both the culture and the language. 

Language functions are the ways we use language for a specific purpose. If the words and grammar are “what you say,” then language functions are “how you say it.” How to make a request, give feedback, make a suggestion, or say no are all examples of language functions, which are tied to cultural orientation and high- and low-context communication styles. “How you say it” depends on whether your focus is the relationship or the task, the group’s benefit or your own, or if you value communication that is clear and unambiguous, or indirect and implicit.

Using the “how you say it” of one’s native language when communicating across cultures can make the true message unclear. An indirect request, while understood in a HC culture, may be misinterpreted by a LC person who expects explicit ones. When a Colombian woman told her American boss, “I’m thinking of getting headphones for work. What do you think?” he completely missed her real message, which was, “Will the department pay for it?” Language functions are nuanced, and are developed by daily interaction with the language/culture, and by communicative mindfulness.

Cultural thought patterns are the way we organize and deliver information. We also expect to receive information in the same way, and when that doesn’t happen, it can be confusing. Low-context organization and delivery of information is linear, direct, and based on logic. The speaker makes a key point, followed by support and details. Parallel structure lays out the logical argument, and everything relates back to the key point. There is little digression. 

In comparison, HC cultures are non-linear. Asian thought patterns can be viewed as an inward spiral, moving from the general to the specific. It circles the topic and provides multiple perspectives and plenty of context. Romance languages are digressive. They may start and end on the same topic, but in the middle may offer related anecdotes and other details to add color and flavor. In HC communication, the overall idea must be cohesive, while LC communication requires formal structure and organization. High-context communication seeks to create an experience. Low-context communication seeks to deliver information.

The linear, direct approach of LC communication can be seen as impolite by non-linear cultures. It is often viewed as immature and lacking subtlety or finesse. On the other hand, for LC people, the non-linear approach can be vague and confusing. They must sift through what they see as too much unnecessary information for the message, which should have been explicitly stated up front.

Business writing also reflects these differences. In LC cultures, the purpose for writing is stated in the first or second sentence. The task is identified immediately. High-context cultures, however, often state the purpose for writing at the end of an email or letter, if at all. This is why a Chinese job applicant wrote a full-page English cover letter, and never once mentioned he was applying for a job. From his view, it was unnecessary. “Everybody knows” what a cover letter is for, so why say it explicitly?

In writing, HC cultures limit the use of the first person. Communication stresses mutuality and social relations and favors the passive voice. Writing is reader responsible. It is the responsibility of the reader to decipher the implicit message, based on context. Opposite to this, LC communication regularly use the first person and the active voice. A task focus guides the writing. The people and relationships involved are secondary. Low-context cultures are writer responsible. The writer assumes no background knowledge on the part of the reader, and states the message explicitly and unambiguously. The LC thought pattern is also seen in business writing format and layout. Headers, sub headers, and bullets are a way to logically organize and deliver information in a linear and parallel fashion. 

Task or relationship focus is a significant source of conflict in cross-cultural business communication. It is a perfect example of “seeing what isn’t there, and missing what is.” Perception of unintended insult or conflict are common. People from HC cultures may see a task focus as rude or aggressive. They may find personal insult in task-based feedback because they don’t separate the relationship from the task. 

Low-context business communication separates the task from the relationship. The goal is to complete the task as efficiently and quickly as possible. A relationship focus can be seen as a waste of time, irrelevant, and frustrating. For LC people, disagreements are about the process, the task, the job, not the people involved. Conflict is framed and analyzed by work goals. It is acceptable to push back, even to superiors, as long the focus is the task. 

For people from HC cultures, explicit disagreement, even about the task, is seen as conflict and avoided. Pushing back, especially against a senior person, is not done, even if it is about the task. Conflicts are resolved indirectly, in private, or ignored. Public conflict, such as in a meeting, creates an uncomfortable work environment. 

One’s concept of time (and a subsequent amount of patience) is also tied to a task or relationship focus.
When relationships are primary, time becomes secondary and flexible. When the task is primary, time becomes a valued and scarce resource. For HC cultures, the relationship controls time. For LC cultures, time controls the relationship.

