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Say what you mean: Communication tips for success in New Zealand’s low-context work culture

Unlike many of my friends who jetted north on ‘The Big OE’ soon after graduating from university, I chose Japan rather than the UK. I spent a couple of very special years there, not only igniting a passion for language teaching and learning, but gaining a great appreciation for non-verbal communication. More on that soon.

In this article I discuss the concept of high and low context cultures, which was initially developed by Edward Hall back in the 1970s. The concept centres around the way in which messages are communicated. In high-context cultures, language is generally more indirect. The speaker relies on the listeners’ ability to ‘read between the lines’ — to infer meaning from the message, as well as their ability to read body language and other non-verbal cues. The home in which you live is very likely a high-context environment. You often don’t need to hear a lot, for example, to know how your partner feels at any given time. You understand the underlying context: tone, facial expressions, gestures, and what they might choose not to say.

In low-context cultures on the other hand, messages are usually delivered in much more direct terms. A good leader in a low-context culture will aim to remove any chance of misunderstanding with clear, simple and precise messages.

More recently Edward Hall’s concept was developed further by Professor Erin Meyer, who created a framework consisting of eight different scales. She explains these in her book, ‘The Culture Map’, and I’m going to focus on the communication scale in this article.

After extensive interviewing, research and analysis, Meyer was able to place countries along each of her scales based on what would be considered appropriate and acceptable business behaviour in each respective country. On the communication scale, Japan, Korea, Indonesia and China are among the countries classified as high-context cultures. Many South and Central American countries sit near the higher end of the scale too. High-context cultures typically have comparatively little cultural diversity. There is a long, shared history and set of traditions, and group needs are valued more than individual needs. During my time in Japan the group-focussed mentality was something that really stood out to me because it felt quite different to what I was used to coming from New Zealand.

At the other end of the communication scale, The USA, Australia and Canada are among the countries classified as low-context cultures. Unsurprisingly, these countries have more linguistic and cultural diversity, and despite having a long indigenous history, the shared history of the residents today is relatively short. It makes sense that with such diversity, messages need to be clear, simple and precise in order to avoid misunderstandings.

It would be safe to say that New Zealand sits close to the low-context end of the communication scale. Let’s look more closely at what type of communication you can expect in the workplace here.

Firstly, any New Zealand workplaces in which there is linguistic or cultural diversity among the staff, and therefore a low level of shared context within the group, necessitate clear and simple communication. During training or professional development, it is not unusual for a presenter to preview what they are going to discuss, before speaking in more detail about the topic, and then summarising the key points they have made towards the end. After a meeting or training session, it is common for the manager or trainer to send a follow-up email to staff outlining the important messages or actions to be taken.

Someone from a high-context culture who is not used to this low-context approach might initially find it to be unnecessarily repetitive, or even insulting.

In New Zealand, we also tend to take a reasonably direct approach to dealing with problems. This can involve quite open and frank discussions which may make some people who are not used to these feel uncomfortable, especially when disagreements occur.

Another thing that you might notice during work or business meetings in New Zealand is that if you have an opinion or something to say, there is an expectation that you make this known at a suitable time during the meeting. The danger in sitting back and waiting to be asked for your thoughts is that others might assume you have nothing to contribute. If you are consistently quiet in meetings, you might eventually find yourself being ignored and you may start to feel under-valued.

We are also less comfortable with silent periods in New Zealand than many high-context cultures. I wasn’t aware of this phenomenon until I lived abroad. Again, it was my time in Japan that made me realise this. If you are Japanese, or you’ve spent any time working in Japan, you’ll know that not long pauses between conversations are perfectly acceptable.

Before I move on, I need to point out that there will be variance from workplace to workplace in the way in which staff communicate in New Zealand. You might also be thinking now that New Zealanders seem like quite a simple, unsophisticated bunch. I can reassure you that in other aspects of New Zealand life when there is less diversity within a group, there is plenty of subtle humour, implied meaning and unspoken communication used.

Modifying the messaging

Now, simply being aware of the cultural norms of your new environment is not enough. Let’s now look at a few ways that someone from a high-context culture could adjust their messaging to suit the lower-context culture of their new workplace.

1. Try to say what you mean.

If you are too indirect in your communication there is a high chance any implied message will not be understood. If this were to happen on a few occasions, it could lead not only to your colleagues becoming frustrated, but also to problems or accidents occurring in the workplace.

2. Be prepared to speak up and offer your opinion in meetings.

Now, if you’re not used to doing this, I know that it’s much easier said than done. Initially, it’s a good idea to observe your colleagues in meetings and take note of the ways in which they express their opinions or put suggestions forward. At Front Foot English we offer coaching sessions to provide our clients with the language and the confidence to adjust to this aspect of New Zealand’s low-context work culture.

3. If you go into a leadership role, especially if you are leading a multicultural team, establish low-context processes.

Discuss the rationale for this with your team, establish ground rules and ensure that all team members understand and agree on these. For example, putting the key messages or decisions made in a meeting in writing, even if these were discussed at length and agreed upon during the meeting. This is often not deemed to be necessary in high-context cultures, but in New Zealand it is done to safeguard from potential misunderstandings.

4. Be clear and explicit with any feedback or advice you provide to staff, and ensure that there is a culture of clear messaging.

Some staff members may need to be encouraged to communicate more through words than they might otherwise outside of work.

So that’s a brief introduction to the concept of low-context culture. If you want to learn more and gain the knowledge and skills to communicate effectively in the New Zealand workplace, I’d love to hear from you. This is what we specialise in at Front Foot English through our training and 1-to-1 coaching packages, so please consider booking a free chat to discuss your needs.

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