High Stakes: the Impact of Cultural Communication Styles on Your Global Quality Programme

There’s an old play on cultural stereotypes which probably predates the Internet:
“In Heaven, the police are British, the cooks are French, and the engineers are German. In Hell, those roles are switched around.”

Most people accept the danger of generalisation at the expense of considering individual behaviour and performance, yet somehow there’s still enough truth in the above statement to raise a smile.

Anyone who works in an international business environment will soon notice differences – some subtle, some more pronounced – in the communication styles favoured by personnel, depending on their location.

These discrepancies can be brought into sharp focus wherever a global campaign or quality programme (e.g. a standardised quality scorecard used in multiple regions) is in place, and can translate into dramatically different outcomes. These differing outputs may then be used by Operations to lead different regional teams in varying directions.

At BPA Quality, we have observed this effect when first conducting contact centre monitoring for international clients. Consequently, we recognise the potential for problems to arise where companies impose a ‘one size fits all’ approach without full consideration of possible issues. In Culture, Tone and Language Considerations in Quality Monitoring, we discussed the general importance of cultural influence in customer service QA. Now we’re going to delve a little deeper.

It’s worth noting that while this article will focus on differing regional communication styles, this is just one strand of a much wider topic; other elements worthy of further discussion include cultural variance in approaches to task completion, conflict resolution, and decision making, to name a few.

It’s also important to stress that none of the styles we will discuss is inherently ‘better’ – simply different. Whilst mindful that the use of such broad-brush terms as ‘Eastern’, ‘Western’, ‘Asian’, or ‘European’ may be problematic in deeper contexts, for a discussion of this length, they are hopefully acceptable.

We’ll explore the huge benefits which understanding high-level cultural difference can bring, and highlight the potential operational risk faced by companies who ignore this type of insight.

Enough disclaimers – let’s begin! A key concept in understanding East/West differences in communication is that of high context vs. low-context cultures.

In his book Beyond Culture, anthropologist Edward Hall proposed that people in high-context cultures (such as Japan, China, Korea, and the Philippines) generally communicate in stark contrast to the ways favoured in low-context cultures, like the United Kingdom, Germany, and the United States.

So what do ‘high-context’ and ‘low-context’ mean in this… well… context?

Hall explains that high-context cultures operate largely by reliance on long-formed relationships, adherence to hierarchy, and subtext. In high-context communication, speakers assume that their implied meaning will be interpreted by the recipient.

High-context speech allows more to ‘go unsaid’ – there is less need for explicit statements when speakers can rely on context: shared social mores and pre-existing, unwritten codes of conduct which can be taken for granted by members of that cultural group.

To help those in low-context cultures who may struggle to understand this concept, family groups are sometimes used as an example of high-context environments. Regardless of cultural background, it’s still easy for most people to picture a big family gathering, such as a dinner – complete with all the ‘in-jokes’, shared history, behavioural rules, and subtext that close family members take for granted. When conversation flows around the table, significant amounts can be left unsaid, because everyone in the group already knows the context.

In high-context cultures, relationships (close connections made over a long period of time) are often considered more important than tasks. This perspective (preserving ‘the relationship’ at all costs and, if necessary, at the expense of ‘the task’) naturally impacts communication, and can lead to speech that low-context customers may denounce as vague or imprecise:

“Within this [high-context] dynamic, the communicator expresses negative feelings or disagreement in an ambiguous manner so that the receiver has flexibility in interpreting the message in a negative or non-negative manner.

“Even though the receiver may accurately interpret the negative feelings based on the context of the message, the relationship is still protected since the negative message was encoded in a way so that others may not be able to interpret the negative connotation of the message.” (Yum, 1988, cited in Park, S.Y, & Kim, B. S. K, 2008).

No wonder, then, that there is an art to this type of high-context, indirect communication – both in the delivery and, equally importantly, in the receiver’s understanding of what is being said.

In high-context interactions, there is onus on the recipient “to be sensitive enough to infer meaning from the communication context in order to negotiate the meaning of the indirect message.” (Gao, 1998).

In high-context environments, decoding meaning from indirect messages is considered a soft skill in its own right. For example:

“Koreans use a communication strategy called Noon-chi, which is the ability to infer the intention, desire, mood state, and attitudes of the other without having these inner states expressed explicitly to them (Kim, Kim, & Kelly, 2006; Lim & Choi, 1996). Japanese have a similar communication strategy called Sasshi, which translates to “guessing what someone means” (Nishida, 1996).

In both Korean and Japanese cultures, the ability to infer meaning is considered a valuable communication skill. Traditional Asian communication norms devalue the openness and expressiveness in communication. In Japanese culture, a person who speaks much is considered “light” and a reticent person is trusted more than a person who is gregarious (Nishida, 1996).

In addition, Chinese people may limit disclosure of personal information, especially within public settings, in fear that their face may be threatened. Ho (1976) defines face as “respectability and/or deference which a person can claim for himself from others, by virtue of the relative position he occupies in his social network and the degree to which he is judged to have functioned adequately in that position as well as acceptably in his general conduct” (p. 883).

Literature suggests that Asian Americans have strong face concerns, and the loss of face may be perceived as a threat to their social integrity as well as a source of shame (Zane & Yeh, 2002).”

So now you know, broadly speaking, what is meant by the term high-context, and how lack of insight in this area may lead to misunderstanding or confusion.

So what is meant by ‘low-context,’ and how is it different?

In contrast to high-context environments, low-context communication is said to rely much less on conceptual messages, with emphasis on direct speech and explicit statements instead.

