High-context communications in a low-context virtual world

Singapore mediator Ian Macduff wrote a helpful article, last week, about the differences between low- and high-context cultures, and its’ impact in online mediation.

His piece highlighted the challenges of understanding the meaning behind the message, when the message can mean so much more, or less, depending on the culture of the person sending/receiving the message.   And, to double the challenge, trying to understand the message/meaning in a virtual environment; one which tends to favour, big time, direct over nuanced forms of communication.

Building on Macduff’s piece, it begs the question: How do you have a high-context conversation in a low-context virtual world?

The difference between high-context and low-context cultures

Quoting from Macduff’s article:

A high-context culture “is one in which people are deeply involved with each other. As a result of intimate relationships among people, a structure of social hierarchy exists, individual inner feelings are kept under strong self-control, and information is widely shared through simple messages with deep meaning.

A low-context (LC) culture is one in which people are highly individualised, somewhat alienated, and fragmented, and there is relatively little involvement with others. As a consequence, social hierarchy, as well as society in general, imposes less on individuals’ lives, and communication between people is more explicit and nonpersonal.

[Source: Kim, Pan & Park, “High- versus Low-Context Culture: A Comparison of Chinese, Korean and American Cultures,” Psychology and Marketing, 15: 507, at 508-509 [1998]]”

A virtual dilemma

There are many dilemmas in virtual communications and collaboration.  Let’s work through the low/high context challenge…

Raymond comes from a high-context culture.  On the low-high communications context continuum, he’s over on the high side.   When he interacts with others, In Real Life, he defaults to his high-context cultural norms.

low-high context 1

When Raymond enters the virtual arena, some of his high-context ways, simple words with deep meaning, relationship-based, community deference… can easily get lost.  In order to get his message across, he adopts a more direct, impersonal approach.   All of a sudden he’s out of his element, and operating in a low-context environment.

low-high context 2

(It should be no surprise that popular social media such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube favour low-context communications, given they orginated in the U.S., a highly individualistic society.)

So, how can you, as virtual conversation conductor, move the needle back to a more high-context form of communications, to enable effective communications with Raymond?

low-high context 3

After all, the word ‘communication’ comes from the Latin word, communis, to make common.  You want to be on common ground with Raymond.

How to add context to a virtual conversation

Macduff makes the point about high-context communicators (in online world) needing to use more communication signals, to create the context of connection that is otherwise absent.

To that, I would add verbal context information:

  1. Add emotion.  The virtual favours verbal over non-verbal communications.  Tell, show how you feel.  Even emoticons help.  The human brain reacts to emoticons as real faces.
  2. Add audio.  My Pareto (80/20) rule for online collaborative work is that a shared screen + audio connection will give you 80% of the environment you need.

And, non-verbal context information:

  1. Add visual.  Pictures, avatars, help keep the other in-mind.  And, of course, video helps with non-verbal cues.
  2. Add touches.   Increase the number of virtual ways to connect and interact, before, during, and post-conversations… a la Micah Solomon‘s  High-Tech, High-Touch Customer Service!

Any context information we can add helps mitigate, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” (George Bernard Shaw)

Further implications for the mediators and facilitators of virtual conversations

From my online mediator/facilitator lens, in x-cultural contexts, and assuming language is not a barrier – synchronous channels of communication offer more potential (vs asynchronous) to address high-context communication requirements.

Correspondingly, synchronous approaches should be pursued with more vigour, than is currently taking place, in x-cultural online solution systems design.

Question for you

What tip do you have for bridging cultural differences in virtual communications?


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