When you live in an environment that you’re accustomed to, there are certain things that you take for granted. In general, you probably know what people your age will think is funny, what tone of voice is appropriate for certain situations, and what is considered offensive. Those are general cultural norms that you don’t even know that you know, so when you’re suddenly in a new environment, whether it be a different region in your own country or another country entirely, you might think:
As a traveler and citizen of the world, it’s your responsibility to be self-aware and observant when visiting other countries in order to learn cultural norms. In my opinion, what you learn about yourself from the initial culture shock that you experience will be helpful when you’re working with colleagues from around the world to develop a multicultural marketing strategy.
The following are two key lessons that I’ve learned, and how they relate to your global professional relationships and content marketing strategy.
In his 1976 book, Beyond Culture, anthropologist Edward T. Hall offers a spectrum for classifying different cultures according to their communication styles. In high-context cultures, most meaning can be taken from the context of a situation rather than the explicit verbal or written messages themselves. In low-context cultures, meaning depends on explicit verbal or written messages and the literal meaning of words.
The concept of “politeness” in the US is a great example of a low-context culture. In the US, messages of politeness are expressed primarily through explicit gestures; the context of specific situations is usually not enough to avoid a misunderstanding. For example, I often overemphasize and repeat “thank you” to waiters in restaurants, or in college I would thank a professor for handing me an exam. It is also anticipated that one apologizes for accidentally having crossed into a friend’s personal space. For example, I put my coat on this morning, and it hit my friend’s arm. Even though it was obviously not intentional and didn’t cause any injuries, my explicit “Oops, sorry!” was probably expected. In other words, the implicit cues and context in these situations are not enough to not be considered impolite; concrete actions and words are necessary, even if their meaning is already obvious.
In Spain, on the other hand, the expression of politeness depends on more than just words; it is implied in situations through tone and body language. While I lived in Granada, a small city in the southern part of Spain, I developed a close relationship with my host parents. When I went back to Spain years later, they invited me to stay at their home for a weekend and insisted that they cook a typical Spanish lunch for my friend and me. I repeatedly said “gracias” every time they brought something new to the table, and finally, my host dad said “¡Deja de decir las gracias!”—meaning—”You can stop saying thank you!”
I didn’t really understand why he told me to stop saying thank you until I was in class one day, and my professor was handing out exams. As we each received an exam, we responded with a “gracias,” not thinking anything of it. She started laughing and explained that in that specific context, students from Spain wouldn’t always thank her for an exam, because it is their job as students to take the exam and her job as a professor to provide it. She explained further that in restaurant settings, for example, repeatedly thanking waiters each time they refill your water or bring you food is not expected because it is their job, and that in certain situations, thanking may actually put a negative distance between you and whomever you’re speaking to.
In his book, International Business Communication, David A. Victor outlines the ways that high- and low-context cultures value various forms of communication. According to Victor, high-context cultures rely heavily on non-verbal signs to communicate and place little importance on verbal and written messages, while low-context cultures rely less on non-verbal signs and place relatively high importance on verbal and written messages.
In accordance with Hall and Victor’s theory about low-context culture and communication preferences, I rely on the literal meaning of words and prefer to correspond via email than over the phone. In my own emails, I use a lot of words to express the specific tone that I want to convey in the message, which is something that a high-context individual might express verbally or via body language. To some, my emails may come off as long and drawn out, even if they are just a short paragraph. Different than my own style, I frequently receive emails that are about four to five words long that still express the message necessary.
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