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This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at BU chapter.

Navigating a new work culture is so hard, even without the added complexities of remote-only jobs. Dynamics can be so different, affected by personalities, industry norms, and even culture. As we’ve seen DEI (Diversity, Equality, and Inclusion) efforts expand in recent years, cultural literacy is more important than ever. It’s more than just understanding general history or lifestyles— when we champion for increased cultural literacy, we’re usually thinking about food, religions, art, holidays, etc. But there’s so much more involved that doesn’t exactly scream “culture.”

The Harvard Business Review offers a cultural profile quiz with items ranging from salience of hierarchy to feedback preferences. Chief among some of the most important factors of any workplace dynamic is communication. We all know communication is key, and sometimes we get so frustrated by our colleagues or team members’ lack of communication skills— but this could be cultural. 

Communication can be low-context or high-context, with each being more prominent in certain cultures. Individualist countries, like the U.S. and European nations, tend to prefer and exercise low-context communication, characterized by explicit conversations that leave little to infer. High-context communication, common in collectivist countries like those in East Asia and South America, features a lot more implied meanings. 

When we think about communication, we think clear and direct is the gold standard. But is that ethnocentric of us? We tend to think of high-context communication as weak, full of dancing around topics and sugar coating. But in collectivist cultures, where people are more likely to form personal relationships over significant time periods, high-context communication is actually effective. Communication is more intuitive and nuanced, encapsulating other factors like nonverbal cues, tone and inflection, and the existing relationships between conversation participants. 

Part of this may be more linguistic too—China’s most spoken languages (Mandarin, Cantonese, and Wu languages), in addition to Japanese, for instance, are highly tonal languages, where meaning changes depending on tone and pitch. Growing up speaking these languages, even in an individualist society, can affect communication. According to the HBR quiz above, I’m a high-context communicator, which contrasts from typical U.S. Americans but align almost perfectly with China. I was born and raised in the U.S., and I only speak Shanghainese with my parents—all other conversations happen in English— but I still have a strong preference for high-context communication. 

The next time you have a communication-related conflict, you may have to adapt to the other communication style, even if you’re not used to it. This may feel unnatural at first, but will greatly improve communication. As a high-context communicator, I’m used to saying no between the lines, for example, but when that isn’t clear, then I have to be more explicit. I’m not someone who finds it particularly easy to just say “no,” but low-context communicators appreciate the clarity. 

If you’re a low-context communicator trying to adapt to more high-context communication, some of it will come over time. The more time you spend with your colleagues, the more you’ll understand their body language, nonverbal cues, etc. But in the meantime, you can reflect more when you listen (you might have to derive meaning from what’s unspoken) and ask more clarifying questions. 

Bad communication still exists, but it’s so important to understand that good communication varies for everyone depending on their culture or the society they grew up in. A blunt no can be seen simultaneously as harsh and quotidien by different people. Think back to the last time you had trouble communicating with someone—could it have been a low or high-context clash? 

Carina is a senior studying Economics + Psychology at Boston University. She is passionate about marketing, Sally Rooney, and caramel lattes.