Long gone are the days when I taught English to people who shared the same cultural background and spoke the same language.
Born and raised in the Czech Republic, I knew all about effectively communicating with Czechs. When I started my career in 2000, most people wanted to learn English, so I concentrated on translating for Czechs how the English felt about their language and culture. It was simple, straight-forward.
Flash forward 20 years, and my company, Language Online Services, provides language and cultural training in 16 languages. To build rapport with those whose culture is foreign to mine, I must devote considerable effort to understanding how we communicate. Transitioning from one small culture to many requires much more than teaching skills – I have become a language consultant.
Establishing a strong connection with a new student means taking nothing for granted. I study potential communication scenarios based on cultural background. How will the student react to my introductory email? What is the most effective way to discuss mutual expectations? When is the best moment to give constructive feedback? When is the best time to crack a joke? Only after navigating these issues and considering how cultural background unconsciously affects behavior and assumptions can I fully focus on what I already know how to do – teach the language. Erin Meyer, author of The Culture Map (2014), says, “. . . success in our ever more globalized and virtual world requires the skills to navigate through cultural differences and decode cultures foreign to your own.”
Meyer explains that low-context cultures (USA, Australia Canada, Germany, the UK) expect communication to be precise, simple and clear. Messages are expressed and understood at face value. Meeting content and decisions are summarized in written form. In high-context cultures (Japan, Korea, Indonesia, China, Kenya, Saudi Arabia or Singapore), good communication is “nuanced and layered. Messages are both spoken and read between the lines. Messages are often implied but not plainly expressed.” Meyer also claims, “The more low-context the culture, the more people have a tendency to put everything in writing.”
Based on my experiences as LOS CEO, Meyer’s description of communication approaches is extremely relevant. My correspondence with those from low-context cultures has encompassed strategic planning, performance reviews, and meeting summaries; this keeps everybody in the loop and engaged. My low-context students and colleagues reply to my emails swiftly.
In contrast, people from high-context cultures may not be so prompt. For example, Asian students would enthusiastically agree to start lessons but then fail to pay and begin scheduling. What was the holdup? Had the process not been clear? Meyer explains that high-context cultures have a strong oral tradition in which written communication is considered less necessary; what is agreed to during the meeting is acted on without need for further confirmation. If only I had known this before! I could have spared myself much nail-biting while waiting for my Asian students to reply. The misaligned expectations revolved around my not confirming the exact timeline within which lessons would start; I assumed action within 1-2 days, while the students often considered 1-2 weeks sufficient.
One culture doesn’t fit all. And reading a book about that is only a start. No one understands a culture better than those who live in it, especially if they’re originally from a different culture and have a basis for contrast. LOS prides itself on consultants who not only speak other languages but also have fully immersed themselves in other cultures. As CEO, I seek consultants equipped to explain the nuances of why a culture embodies certain characteristics, and how behavior differs among classes. It’s important to know not just what to do but why and how to do it.
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Martin Norling, LOS Founder & CEO