Wright, N. & Liu, L. (2020), 'Point', Coaching & Life, 29 October.
“We haven’t got all day. Please get to the point.”
Picture this: West meets East in a hotel business lounge. West introduces himself first: “Hi. I’m John. I’m a strategy consultant from the UK. I am here to do X, Y and Z.” Now East:
“Hello, Sir John. I’m Rosa Santos. Thank you for this great opportunity to meet you. I am happy you chose to meet with us here. How was your flight? How is the hotel? Are you happy with the hotel services? Is this your first time to the Philippines? How do you like the food? Your family must be missing you while you are here.”
John believes all these questions are unnecessary. Instead of engaging in a friendly chat with Rosa, he asks: "What time will the meeting start? Where is the meeting room? Is there someone to help me set up my laptop?"
John, from what anthropologist Edward T Hall calls a ‘low-context’ culture, is surprised by what he perceives as Rosa’s lengthy, discursive and expansive introductions. He prefers and is used to short, succinct and direct information.
On the other hand, Rosa, from a ‘high-context’ culture, feels surprised that John discloses nothing of his wider life, including his family and work, at the start of their encounter.
As the conversation continues, John feels increasingly frustrated, wanting to get on with what he sees as the task. Rosa, too, feels frustrated that John appears to have so little interest in establishing and respecting relationship and trust.
The critical question here is: what is the ‘point’ of the conversation? Is about task achievement, or relationship-building, or both of these, or something else altogether? What have been your best and worst experiences of cross-cultural communication? What happened and what did you learn?
Nick Wright is a psychological coach, trainer and organisation development (OD) consultant (www.nick-wright.com). Liu Liu is a strategic project manager for international development agency, Tearfund (www.tearfund.org).