top of page

Why you are not Succeeding in a Foreign Country

I was very surprised and maybe somewhat shocked recently when I was told I should not be offended by something that was said to my husband when I shared to a friend something I had observed. Why was I surprised? Well, I was not offended in any kind of way. Why did the person think I was offended? Because the person thought I had been implying my discontent when I had merely stated what I had observed.

What happened here? This is a simple but typical example of communication problems between direct and indirect cultures. Me, being from Europe simply said what I noticed - nothing more, nothing less (direct communication style). My friend on the other hand, being from an Asian country, thought I had been implying that I did not like what had been said to my husband. This would be considered a typical indirect communication style when you are expected to read between the lines -something that is not always easy for someone from the West.

After being out here in Asia, being married to an Asian and thinking I got the hang of it, I obviously still have not. I continue to make mistakes or assume (definitely the wrong approach!) my in-laws and friends know me by now and know I just mean what I say - nothing more, nothing less.

Verbal communication

So what do we mean when we say some cultures, typically the Western culture is more 'direct' than other cultures, for example Asian cultures? Why are Western countries often considered rude and East Asian countries considered shy? Is this another stereotype or is there something more to it? Let us take a general look at how we can differentiate between cultures and how they communicate.

Direct Communication (or Low-Context Cultures)

When we say that someone is a 'direct' person, it basically means “they mean what they say”. The actual verbal message is the exact meaning of the thought or whatever it is that wants to be communicated. So, for example, if I say “You are fat”, even if it’s not a nice thing to say, it is exactly how I mean it. In direct cultures, we speak our mind and prefer face-to-face communication. This also means that we are not keen on having a third party involved if an issue or a problem arises.

For these reasons, for someone who is not used to this form of communication, it can be perceived as going overboard and being rude. You will find that cultures that are more direct in their approach of conveying thoughts are regarded as a ‘low-context’ culture. This means that you do not need much understanding of the given context to understand what is going on or what a person is saying. Thus, the context is ‘low’. People rely heavily on words to convey meaning in communication.

In the same way, low-context cultures tend to be more emotionally expressive. Emotions can indicate the importance of a matter. People belonging to these cultures believe that showing your emotions and expressing your feelings build trust and credibility.

For that reason, it is no surprise that I am often told that I am such an emotional person and people sometimes do not know how to talk to me here in the Philippines as they may be "afraid" of how I react. Is this a bad thing? No, it is just different as people in Asia (generally and comparatively speaking!) are simply not used to people being expressive with what they really think and displaying their happiness, frustration, discontent so openly. And I have been told by Asian students before that the first time they observed this with Western people they were shocked as they simply did not know how to behave in that situation. It is just different - it does not mean that either style is better or worse.

Indirect Communication (or High-Context Cultures)

A person who is indirect on the other hand, may not verbally say what he or she means but assumes you can understand their meaning from the given context. It is likely they will talk around the actual matter and may use vague and ambiguous language. When it comes to problem solving, they prefer to have a third party involved or will avoid the problem altogether and behave as if everything is alright. Cultures which use this kind of approach to communication are regarded as ‘high-context’ cultures. It is from the given context (body language, situation, phrases) that you must understand what is actually meant. People rely heavily on non-verbal and situational subtle cues in communication.

Now, for the direct communicator this can come across as deceiving as they are not used to this kind of communication style. It can also seem somewhat burdening and frustrating as for many direct communicators they feel they need to talk about the issue, vent and ‘get it out’. This is also a problem as this approach, when applied to a high-context culture, can cause offense, misunderstanding and a break in the relationship.

I think this was also one of the biggest adjustments for me being here in the Philippines. I could not get my head around it, why everything that needed to be discussed or figured out had to go through my husband and why I could not communicate freely with his family or friends; whether it was about how to raise our kids, our plans for the weekend, future plans, food, anything really - it would go through my husband - a third party - to avoid any misunderstanding and thus, avoiding any sort of break in the relationship. And no, this has nothing to do with being submissive (just to make it clear here!) as it would be expected to do it like this the other way round, too. This is something that can be very frustrating for a direct communicator when issues are not being resolved directly and you can't vent. It takes patience and time and even then, you will still make many mistakes! But having said that, what I do like about this indirect approach, is that rather than pointing out the obvious, people would suggest (in such a polite manner, too!) that "maybe this or that is a good idea" and never refer to the negative or what should not be done. And this approach really does help in avoiding arguments or heated debates!

