The East-West Gulf (by Christina Kwok)

Having lived abroad for half my life, I tend to look at life through a bicultural lens, which is a great advantage for properly integrating into European society. However, this can cause gaps in communication when relating to family and news back in Malaysia in the classic difference of high and low context communication if I forget to switch my lens.

High-context versus low-context communication

In high-context cultures, people leave many things unsaid. Communication presumes an understanding of unwritten rules and a shared narrative that informs a person of what is going on. Malaysian culture is a high-context culture, as are the cultures of many Asian and Arab nations.

On the other hand, in low-context cultures, such as Switzerland and much of Western Europe, communication is more explicit. Expectations, relationships, and explanations are typically made clear in such cultures and words carry a great deal of importance.

Missing plane MH 370

After the MH 370 flight disappeared on its way to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur last March, I talked to my brother living in Malaysia on the phone, discussing puzzling aspects of the incident. Naturally, I checked to see if anyone we knew might have been on that fateful plane. His reply was a simple “no.” Our conversation reminded me of the extent of the acculturation process I had undergone from living abroad so long in an essentially low-context society. Coming from a high-context culture, my brother didn’t mention the published list of passenger names until he was prodded to do so, simply assuming that I knew about it, as if the list was published in newspapers around the world.

His reaction to the disaster also seemed indifferent compared to mine. He seemed surprised that I had such an interest in this news, given that he had told me no one in our family or friends were affected. This startled me, as I felt heartache and compassion for the families of the missing passengers. It seems that my brother was adopting a typical Chinese attitude of: if you’re not involved, why should you care about other people’s misfortune?

The response of the Malaysian government to the missing plane crisis is another case in point. Coming from a low-context culture, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott chose to furnish information about satellite imagery of debris almost immediately, even before it was confirmed to be relevant to the missing plane. The Malaysian authorities, on the other hand, offered very little information and were accused of lack of transparency in withholding critical information about the plane’s course deviation in a timely manner. It must be said, however, that longstanding political and social factors as well as the need to “maintain face” (a characteristic of high-context cultures), were also contributing factors to their response.

Decoding advice – Some suggestions for bridging high-context and low-context styles of communication:

if you’re from a low-context culture, listen more than you speak when dealing with someone from a high-context culture. Observe body language, ask indirect questions and show respect for hierarchy and age. Don’t force the other to give an opinion and pay attention to personal and family matters.

If you’re from a high-context culture meeting someone from a low-context culture, take what the other says at face value. Try to speak up and be to the point. Share your opinion and focus on tasks and facts. Show your qualities and expertise and respect privacy.

Christina Kwok is an intercultural skills trainer & speaker. She helps diverse teams weld radically different perspectives into a unified team effort. She has worked with diverse organizations such as Zurich Insurance, UBS, and ABB Technikerschule to develop key communication skills for a global business environment. Website LinkedIn

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