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A list of cultures along the high- to low-context communication style continuum.

Fig. 1: Many northern European cultures favor a very low-context communication style while east Asian cultures tend to have the strongest preference for high-context communication.

 

Cross-Cultural Communication and the various dimensions

When thinking about cross-cultural communication it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking in stereotypes. For example: Japanese employees never speak their mind while Americans are loud and bossy. How true is this? Research has shown that – although there are differences between cultures – they are not so straightforward. The three most salient dimensions for studying cross-cultural communication are: power distance, individualism/collectivism, and level of context. (The first two of these cross-cultural dimensions have been discussed previously.) Power distance is a look at how individuals perceive hierarchy in their society – do they tend to feel more or less equal to each other, or do they perceive strong power differences between individuals? Individualism and collectivism are just what they sound like – this dimension reflects the importance of conformity, interdependence, communalism, and relationship in a society. Finally, high context societies are those in which the rules and content of communication are determined by implicit factors such as body language, societal position, and situation; low context cultures rely on explicit communication, (i.e. text, speech) to avoid any ambiguity.

Hofstede comparison between Japan and the USA

Fig 2: Hofstede dimensions comparison of Japan and the USA. While they share a fairly egalitarian view of hierarchy – each person should have a say in a relationship, even if roles are hierarchical. However, the USA is strongly individualistic, while Japan is slightly communalistic.

So where do you think Japanese and American cultures fall on these three dimensions of communication? According to the Hofstede and Hall indicators, Japanese culture tends to show a moderate power distance, moderate collectivism, and to operate in a high level of context. American culture, has a mostly egalitarian view of power, strongly favors the individual, and falls lower on the context spectrum – more than Germans but less than Latin Americans. So while members of these two cultures often experience each other as very different, their actual distance from each other is not as great as it could be. They also share some important commonalities – for instance, both Japanese and American workers value individual performance and expect to provide input into their company’s decisions, two characteristics that distinguish them from many other cultures.

Cultural styles of communication also relate to how relationships are built and maintained. Whereas, many low-context cultures are happier to have short, relatively functional relationships based on mutual interest – the higher the context a culture relies upon, the more it values strong and stable relationships. This suggests that doing business in Greece, for example, may require more investment in relationships up-front – and over time – than in the USA, but you will probably have higher loyalty from those relationships once successful. Therefore, cross-cultural communication is not just about exchanging information, it’s also about how relationships are treated – what expectations are made of both parties, and for how long are those expectations to be met.

An important takeaway from any comparison between countries is that cultural differences are primarily relative. In discussions of cross-cultural interaction, the experience of dealing with a different culture is described as culture shock or culture stress. The latter is used when the distance between the two cultures – say, American and English – is not so large. But there is still a difference. Another example might be a Mandarin speaker from Taiwan and a Mandarin speaker from Singapore: they surely have a lot in common – both being part of the Chinese diaspora and residing in countries of similar socioeconomic backgrounds. But there will be cultural differences that distinguish the two that will be felt as culture stress. On the other hand, if a Mexican woman moves to Germany, she may experience fairly significant culture shock as she adjusts to the relatively large cultural distance between Mexico and Germany.

Cross-Cultural Communication – Localized Websites as a Case Study

So how does all of this impact business communications? Well, think about your website – one of, if not the, central communication medium for most companies in our current age. A successful website skillfully pieces together text, images, video, and audio in order to appeal and intuitively guide the user to their goal. Do different cultures do this differently? In short, yes: high-context cultures will often use much more and richer imagery – especially of people – and employ animation and sound effects. Websites aimed at low-context cultures tend to focus on minimal distraction from text or imagery; sound effects or music is almost never used unless user-activated. There is also a tendency for high-context cultures to prefer links to automatically open new windows, and for information to be discovered through relatively opaque imagery and links. Low-context sites, on the other hand, use clear tabs and menus to allow the user to quickly and directly navigate.

Image of McDonald's Thailand website as an example of Cross-cultural communication

Fig. 2: McDonald’s website for Thailand features a few buttons, but uses vivid images with a set of icon overlays as the central organizing principle. The central image uses dramatic animations to shift among the various featured items.

 

Image of McDonald's USA website as an example of Cross-cultural communication

Fig. 3: McDonald’s website for the USA features a primarily white background with a few, simple photographs of menu items. A clear, minimalist menu is located at the top. The central image uses a subtle, near instant fade-out to switch between featured products.

Whereas both versions of the McDonald’s website use modern design principles – large, tabular images, a continuous slideshow of featured products, and a menu to navigate among pages – the way in which this is accomplished is markedly different. In this way, you can see how each version is fitting into the digital ecosystem of that country and thereby hopes to be accepted by local users as native – or at least conversant with the local culture. On the other hand, you can imagine that switching these two websites might be jarring for users unaccustomed to that style of digital communication from a company. While the increased connectivity of the internet – and the cultural and economic strength of European and American companies – has impacted cultures all over the world, the particular histories, traditions, and preferences of peoples around the world are resilient. By embracing the communication style and vernacular of a culture, you are letting them know you understand and respect them – and this creates a better experience for them as well as sowing the seeds for a positive relationship with your brand that can yield results for generations.

Have you thought of this in your own website translation initiative? How should each language version of your site differ? There are a plethora of factors to consider: the purpose of your website, how similar products or services are marketed in the local country, how helpful it is to standout versus conform in the local context, and communication expectations. As we’ve seen, this can impact everything from: webpage design and layout, use of pop-ups and animations, prevalence of audio and video, and style of navigation – multi-layered or direct. This approach to wholesale localization is often the highest investment but highest yield approach to establishing a digital presence in a country. Lighter versions of simple translation, internationalization, and regionalization can also help if your company isn’t quite ready for the bottom-up redesign. We at Language Solutions can help you figure out where you are in your localization maturity process to better assess which approach is best for you. Then we offer guidance on how to build the case for the resources necessary. Cross-cultural communication is a vital part of any global business, and we are always happy to help you get started – or refine your approach!

 

References:

  1. Chua, E. G., & Gudykunst, W. B. (1987). Conflict resolution styles in low-and high-context cultures. Communication Research Reports, 4(1).
  2. Hofstede Insights. Web. https://www.hofstede-insights.com/country-comparison/japan,the-usa/
  3. McDonald’s. Web. https://www.mcdonalds.com/us/en-us.html
  4. McDonald’s. Web. https://www.mcdonalds.co.th/
  5. Würtz, E. (2005). Intercultural communication on web sites: A cross-cultural analysis of web sites from high-context cultures and low-context cultures. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 11(1), 274-299.
  6. Zhu, Yunxia, Pieter Nel, and Ravi Bhat. “A Cross Cultural Study of Communication Strategies for Building Business Relationships.” International Journal of Cross Cultural Management3 (2006): 319-41. Web.
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