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Cross-cultural Communication and Leadership


Guest articles > Cross-cultural Communication and Leadership


by: Jim Rickard


“The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook” -- William James

There is no shortage of leadership books and articles available today. Everyone has a different viewpoint or offer of advice for leaders and communicators, particularly on how to communicate across cultures. Edward Hall, known as the father of cross-cultural communication, in his book, The Silent Language, spoke about two concepts of cultures. We see these concepts around us every day, even when we may not be aware of them but see the results in action. The two types of cultures that Hall cited are monochronic/polychronic cultures and high context/low context cultures. If you are not familiar with these terms I imagine that about now if you are still reading you may be saying to yourself “what the heck or who cares?”

Monochronic cultures (USA, United Kingdom, Switzerland, Canada, Germany, Netherlands) utilize agenda’s in business meetings, do one thing at a time before moving to the next item, respect the use of time, are interested in closing the deal quickly once they sit down to business. They may do business on the phone and then send a follow up email confirming the details of the agreement.

Appointments in these cultures are scheduled weeks ahead of time because it shows the importance of the meeting and that time is valued. Agenda’s are sent at least 48 hours in advance so that all parties know exactly what will be involved with the meeting and the discussions. When in a monochronic culture it is considered the “height of rudeness” to be late, “to be early is to be on time” is a familiar phrase in this culture. Start meetings on time, stick to the agenda, and finish on time. Ask questions during the meeting and do not wait until the end of the meeting to ask questions, as this is considered a waste of time, and in this culture “time is money.”

Polychronic cultures (Africa, Asia, and Latin) are the ultimate multi taskers and may operate to the uninformed as if they are in need of medicine for Attention Deficit Disorder. They will drink coffee or tea in meetings; think about their next meal, talk to other people when they walk into the room, look for items in their desk and generally get very bored doing just one thing. This of course is perplexing to a person from a monochronic culture, for which this behavior borders on rudeness or disinterest. Do not think that they are not paying attention to a business presentation, because they are, even if they do not seem to be “tuned in”.

This culture does not value setting meeting dates and times far ahead, because it is “not convenient and something else may happen”. Always allow generous blocks of time between appointments if you are working with someone from a polychronic culture. Be Patient. Understand that you will be kept waiting, take along something to read or work on and remember to be patient. Show no irritation to the front line staff while you are waiting, this may come back to haunt you if you are. This may be the boss’s daughter or his wife working at the front desk. Be kind and courteous. This culture spends whatever time is needed with a problem to help solve it. They will spend the time with you when it is your turn to see the “boss”. Be Patient. Do not think that you will close the deal on the first meeting, you will not. Be prepared to meet again and present another part of your presentation to your client.

High context culture (China, Japan, the Arab world, France, Russia, Mexico, Brazil and India) will require that good personal relationships are vital to the success of any business endeavor. Communicators within these cultures will assume that others know what they are talking about. There will be “gaps” in the conversation that will need to be filled in by knowledgeable high context listeners. These types of listeners will be able to understand and fill in the missing pieces of the conversation. Conversation depends upon facial expressions, body language, tonal quality of the voice, and eye contact. These types of communicators become bored and impatient with low context communicators who need to have all the details supplied.

Low context cultures (US, Switzerland, Germany, UK, Australia, Netherlands, and Finland) must have complete information. These are cultures that send text messages in complete sentences with no abbreviated messages or short hand e.g. (OMG, LOL etc). These cultures can never have enough detailed information and will argue with each other when they have differing opinions until they come to a decision. They will then move on to the next item on an agenda in a business meeting. A polychronic/high context individual dropped into the middle of a monochronic/low context meeting will perhaps be alarmed at the directness of the questions and bored with the information all at the same time. If the roles were reversed the monochronic/low context individual dropped into the polychronic/high context meeting would probably think that no one was in charge of the meeting and they were all off of their “medication.”

If you have read this far you may be wondering how can these very different cultures work together and communicate about anything? They can and they do. Perhaps you have seen something of your culture in this brief article. Our world is changing rapidly and the cultures of the world are now rubbing shoulders with each other in the marketplace of ideas and commerce. For any business entity to be successful today they must have in place an action plan for cross cultural communication and leadership. Perhaps you think that you will not need to worry about this in your business because you are located in a smaller town or city and you are not going into business in another country or culture. The world has arrived on our doorstep and needs to be embraced; if your company is to survive and thrive in this “brave new world.”

In the little city that I live in (High Point, NC) the population is a little over 106,000 people, two times a year our population goes up another 80,000 people because of the Furniture Market. High Point is an international city and the furniture capital of the world. The flags of many nations fly on the streets of our town year round as a sign of welcome to the world that has come to do business here. Buyers come from across the globe to purchase high end furniture for stores across the world. Polychronic/high context people dealing with monochronic/low context people and business deals worth millions of dollars are negotiated during a 10 day period twice a year and the ability to communicate cross-culturally is paramount to success.


A former United States Marine, Jim Rickard has worked with a major international non-profit organization since 1983. He has earned a BA degree in Criminal Justice Administration, Master of Public Administration and Master of Business Administration. Jim lives with his family in High Point, NC and is currently pursuing a Doctor of Strategic Leadership degree with Regent University, Virginia Beach, VA

Contributor: Jim Rickard

Published here on: 20 Apr 14

Classification: Culture


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