In today’s globalized world, many businesses are striving to manage intercultural teams, multinational subsidiaries, and a plethora of other factions within international corporations. Therefore, understanding of the cultural context from which an employee or customer originates is imperative to the overall success of a business. This has created an extensive increase in demand for intercultural training and understanding, particularly within the area of decision making.
High or Low Context?
The culture in which one lives significantly defines the way in which decisions are made. Therefore, the understanding of cultural context is crucial. Cultures may be of high and low context or reside somewhere in the middle. It is the extent to which communicators look for information in people’s behaviors, roles, or situations, instead of the explicit verbal code (Hall, 1976). Individuals from low context cultures are expected to communicate openly and directly in ways that are consistent with the speakers’ true feelings and intentions (Gudykunst & Ting-Toomey, 1988). Additionally, low context cultures tend to be individualistic in nature (Hall, 1976). The development of extensive networks of people with whom one shares similar backgrounds, expectations, and values is not stressed. Rather, focus is on the progression of one’s own self. The United States is an example of an individualistic, low context culture. Japan, in contrast, is a high context culture. Individuals from high context cultures are skilled at gathering information from their environment; they monitor nonverbal cues and verbal subtleties (Gudykunst & Kim, 1997). This is a culture in which extensive relationship-based networks are highly valued. High context cultures are collective in nature meaning the desire for the common good overrules the desire to benefit self. In summary, low context cultures are controlled by the individual while high context cultures are structured by the group (Lee & Choi, 2005).
Contextual Difference and Decision Making
How do these different cultural contexts influence decision making? Low context, individualistic cultures thrive on options as the concept of self is greatly intertwined with the ability to choose. For example, hiring managers often face the overwhelming tasks of reviewing hundreds of resumes in order to choose a pool of the most qualified applicants. It is these applicants who will be allowed the opportunity for a personal interview. However, it has been suggested that this pool should not exceed 10 candidates. This is because when given over 10 options and then asked to decide, people are no longer able to make beneficial decisions (TEDGlobal, 2012). Perhaps this is why high context cultures view an excess of options as slightly fear-inducing (Cornell University, 2011). Collectivism within the high context cultures allows people to protect one another. Yet, with an extensive amount of options, one is no longer protected as the correct decision is not made for him. If an individual from an Asian culture is offered, for example, an additional member to his already successful team, he will assume it is the correct choice as it is the only choice. He may feel that his supervisors who originally picked the member are looking out for his best interest. Yet, if the same situation were presented to an American worker, he would be offended and wonder why he was not given the right to choose for himself. However, what happens when decision-making is a matter of greater implications? For example, a corporate executive in both the USA (low context) and France (high context) have faced challenging economic times and their mutual companies are closing. The difference is, however, the American CEO made the decision to close while in France, the government was responsible for forcing the closure. The differences in repercussions in situations such as these are astounding. The American executive, having decided to close his company and leave his workers jobless, may be left with intense feelings of guilt, depression, regret, and the sense of “what if.” In contrast, the French executive may have no feelings of remorse because it was the government, not he, who made the ultimate decision.
Path to Success
It is imperative that businesses remain fully cognizant of the way in which people are presented with, and therefore make, decisions. The thought processes behind the decisions of global managers, intercultural teams, and international subsidiaries must be well understood. With an increased level of cultural understanding and competency, businesses will be better able to create a corporate environment of ongoing success.
Cornell University. (2011). Decision Making Across Cultures. Cornell University Network. Retrieved from http://blogs.cornell.edu/info2040/2011/11/07/decision-making-across-cultures/
Gudykunst, W.B., & Ting-Toomey, S. (1988). Culture and Affective Communication. The American Behavioral Scientist, 31(3), 384-400.
Hall, E.T. (1976). Beyond Culture. New York: Doubleday.
Lee, & Choi. (2005). The role of horizontal and vertical individualism and collectivism in online consumers` response toward persuasive communication on the web. Retrieved March 10, 2012, from http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol11/issue1/wnlee.html
TEDGlobal (Producer). (July 2012). Sheena Iyengar on the art of choosing. United States. Retrieved April 12, 2012 from http://www.ted.com/talks/sheena_iyengar_on_the_art_of_choosing.html