So, in the same way we talked about the display of emotions in low-context cultures, we can say that high-context cultures are emotionally more restrained compared to low-context cultures. The display of emotions is often regarded as being unprofessional (let us not talk about typical Chinese banquets here...). Contrary to direct cultures, it is believed that trust and credibility come when emotions are suppressed, showing you have control over your feelings and thus, the situation. Additionally, people are afraid to hurt someone else’s feelings or cause a break in the relationship with an emotional outburst.

Power Distance

What we must further take into consideration are the ways people address one another in different cultures. For example, in most Western cultures people are more "individual centered" and the verbal communication style does not necessarily depend on a person’s competence (low-context culture).

Whereas in high-context cultures, the verbal way of addressing people is more 'status-oriented' and you would be very careful with what you say. In these cultures there is a greater focus on the person’s role and how you address them. You would find that a more formal approach would be taken as hierarchy is considered as the utmost important.

Funnily enough, it was my Filipino husband who struggled with this issue. After being abroad for half a decade and only hanging out with Western people and having a Western wife (direct communicators), he came back to the Philippines only to notice that he was constantly running into a stone wall with his "new" communication style. Especially in the workplace, he would feel that people would keep their distance and he could not progress in his career - even though he always belonged to the top performers in trainings and tests. They could not deal with his direct approach and him sometimes advising a better approach to problems to his superiors - something we truly appreciate in Western countries.

Why is that? Well, if you check Hofstede's Cultural Indicators, you will see that the Philippines has the highest ranking for power distance among all tested countries - even higher than Japan, China or Korea. So no wonder my husband was running into problems, as his direct communication style is a big no no! Even if he is good in his job and possibly right with what he says, his position in the company is the more important factor here.

So being aware of a culture's "Power Distance" is one thing to keep in mind when addressing a person from a different country. The higher the power distance, the less likely you will challenge, share your thoughts and opinions to those of a higher status – whether within a company, a family or any elders. The lower the power distance, the more likely you will be more 'direct' in your approach in communicating with people.

I vs. We Cultures

Other factors that can explain and demonstrate the difference between low- and high-context cultures is the way people refer to themselves: the difference between “I” and “We”.

In the “I” culture - mainly Western countries (low-context) - individual goals are considered more important and the ties between individuals are, comparatively speaking, more informal and loose. An individual would consider himself as important and in control over his life and environment. In these cultures, people tend to be more task oriented, initiative, and independent.

In the “we” cultures, for example Asian countries (high-context), people would usually identify themselves as a group and have group goals rather than just an individual goal. “We” cultures tend to be more integrated into strong cohesive groups.

This often goes hand in hand with personal space. Most ‘individual’ cultures prefer to have their 'private' space and need more of it compared to group cultures where private space is not considered as important. Here one would rather share everything with family and friends, and live together with in-laws. Privacy is not something that is as vital as in other places.

And oh, the privacy and personal space can be problematic for us people from the West. I remember the first time we had a family reunion with my husband's family. We were invited to a lovely mansion with swimming pool to stay for the night. Of course, I was excited to spend a weekend away with my husband and two children in such a fancy place. However, when I arrived at this wonderful house, I did not realise that the entire family - let's say 40-50 people - would be split up into only two rooms! Two rooms and no space between the beds! Ah, what devastation for me! How could I sleep? How would I able to have my "quiet time" in the bathroom? How would I be able to get my kids to sleep at 7pm when other kids still stay up till midnight!? Haha! Yes, I was shocked that time and could not get over it, but I learnt to adjust and just appreciate the time we spend (so closely!) together as a family. I learnt and improved and had no (or less) issues when we did it again.

There is so much to culture, how we communicate, how we can learn from one another and how we can learn more about ourselves that it simply cannot fit one article. Therefore, stay in touch for further articles coming soon!

How about you? What is your experience? Please share your experiences in the comment box below!

Need help to overcome these obstacles? You don’t know how to overcome differences?

You need more information or training for your company or as an individual? Please check out my cross-cultural lessons including basic cultural etiquette and cultural indicators from different countries!

bottom of page