Wednesday 17 September 2014


How-Culture-Impacts-Communication-management-masala-v-k-talithayaYou are the second in command of a large petroleum refinery Control Room. You notice on your screen serious leakage of gas in one of the units. An emergency is imminent. How would you communicate to your superior who is in command of the control room about what needs to be done?

The answer to the question is, “it depends on where you come from”.
Let us see why.

High-context as against low-context cultures

The way we communicate is influenced by our cultures to a much greater extent than we believe. The anthropologist, Edward T.Hall, in his 1976 book, Beyond Culture, referred to this phenomenon as high-context as against low-context cultures. According to him in high-context cultures many things are left unsaid, letting the context explain. Words and word choice become very important in high-context communication, since a few words can communicate a complex message very effectively to an in-group, that is, a group in which members are from the same culture. Words and phrases may mean many things, but the listener derives the meaning by its context. Therefore, a message of a high-context culture will communicate less effectively to those outside the cultural group. A humor, for example, may mean different things in high and low-context cultures; it may not be humorous at all in the other group! On the other hand, in a low-context culture, the communicator needs to be much more explicit and the value of a single word is less important. Communication is precise there.

Some of the high-context cultures are: Arab, Chinese, French, Indian, Japanese, Korean, Latin American, Russian, Southern U.S., Turkish etc. Some of the low-context cultures are: Australian, Dutch, German, Scandinavian, Switzerland, United States (excluding the Southern US) etc.

Mitigated speech

Mitigated speech is the term recently popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book The Outliers (Chapter: Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes). It refers to any attempt to downplay or surrogate (or dilute) the meaning of what is being said when one is being polite, deferential to authority, or when one is ashamed or embarrassed. Mitigated speech also has the cultural dimension to it. In certain cultures where superiors are expected to be shown deference mitigation of speech is high.

Communication gap

Let us see how these phenomena affect our communication. Going back to the question we asked in the beginning, there are various possibilities of answers:

a.      “There is a leak in Unit X, we have an emergency. Shut down the unit”. – This is a low-context message, unmitigated speech. The second-in-command talks to his superior as he would to an equal..
b.     “There is a gas leak in unit X. Looks like an emergency. What do we do?” – Deferential to authority. Shifts responsibility to superior. High-context. Means the superior should order shutting down the unit.
c.      “There is a gas leak in Unit X. May be an emergency”.– Imminent emergency is downplayed. Decision on action is not even suggested. Looking for orders from superiors. High-context and highly mitigated.
d.     “There is a gas leak in Unit X.” – Only passes factual information. Neither mention of emergency nor of action. Too contextual and deferential.
In cultures where hierarchical levels are “respected”, there is higher tendency to throw the responsibility to higher levels – a sort of reverse delegation. There is lower assumption of responsibility. The vice versa also is true.
Malcolm Gladwell refers to three more dimensions of high and low-context communication and the extent of mitigation.

a.  Individualism – collectivism: How much an individual is expected to look after himself? Individualism is high in low-context cultures. Where hierarchy is revered there would be less individualism and consequent owning of responsibility to one’s decisions and its consequences will be low. Where individualism is high, ownership of responsibility is high. Communication is clearer.
b.    Uncertainty avoidance: High-context cultures tolerate ambiguity to a much higher degree. These are cultures more reliant on rules, procedures and plans.
c.  Power distance Index: Attitude towards hierarchy, specifically, how much a particular culture values and respects authority. Mitigation is high in cultures where the index is high, particularly in communication by subordinate to superiors.

How-Culture-Impacts-Communication-management-masala-v-k-talithayaWhen people from other cultures are not clear about what you say or if they are surprised at what you said, beware of the high or low-context cultures from where they come. The cost of communication gap may prove to be too dear in our business dealings. Gladwell was not exaggerating the consequences of communication gap arising out of these cultural factors when he gave the examples of three air crashes:

- Korean Air Flt 801 crashes near Guam airport on August 5, 1997 presumably because the communication between the First Officer and the Captain was affected by mitigated speech.

- Columbian Aviana 052. The flight was approaching Kennedy at New York, when it crashed. Here again the cause leading to the crash was mitigated communication between an ‘overbearing’ air traffic controller and a deferential first officer; and between the deferential first officer and the captain.

- The 1982 air Florida crash, outside Washington DC. The first officer told the captain three times in mitigated communication that the plane had dangerous icicles on the wings. By the time he moved from mitigated speech to unmitigated speech it was too late.

By V.K.Talithaya (
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On 9/17/2014


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