Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Bridging THE GAP

Bridging THE GAP

Communication, culture and context


Last week I attended the seminar "Cross-Cultural Communication and Conflict Management" at Burapha University in Chon Buri. The first speaker was Khun Bunchong Amornchewin, a writer on cross-cultural management and the director of the Planning and Monitoring Branch at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Khun Bunchong gave a very interesting hour-long lecture. The presentation was followed by a coffee break.

During the coffee break, Associate Professor Tasanee Tantavanich, the host of the event, invited me to join Khun Bunchong at their table. We had a very fruitful chat.

Khun Tasanee asked me, "Khun Kriengsak, will you be able to stay for the whole day? The seminar will end around 5 pm."

"Yes, I will," I said.

Khun Tasanee asked Khun Bunchong the same question.

Khun Bunchong replied, "I will stay for a while."

Khun Tasanee was a little bit uncomfortable. After a few seconds of silence, she said, "With all due respect, Khun Bunchong could you be more specific? Will you answer with low context?" She was using some cross-cultural jargon that I will explain later. Basically, she wanted to know so she could plan for him - lunch, seating in the conference, and so on.

Khun Bunchong smiled and said, "I will leave after we finish our coffee."

I asked Khun Tasanee, "Why didn't you ask him a more specific question?"

She smiled. "It would be impolite if I asked something that specific. Khun Bunchong would have thought that I lack nam-jai (hospitality). He might have thought, 'I devoted my Saturday morning to give a lecture. She did not even offer me lunch.' So, I asked a broad question as a situational appraisal."

Khun Bunchong added with a smile, "I didn't give you a specific answer because I wasn't sure what your intention was. I thought that if I told you I would leave after this conversation ended, you might perceive that I was not showing hai-kiat (respect) for this conference. I don't need to rush to leave the conference - it's a Saturday. So, I gave you a vague answer in order to check what was the intention of your question."

We all laughed. The above situation is a good example of high-context and low-context communication.

High-context culture and the contrasting low-context culture are terms presented by the anthropologist Edward T. Hall in his book Beyond Culture. The concept refers to a culture's tendency to cater toward in-groups, an in-group being a group whose members have similar experiences and expectations, from which inferences are drawn. In a high-context culture, many things are left unsaid, leaving the culture to explain.

High-context is more common in eastern cultures and in countries with limited racial diversity. Cultures where the group is valued over the individual promote the in-groups and group reliance that favours high-context cultures. Co-cultures are also conducive to high-context situations, where the small group relies on its members' common background, rather than words, to explain a situation.

A low-context culture explains things further because those in a low-context culture have a wider variety of backgrounds.

High-context cultures have a strong sense of tradition and history, and change little over time. Many native societies (such as the Maori of New Zealand or Native Americans) are high-context cultures. The static culture preserves the high context throughout the generations. Low-context cultures change dramatically from one generation to the next, as in the United States.

During lunch, we had a few dishes and some rice. I sat near Assistant Professor Patchanee Nontasak, the head of the Business Administration Department at the university.

She said to me, "Khun Kriengsak, in addition to rice, please take the noodles. These are famous ones from Chon Buri."

I politely declined. "Thank you for noodles, but I'll pass. I'm trying to control my weight. But thank you for the offer." I did not forget to smile so she would not misunderstand my declining. I also added, "By the way, I'm talking with low context." She had been at our table during the coffee break.

She did not say anything.

After few minutes, the noodles were served. I was a bit reluctant. What should I do? If I did not take them, it would be inappropriate. If I took them, I would jeopardise my diet commitment. She was a poo-yai (a senior person) in this room. I didn't want to make her lose face and ruin everybody's lunch.

I had to weigh Thai values against my own personal values about my weight. I decided to compromise by taking the noodles. After a few chews, I realised how tasty they were.

I told her, "This is good! Tomorrow I'll just have to run some more. But thank you anyway."

She smiled.

Kriengsak Niratpattanasai provides executive coaching in leadership and diversity management under the brand TheCoach. He can be reached at coachkriengsak@yahoo.com. Copies of previous columns are available at http://www.thaicoach.com

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