Different Styles of Communication
Americans value information. At the core of all communication among Americans is the aim to get information. That’s why we ask a lot of questions. And that’s the point behind idioms like “cut to the chase” and “get to the point”. We believe that inquiries about one’s health and the health of their various family members do not belong in every conversation, and we don’t really care much to engage in small talk beyond generic one-liners that are nothing more than rhetorical questions and statements. Those things are an obligatory tap on a door before we enter. Our real aim is entering the room, i.e., the conversation. We bee-line into a conversation and head straight for the necessary facts. Once we get them, we are done, and the conversations closes with a polite “thanks,” and we are on are way. Other cultures, on the other hand, value relationships and the other person’s feelings above all, so their style of communication is less direct. Arabs fall into this latter category. In the case of Arab speakers, at the core of all communication is the aim to foster a relationship.
As a result of these different communication goals, Americans may accuse Arabs of lying when facts are omitted or altered; the Arab speaker however, truly believes he is being honest and respectful. On the flip side, Arabs may accuse Americans of being insensitive or rude, which is not at all the intention of the American speaker.
This is not to say that Arab speakers do not value information or that American speakers do not value relationships. All humans value both. The difference is in how we value them. And in communication, different cultures simply value one thing more than another in discourse. Although this difference may seem small on the surface, it is really an important underlying cause for major conflicts in cross cultural communications.
The technical terms for these different styles are High and Low context; the American style is low context because we use words to say what we mean. Exactly. Words. There are no assumptions that the listener(s) will have a shared background knowledge and shared hierarchy of values (i.e., context) to decipher a meaning from less direct language. Arabic speakers are high context because they rely on contextual assumptions to imply meaning and these indicators are as important as, or even more important than, the actual words used to convey a message.
I know these things in my brain, and yet I continue to struggle with either a lack of information or incorrect information; I want information to be clear, exact, precise and correct – factually correct, not socially correct. I cannot change this deep-seated American value that directs my communication style.
Cases in point:
When the English teaching staff visited one of our colleagues who had just given birth, one of them said to me that I should not take any gift at all. I believed her, and assumed this was a factual statement regarding Arab culture. Imagine my discomfort then, when we visited the new mother and all the Emirati guests reached into their bags and brought out beautiful envelopes full of cash to give to our host and I had nothing to offer! In hindsight, I realized that the speaker had told me not to bring anything because she didn’t want to inconvenience me or cause me the burden of giving money; her intention was not to hide the truth or set me up for embarrassment. In other words, the context was that as a guest, I was not expected to do the same as the locals, and therefore didn’t need to know what my Emirati colleagues would do. But from my perspective (i.e., my American style of communication that values full factual information over politeness aimed at protecting or fostering a relationship), I felt I’d been given false information regarding the protocol for such an occasion.
The key term here is “need to know”. In a high context communication style, the speaker is given liberty to determine “need to know” for the listener(s).
Before I had surgery, the doctor told me I’d be back to normal after just 3-5 days. Even though everything I read online said the recovery would be 4-6 weeks, I believed my doctor because she is a doctor! I couldn’t imagine that her information was rooted in a desire to make me feel comfortable (i.e., protect me from concern – a high context form of language) that took precedence over telling me the reality of my recovery (i.e., objective facts – a low context form of language). Even the day after surgery when I was being discharged from the hospital, the information from the doctor remained the same: 3-5 days and I would be back to my old self. My pain medication ran out after 8 days so I called the doctor to request a refill and when I told her I was still in pain and terribly uncomfortable, her response was, “You just had major surgery. Of course it will take time to recover. You just need to be patient.” I felt betrayed. Why did she lie to me? My objective mind knows the answer – she was speaking in a high context communication style caring for my mental state because, as the doctor, she knew there was no cause for worry. In her mind, she was telling me enough. She, the speaker, determined what I needed to know. As an American with a low context style of communication, of course, she clearly did not tell me enough.
Although I tell myself that my challenge is how to form my questions so that I get the information I am seeking, the truth is that my real challenge is figuring out how to live in a constant state of vague fogginess and to simply accept my ineptness at high context communication.
I am far from having this mastered. The only consolation for me is in knowing that these different styles of communication are the result of deep cultural values and they have nothing to do with malice on either side.
I believe that by being aware of different styles of communication and considering these differences before judging the character of the speaker is the first step to our wobbling balance on that line between cultures with sensitivity and tolerance.
I hope that one day I will write a post that includes cases in point where I have done this successfully.
The journey continues…