An Introduction to “Cross-Cultural Challenges” in Global Organizations

Welcome to the first chapter of our “Cross-Cultural Challenges in Global Organizations” blog series. Over the next few months we plan to discuss some of the challenges faced by business people when communicating with colleagues from different cultures, with a particular focus on Japan.  We’d also like to generate some discussion on these issues and would welcome your observations, comments and insights.

Professor Geert Hofstede wrote that  “Culture is more often a source of conflict than of synergy. Cultural differences are a nuisance at best and often a disaster.”

Whilst there is some truth in this, we prefer to look at this area in a more positive light.  Culture can indeed be a cause of conflict or misunderstandings but it can also be a chance for organizational and personal development. New opportunities can arise if we can first understand, adjust to and eventually embrace cultural differences – an international organization that effectively tackles these issues gives itself a significant competitive advantage over rivals. This sounds good in theory, but how can we do this in practice?  Even the first step, “understanding” seems an impossible task given the complexity of human societies.

One approach is to examine specific areas of difference and to consider how they affect interactions in a society.  Edward Hall provided a perfect starting point for this kind of analysis with his “High and Low Context” model in which he categorized countries and their behaviors into distinct contextual groups.

In this model “context” refers to the amount of knowledge required before effective communication can occur. In some cultures a lot of background information is required to communicate effectively but in other cultures the opposite is true.  Hall places Japan among the highest context cultures, whereas some European countries are at the other end of the scale.  This can affect all aspects of our communication and may be one of the reasons why some global business people struggle to adapt to Japan’s business and communication style – and vice versa.

How do these differences affect business relationships?  Of course this varies greatly depending on the countries and individuals concerned, but in general we can observe the following broad tendencies:

High Context Low Context
Relationships are important and take time to build.

How things get done depends on relationships with others and the precedent that has been set (Think about meetings and time management)

Message often delivered nonverbally: (expressions & gestures)

Disagreement is avoided. Issues are often solved without either side “losing face”

Criticising an idea attacks the person who suggested it, and is avoided. “More emotional attachment to ideas.”

Accuracy is valued and how well something can be delivered is important (100% accuracy)

Written and spoken communications try to provide all the background information the receiver or listener needs for an overall understanding of the situation. (Emails, presentations)

Rationale can often be emotionally based (Gut feelings, attachment to ideas)

Relationships can begin and end, based on situations.

Things get done by following procedures, paying attention to agendas, objectives and outcomes (Think about meetings and time management)

Message is delivered by words rather than nonverbal means.

Disagreement is accepted and often seen as an opportunity. “positive-engagement”

Criticising an idea is not personal. Challenging is expected and seen as a way to improve ideas.

Speed is valued and how efficiently something can be done is important. (80/20 rule)

Written and spoken communications focus on the specific points the receiver or listener needs to know to understand the specifici situation, (e,g, executive summary, clear & concise)

Logical rational and discussion is vital (Facts, figures and statistics, less attachement to ideas,)


We feel that this model is a good starting point on the road to cross-cultural understanding.  What do you think? Is the theory sound?  Where does your country fit in Hall’s model? Have you experienced any of the difficulties outlined above? How did you overcome them?  How did your organization deal with them?

We’ll be replying to all comments and questions directly so don’t be shy, share your experiences!