It could be the biggest problem with communication: our belief that we are being understood as we mean it.
It’s a belief that can be tricky when it comes to the content that is being shared as well as its intention.
When sharing information we are constantly selecting how much of it is needed to make it understandable. It is the question “how much context is needed?”. And it is a question every culture handles differently. Edward Hall, an anthropologist, described this with the concept of high- and low-context. Some cultures assume that there is a high knowledge of the context and will thus avoid sharing too many details without being asked. They will also assume that others will be sensitive enough to avoid asking too many questions. In a low context culture, it will be the opposite, maybe not in the amount of data, but in the way, things are shared in an explicit and specific manner.
The concept helps to see, that there a possible gap in knowledge between both and a difference in how much explanation is needed to understand the meaning of what is being said.
It leads to the question: “if you knew what the other knows and if you saw what the other sees, how would you change what you are sharing?”
Our communication intends to create a change. One that can go from having an impact to allowing for the intended emotional reaction. There is no change without emotional reaction.
An interesting scale to watch out for here has been developed by Erin Meyer. She analyzed how different cultures address negative feedback. It is a scale describing how direct or indirect the communication has to be, to be understood as it is meant. There are cultures in which constructive feedback has to be almost blunt. In other countries, it needs to be packed and almost hidden within appraisal. A somewhat famous Dutch and British translation guide helps to see how vast the misunderstandings may be even between cultures having a lot of common ground. Having different ways to express opinions and values also means that what is being said will not always be understood as meant.
Comparing the negative feedback scale with the context scale, an interesting nuance appears. Low-context communication may sound like being direct communication, but it isn’t. It is more subtle than that. Countries like the US or the UK favor low-context communication but when it comes to negative feedback the expected approach is indirect. In contrast to this, a country like France that favors a high-context approach will deliver any negative feedback in a clear and direct way. But not all countries switch. Germany and The Netherlands for example will always favor a direct approach. They’ll use low context communication as well as direct negative feedback.
It leads to the question: “How much of an understatement is needed to be polite? How much guidance is needed to establish a sense of care?”