Interestingly, it appears that low-context cultures have tended towards higher rates of social diversity. The United States is a great example: widely known as a ‘melting pot’ of cultures, coexisting under the wider umbrella of ‘American’.

The lower-context communication style prevalent in the U.S. may reduce ambiguity in conversations between members of a diverse population, where shared social codes can be less ingrained. It follows that ‘plain talking’ is favoured in the States over heavy reliance on nuance and the long-term fostering of relationships seen elsewhere in higher-context cultures.

Whilst in broad terms it’s fair to say that Eastern cultures generally favour higher-context communication styles than some Western counterparts, as with all things in the field of human interpersonal behaviour, there are scales, and there are exceptions. All cultures employ both high- and low-context elements to some degree.

To return to the ‘British make better police than cooks’ stereotype, if we move our focus from cultural groups to the individual agents within that group, we will naturally find a whole range of human behaviours at play, wherever on the planet those people happen to live and work.

Yet even though we recognise that not all agents will adhere to cultural norms to the same degree, it’s still true that trends do exist. Better understanding of prevalent behavioural inclinations in agent populations can bring huge rewards to businesses who leverage that insight.

It can uncover why current approaches may not be working, or working very differently, in various regions. Subsequent modification of training, monitoring and coaching programmes to accommodate for cross-cultural differences can drive greater engagement and achieve better (and more targeted) results.

This in turn can enhance customer outcomes: if we want to coach offshore agents in the AP region to have direct, open, on-brand conversations with our European and U.S. customers, we first need to understand what unspoken barriers may currently be preventing this from happening to its fullest.

Having discussed some of the main differences between high- and low-context communication styles, an interesting and somewhat alarming observation can be made: they are diametrically opposed in certain areas deemed crucial to how we conduct business and – vitally – customer service interactions.

So if the (often unconscious) social ‘rules of engagement’ are different dependent on local context, what other pain points can arise in when teams in one region service customers in another?

In BPA Quality’s experience, some similar patterns emerge:

…And so on. Small wonder, then, that such fundamentally different cultural approaches can exert unintended effects on a whole range of agent behaviours and customer outcomes.

Seek first to understand…

It’s not enough that the agent on the other end of the phone speaks excellent English.

Today’s customers expect so much more: reassurance that the agent understands their issue; empathy, and rapport. Soft skills are notoriously difficult to consistently quantify and get right, but when operations span continents, there is often an additional sense of disconnect.

We know what Western customers value in terms of service, and that “employee behaviours and skills are powerful differentiators of customer service performance,” (UKCSI, 2017). Yet when an agent based in Asia offers silence through respect, or trusts that the client in Texas will interpret a subtly conveyed message, both may be poorly received by the client who does not understand either cultural custom, and educating the customer is not an option.

Furthermore, we know that in stressful situations, it’s often natural for people to revert to cultural norms. Despite our best efforts to produce effective training, when a customer becomes irate (stressful for the agent!) human tendency is arguably to fall back on ingrained cultural formalities.

Let’s try a thought experiment: picture yourself as a call centre agent, confronted by an angry customer. Now ask yourself: which approach might you more readily favour when facing stress – recommendations from a corporate training deck you saw 18 months ago on induction at your foreign multinational company – or the ‘proper’ etiquette you learned from childhood?

Frequently overlooked, these are key insights for anyone tasked with the Quality Monitoring (and subsequent coaching) of agents native to high-context cultures servicing Western clients by phone, webchat, and even email.

We rarely give much – if any – thought to the subtle ways we are bound by the language we speak in, although that’s another topic (and article!) in itself. As mentioned in the preface of this series, drawing cultural lines in this manner (East/West; Asian/European) can feel somewhat uncomfortable.

This is summed up by Malcom Gladwell in his examination of the startling effect of cultural context (high- and low-power distances) in the life-and-death circumstance of plane crashes:

“Why are we so squeamish? Why is the fact that each of us comes from a culture with its own distinctive mix of strengths and weaknesses, tendencies and predispositions, so difficult to acknowledge? Who we are cannot be separated from where we’re from – and when we ignore that fact, planes crash.” – Malcom Gladwell, Outliers, 2008.

So how should we apply our insight into high- and low-context communication in quality monitoring?

What is understood can be leveraged. With the fast pace of AI change and increasing faith in analytics, it is prudent to remember the crucial importance of cultural nuance in customer experience, particularly when OSVs are part of the picture.

Companies who truly value CEX are also those who know there are certain elements of interactions which (so far) even the most expert software cannot effectively analyse. Customers often value precisely the areas of human connection where machines do not excel: empathy, reassurance, and skilled rapport.

Through analysis of individual business needs; identification and deep understanding of contextual cultural differences, we partner with our clients to develop strategies that can bridge those gaps. These insights and targeted recommendations can be applied in training, monitoring; coaching – and even at the company cultural level.

At BPA Quality, each new client brings their own unique business model – and often, an even more unique set of challenges. We are proud to work in over 45 languages, and we understand the diverse ways culture can impact upon Customer Experience on a global scale.

Forward-thinking companies who partner with us can benefit from our insight to differentiate themselves, and potentially win international market share from businesses still relying on a ‘one-size fits all’ approach.

I hope you have enjoyed this article, to discuss any aspect of communication styles in Quality Monitoring, or how to transform QA practices and customer outcomes in your organisation, please get in touch.

Ready to enhance your customer experience, drive improvement and deliver results? Then ask us how we can help.

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