“Cultural differences of task or relationship, direct or indirect, and language functions all led to communication breakdown. For the Japanese employee, relationship to the hierarchy was the primary concern in a “how to say it.”

Stages Of Cross-Cultural Communication Competence

Developing awareness of cultural differences in communication styles and translating that knowledge into cultural competence takes time and effort. This important business skill is developed in stages.

Stage 1: Does not recognize skill, does not implement 

This person is unaware that there are cultural differences in communication styles, and does not adjust their own communication for cross-cultural interactions. They assume that their “set of rules” for communication is universal. Many monolinguals fall into this category.

Stage 2: Recognizes skill, does not implement 

This person works with and has regular interactions with different cultures. However, they lack the language functions for culturally appropriate communication. For example, they may know that pushing back can be acceptable, but don’t have the nuanced language to do so, and therefore avoid risking an attempt.

Stage 3: Recognizes skill and implements 

This person can create a first best guess to interpret cross-cultural interactions. They use this awareness to consider possible interpretations of meaning and intent, in order to respond accordingly. This person likely has intimate knowledge of the culture in addition to understanding different communication styles.

Stage 4: Recognizes skill and uses strategically 

This person has intimate knowledge of the culture and the people, in addition to understanding different communication styles. They use this knowledge to plan and strategizes to attain their goals. 

These two true examples show different stages of cultural competency and their impact on business communication, relationships, and task completion. 

Stage 1: Does Not Recognize Skill, Does Not Implement

A Japanese employee was hired as a liaison to help an American firm make inroads to the Japanese market. In a meeting, a leader three levels above her suggested sending what amounted to a company advertisement to the partnered Japanese government agency. The Japanese employee thought this was a horrible idea. It was bragging, inappropriate, and never done. Breaching protocol would bring embarrassment to the company and their Japanese partners. When the leader asked for her opinion on sending it, she responded, “It’s not mandatory.” The leader, being low-context, focused on the words. Seeing it as optional, he decided to send it. As expected, it brought no positive results, only confusion, anxiety and loss of face between partner companies, and a distraction from completing the task.

Why Communication Broke Down

Cultural differences of task or relationship, direct or indirect, and language functions all led to communication breakdown. For the Japanese employee, relationship to the hierarchy was the primary concern in “how to say it.” She was not going to contradict someone three levels above her, especially in public. She also assumed shared context. “Everybody knows” that protocol is extremely important in Japanese culture, and anything that isn’t mandatory should be left out. She could have given a direct response that still showed respect for the hierarchy. “Can I offer a cultural perspective that might help your decision?” would allow her to be honest, while focused on the task. The leader, for his part, could have probed for better understanding. “Can you tell me more about that” can lead to valuable new information. 

Stage 4: Recognizes Skill and Uses Strategically

An American pharmaceutical company was bringing a product to the Thai market. The labeling translations done by an American company and a Thai company weren’t in agreement, and the dispute was causing delays. Neither side was willing to say their translation was incorrect. A director at the pharmaceutical company, a Chinese man, was responsible for resolving this roadblock. He spoke with each side separately, listening fully to their concerns, asking probing questions, and “reading the air.” He soon realized that the Thai employee didn’t want to lose face, or bring shame to the company by admitting the work was not acceptable (relationship focus). The American mostly didn’t want the extra paperwork and time involved in making the change (task focus). Expressing  his respect and understanding for each position, the director then found common ground. He reiterated their shared goal of helping patients. Surely they could overcome their differences to do this important thing. He also offered to help the American company expedite the paperwork if they changed their translation, which they agreed to, removing the roadblock in the task.

Why Communication Succeeded

Through close listening and mindful communication, the director recognized the cultural differences at play. Being HC himself, he understood and related to the values and cultural orientation of the Thai translator. His respect for each made getting their buy in easier. His solution addressed everyone’s needs while achieving his goal.

Developing cultural competence starts with self-awareness, audience awareness, and mindful communication. Expect difference. Stay curious. Have patience with and seek to learn about these differences. Create mindful communication that sees the unique individual first, and the cultural context second. Diversity of thought is absolutely beneficial in business. Both HC and LC communication styles are valuable, and the culturally competent communicator recognizes and uses both styles effectively, depending on context.

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