I was recently reading a blog article from the Harvard Business Review titled The Trouble with Mary, which talks about the very different communication protocols in diverse cultures: here, a Chinese national running the local operations of a European MNC.

Mary was annoyed and frustrated by the demands and lack of respect she got from her head office bosses, and responded initially with acquiescence, then with very subtle persuasion, which failed, and ultimately with passive resistance. The European leadership found Mary equally frustrating and began performance managing her out. A complete disconnect.

The root of the problem was not her performance, it was vast differences in communication styles that were culturally based. The Europeans were direct, rational and focused on quantitative outcomes. They also felt they understood their business a lot better than Mary did, despite its location in China.

Mary’s cultural upbringing instilled in her high respect for authority and an unwillingness to directly confront her bosses with the inadequacy of their China strategy so they would not lose face. When they did not pick up on her subtle attempts to influence them, she just tuned out.

Edward Hall, respected anthropologist and culture analyst has studied cultural differences for several decades, and differentiates between high context/low content cultures, and low context/high content cultures[i].

  • Low Context: rely on text and speech to communicate messages (eg. Northern European, USA)
  • High Context: rely on imagery, non-verbals, body language, implied meaning (Asia, Arabic)

The western, individualist cultures use words and language predominantly to convey messages, and see the responsibility for getting the message across to be that of the sender.

On the contrary, eastern, collectivist cultures take much more meaning out of the context in which the communication occurs, and heed body language and subtle non-verbal cues. Their approach requires the message receiver to be a far more active player in its interpretation.

An interesting study, published in 2005, compared the websites of McDonalds’ franchises around the world and analyzed their format and content with these cultural factors in mind[ii]. As hypothesized, the high context cultures (eg. China, Japan, Korea) made much greater use of visuals, animation, sound, and complex navigation, compared with the low context cultures (Switzerland, Germany, Finland, Denmark) which had mostly static, individual focused, linear and easily navigable websites.

So back to Mary. I was interested to note that in 2011, comments to the HBR blog reinforced the need for eastern cultures to adapt to western communication methods to succeed in regionally based MNCs. It seems that despite having an intellectual understanding of the differences between cultures, this has not yet transpired into effective communication skills and practices that pave the way for cross cultural harmony.

What may help break down these cultural barriers and create a more harmonious workplace is effective HR solutions, which promote employee transparency, communication, empowerment and performance management.

[i] Hall, E. (1981). Beyond culture. USA: Anchor Books.

[ii] Wurtz, E. (2005). A cross-cultural analysis of websites from high-context cultures and low context cultures. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 11(1).