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COMMUNICATING WITH ASIAN CUSTOMERS: IT’S A QUESTION OF CONTEXT
by Sudhir H. Kalé, Ph.D.

Cross-cultural communication is without doubt the biggest ordeal for executives in today’s global environment. Dealing effectively with individuals from diverse cultures challenges the deepest core of one’s conditioning. It involves trying to decipher unconscious embedded meanings, the very things we take for granted when communicating intra-culturally. Dean Barnlund, a respected scholar in cross-cultural communications, writes, “Communication … is a mutlichanneled and multidimensional process for handling meanings. Meanings are implicit not only in the words one utters but also in who one speaks to, how they are approached, what one talks about, how one manages time and space, how differences are regarded, and myriad other bits and pieces of behavior. Where there is no consensus on the rules of meaning, communication falters or fails. Intended meanings elicit unintended conclusions.” What provides consensus on the rules of meanings is culture, which one sociologist defines as the collective mental programming of individuals in a society as a result of common background, education, and life experiences. Because culture and communication always work in tandem, a majority of anthropologists and linguists assert, “Culture is communication.” It is difficult to decide “which is the voice and which is the echo.” Understandably, intelligent casino executives are looking for ways with which to improve cross-cultural interaction skills among their troops.

In preparation for one of my training assignments for a large Australian casino, I asked one of their very senior former executives what he considered to be the major issue when it came to customer service and interaction. He dashed off a short e-mail to me that read:

64% of (our) main floor customers are of Asian ethnicity. Of our top 200 customers, 85% would be “Asian.” So a real issue for us is that even though we live in Australia and have predominantly WASP management, we may as well work in a casino overseas with all the communication issues but none of the imperatives for us to assimilate “their” culture. In an overseas environment we would need to have some basic communication skills to survive whereas here we don’t and so we are faced with this huge communication and culture gap with our best customers.

These astute observations hold true for most, if not all, of the casinos in Australia and for a majority of the casinos in other parts of the world as well. Some casino executives have sought to rectify this anomaly by introducing a staff-campaign of “Asia literacy.” Others have resorted to the employment of interpreters or bilingual executives.

My experience with cultural literacy campaigns is that they create more cross-cultural problems than before. This is due to the heavy stereotyping that underlies the content of cultural literacy programs. In his highly readable book, Communicating with Asia, Harry Irwin observes, “Asia literacy is a term widely used in Australia to refer very broadly to knowledge about Asia, Asians, and Asian customs and identities. It is an awkward term because it can mislead to suggest a single Asia, and a single Asian identity, when the reality is that of many different Asian nations and identities.”

The use of interpreters or bilingual executives does not effectively address the cross-cultural communication either. As Hall (1990) observes, cultural communications are far deeper and more complex than spoken or written messages: “The essence of effective cross-cultural communication has more to do releasing the right responses than sending the ‘right’ messages.” This involves a thorough understanding of the complex, unspoken rules of various cultures.

How then does one go about inculcating cross-cultural skills for dealing with the so-called “Asian market?” Unfortunately, there is no one simple solution to this multi-faceted issue. I believe, based on my training and consulting experiences, that some sort of cultural framework is essential for appreciating cross-national differences in culture. After reviewing several cultural typologies available to trainers, I found Edward T. Hall’s (1959) typology to be the most simple, and also reasonably effective. This framework plots various countries along a cultural continuum ranging from high context cultures to low context cultures. Hall (1976) distinguishes high context cultures from low context cultures as:

A high context (HC) communication message is one in which most of the information is already in the person, while very little is in the coded, explicit, transmitted part of the message. A low context (LC) communication is just the opposite; i.e., the mass of the information is vested in the explicit code.

In high context cultures, the meaning of individual behaviors and speech is contingent upon the situation (or context) at hand. Typically, important and intended meanings are expressed through nonverbal communication. Individuals can communicate meaningfully even when no words have been exchanged. And when words are used to interact, it is not these words that convey most of the intended meaning of the message. The receiver of the message “reads between the lines,” so as to grasp the intended meaning of the message in its entirety.

Cultures classified as high context exist where there is a similarity in people’s backgrounds, where a commonness of purpose abides, or where the society is relatively homogeneous. Of all the countries studied by Hall, China ranked at the very top of all high context cultures followed by Korea and Japan. The homogeneity in Japanese society with regard to race, religion, and language explains the very high context culture in Japan. High context cultures dominate in countries where social organization takes the form of extensive networks among family, friends, colleagues, and clients. The close personal relationships formed within these groups make in-depth background information redundant for most normal transactions in daily life.

Low context people include Americans, Germans, Swiss, Scandinavians, and Australians. Here the preferred mode of living is to compartmentalize life: personal relationships, work, and many other aspects of day-to-day life. As opposed to the “implicit” mode of high context cultures, intentions tend to be verbally expressed when communicating in low context cultures. Ideas need to be explicitly justified and opinions openly defended. The situation or “context” does not significantly alter the meaning of words and behaviors. As would be expected, this form of communication is prevalent in societies that are multicultural, where significant diversity exists across people’s value systems and attitudes.

Bearing in mind the perils of generalization, it would be fair to say that high context cultures prevail in most European countries, some Latin American countries (such as Chile, Mexico, and Venezuela), and most of the newly industrializing Asian countries (with India being the notable exception). Countries such as the United States, Australia, and New Zealand, with high immigrant populations, are “low context” in terms of culture. The diagram below indicates the position of several countries on the high/low context continuum.



So if Australia and the United States are low context cultures and most Asian countries tend to be high context, what are the implications for communication between people across the two kinds of cultures? The chart below lists some significant aspects of the communication styles within the two cultures.

CONTRASTING COMMUNICATION STYLES

Traditional Asian High context Cultures
1.

Date Posted: 15-Sep-2001

Sudhir Kalé is Professor of Business Administration and Head of the Marketing Department at Bond University in Gold Coast, Australia. He acts as a trainer and consultant to several industries. A gaming aficionado, Dr. Kalé has studied the casino industry across the globe and conducts marketing-related seminars for gaming executives. His e-mail address is Sudhir_Kale@Bigfoot.com.

 
 
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