As globalisation increases and domestic societies diversify ethnically and culturally, successful intercultural communication will become more and more important. Brand and Communications Co-Chair, Ingrid Nienaber, writes about her experiences with different communication styles in Europe, Asia and Australia.
Working in corporate communication in nine countries on three continents has taught me a thing or two: When it comes to communication, what’s successful and appropriate in one culture may be ineffective or even offensive in another. And I don’t mean one culture is right or wrong, better or worse – they are just different.
Born and raised in Germany I grew up using a low-context language, which implies messages to be very specific. When I started my comms career, I found that in a business environment, Germans are usually very straightforward – even blunt! – and often use only a few polite phrases. Typically, they get to the point quickly and expect to have results at the end of a meeting.
While living and working in Brussels, I encountered a wealth of communication styles: since the Belgian capital hosts the institution of the European Union, the city is a melting pot of nationalities, many from high-context cultures where messages leave room for interpretation. I worked with media correspondents from countries such as Belgium, Spain and Hungary and found that building trust via face-to-face communication and creating personal relationships are the keys to success. Probably not surprising in an environment that is highly driven by political strategies and ever-changing agendas!
In Singapore with its multi-ethnic society and big Chinese influence, it helps to be aware of some traditional Chinese core values, such as non-confrontational and indirect language. I worked with communicators across Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. All are considered high-context cultures but communication preferences vary a lot. For example, Thai journalists will not necessarily ask questions during a press conference but prefer to talk to the speaker quietly afterwards.
Although multilingual, Australia’s society is considered a low-context culture with explicit messages and a rather relaxed communication style. Common challenges for foreigners are the Australian accent, colloquialisms and abbreviations which cannot be found in English textbooks. And sometimes Aussies use colourful language that would be unthinkable in other countries.
Regardless where in the world you are, intercultural awareness is highly beneficial and makes you a more successful communicator. It also helps you to grow a thick skin when people who don’t know your cultural sensitivities accidentally offend you. In my view, the key to cross-cultural success is to develop an understanding of, and a deep respect for, the differences in communication styles and cultures.