Navigate the Cross-cultural Map: Communication

international students navigate career success

How many of us don’t drive without a GPS or a map? Without an atlas, I get lost easily, especially in a new neighborhood where I have not spent much time. Traveling thousands of miles away from your homeland to study in another country is far more complicated than driving in a new neighborhood. Make sure you take a map.

I will use the next few posts applying the eight scales from the book The Culture Map by Erin Meyer to pinpoint some of the most common cultural assumptions international students make that can hurt their academic and career success.

First, communication.

“High-context culture” and “low-context culture” are two terms coined by the anthropologist Edward T. Hall in his 1976 book Beyond Culture. As described by Meyer in The Culture Map, in low-context cultures such as the US people speak or write with simplicity and clarity assuming their counterpart has little background knowledge or information about the conversation topic (unless it has been proven otherwise through a prior experience or an education credential). In comparison, in high-context cultures such as China, India, Korea, Japan and Indonesia, people communicate between lines with implied meanings.

The following graph, excerpted from The Culture Map, places a number of countries in the spectrum, with the US presenting one extreme and Japan and Indonesia the other.

FullSizeRender (2)Meyer argues that, as individuals, we strive to become good communicators and think it will help us to communicate across the cultures better.  Our efforts could be in vain or push us further away because the definitions of good communication vary widely from low-context to high-context countries.

Based on my experience living in other cultures, I summarized below how representative communication styles could be evaluated very differently in various cultures.

Country Type / Communication Style Precise, simple and clear communication; repetition used to prevent misunderstanding Sophisticated nuanced and layered communication; messages implied but not plainly expressed
Perception by people from low-context cultures

(US, Australia, Canada, Netherlands, Germany)

“s/he is a good communicator.”

“I appreciate all the background information and illustration.”

“s/he is very thorough and organized.”

“s/he is very shy and doesn’t talk much. Maybe s/he is too nervous.”

“I don’t know what s/he wants. It doesn’t seem s/he knows either.”

“if s/he doesn’t tell me, I won’t know.”

Perception by people from high-context cultures

(Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, China, Kenya, Sandi Arabia)

“s/he must think I am stupid.” “I am not a kindergartener.”

“I can’t stand her repeat so many times what I already know.”

“s/he was speaking way too much.”

“s/he is a very skilled communicator.”

“s/he is exquisite at indicating something without saying it. Masterful!”

“s/he made the point well. The counterpart understood and will do what they are supposed to do.”

 

How is this relevant to international students?

China, India, South Korea and Saudi Arabia, four top sending countries for International students to the US are the high-context cultures while the US is the other extreme. Risks are high for misunderstanding, misperception and failed communication. Stakes are high too. How international students communicate with their American classmates, professors, staff in support offices, internship managers have a tremendous impact on the their experience and success. I have heard from more than one hiring managers “hard skills are all very similar from one candidate to the next; we are looking for the soft skills, how well they can communicate themselves.”

According to the Job Outlook 2016 report by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), employers ranked verbal communication skills to be the most important skill in a job candidate, followed by teamwork and “the ability to make decisions and solve problems.” “Technical knowledge related to the job” is only rated No. 7.  

International students, it may take some practice to become a good communicator in the American culture, but the reward can be high. Here are a few simple tips to get you started.

Don’t assume you know. Don’t assume your counterpart knows. Communicate if it is important. Don’t assume any shared information between you and your counterpart. No matter if it is a challenge, a concern, an expression of appreciation, a request or anything that is important to you if you would like the other person to know, say it simply and openly.

Imagine the following scenario:

A student from a high-context culture met an American professor on campus, and they had a brief conversation.

Professor: How is your semester going?

Student A: Going well. I am thinking of getting a summer internship in an NGO in fair trade that will give me some research experience. (student implies: You are a professor in this field. Maybe you can introduce me to a couple of your connections.)

Professor: That’s an excellent approach. You should start looking soon. (Student reads: Go ahead do it. I can’t help you. )

Student A: Thank you. I’ve got to go now. (student implies: you can’t help me. That’s disappointing.)

In reality, this poor professor had no idea how his message has been interpreted and may have hurt this relationship. If Student A made no assumption and communicated clearly, the outcome could have been entirely different.    

Don’t pretend you know. Ask questions.

In high-context cultures, asking clarifying questions or any questions could be viewed as stupid, not paying attention, or even worse, not paying respect. In low-context cultures, the speaker has the responsibility of making her or himself understandable. Often, asking insightful questions reflects on the person’s thoroughness and knowledge. If you don’t understand thoroughly, don’t hold back and say yes; if you need more time, say “I need a couple of days to think about it. Can I get back to you if I have any questions;” if you don’t want to waste other people’s time in a group setting, you can approach to the speaker for a one-on-one explanation afterwards. But more likely than not, you are not the only one who has this question.  

Again, ask questions.

When you ask, you learn. In many high-context cultures, teachers, parents and adults are authoritative figures that should not be questioned and challenged. As children grow up, they become less accustomed to asking questions, whether it is to seek information or approval. One thing I learned early on is to say to myself “why not ask? What’s the worst that can happen?” When you realize nothing terrible will happen, you will start asking questions and benefit from it.

Being straightforward BUT not pushy.  

Always keep in mind communication is both art and science even in low-context cultures. Communicate openly about your questions, concerns, and requests, but don’t do it in a way that compromises respect and consideration to the counterpart. Go back to the earlier scenario when student A runs into the professor.  Compare the following two responses.

Professor: How is your semester going?

Student A: Going well. I am looking for a summer internship in an NGO in fair trade that will give me some research experience. Can you make some introductions for me?

Professor: How is your semester going?

Student A: Going well. I am thinking of getting a summer internship in an NGO in fair trade that will give me some research experience. You are well regarded in this field. I am wondering if it is possible for you to make some introductions?

They are asking for the same favor, but the latter proposes it as a possibility instead of a request, which demonstrates more respect and leaves the room for the professor to make a decision. Courtesy travels a long way.

In reality, this poor professor had no idea how his message has been interpreted and may have hurt this relationship. If Student A made no assumption and communicated clearly, the outcome could have been entirely different.    

Find support to speed your learning.   

Time is the most precious. When you already have your plate full, it can be stressful to learn how to communicate cross cultures. Find support on line. interEDGE.org has on-line webinars on many related topics that will help you master the skills faster.

Relevant articles:

Matching Skill Gaps: an Opportunity for International Students

Cultural Intelligence: a must-have trait for future leaders

Cross-cultural barriers for career success of international students

 

About Di Hu

Co-founder and principal coach at interEDGE.org, an initiative of DrEducation, to offer online training solutions to institutions to support academic and career success of international students. Follow her on @CoachDiHu

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