Video conferencing should be popular. It’s cheap because participants do not have to travel long distances to meet each other. It’s safe in this post-9/11 world because no air travel to risky countries is involved. But if you talk to anyone in the IT and telecoms industries “off the record”, they will tell you videoconferencing has been a hard and unrewarding sell.
This lack of enthusiasm also mystifies many cross cultural communication experts. They often recommend video conferencing as an effective way to build relations with people living in “high context” cultures.
According to the anthropologist Dr Edward Hall’s studies, people from high context cultures (Japan, China, Korea) prefer communication which rely on non-verbal cues such as body language, silences and voice tone, whereas people from low context cultures (the US and most European countries) prefer communication in which explicit verbal communication is highly valued.
It would seem then that video conferencing is the next best thing to meeting a person face to face, and certainly preferable to e-mail and phone calls, when dealing with “high context” cultures. Yet clients I have talked to have found video conferencing to be uninspiring as a way of communicating with their colleagues in, for example, Japan. There have been long silences and awkwardness.
I believe there are three reasons for this. Firstly, the language used in videoconferencing in such situations is nearly always English. English is a “low context” language, particularly when used by non-native speakers. It requires clarity of “subject, verb, object” whereas languages such as Japanese allow for a lot more vagueness – often missing the subject of the sentence completely, and leaving the verb to the end, allowing the speaker to tail off, change the verb or move from negative to positive, depending on the immediate reactions of the counterpart in the conversation.
Secondly, there are cross cultural differences in decision making and the function of meetings which affect how video conferencing is approached. In Japan decisions are reached outside of formal meetings. A person wanting to make a proposal will talk informally to all possible people affected, then send around a proposal which will be marked as approved by all the different teams concerned. A meeting might then be called, but it will be for rubber stamping purposes, to report back or to draw up action points. In western cultures, especially those cultures who like lively debates before decisions are reached, such as France, a meeting might be seen as the chance to brainstorm or resolve differences. People from low context cultures would think that attending a meeting and not saying anything was a waste of time. Yet Japanese colleagues have said to me that “he who speaks first is a fool” in meetings.
Finally, there is one vital piece of communication that video conferencing cannot enable – “informal contact.” In Asian cultures much of the negotiating and trust building is done outside formal meetings, in pubs, karaoke bars and restaurants. It does not surprise me to hear that when, a few years ago, an American firm installed video conferencing facilities in its Thai subsidiary, believing that this would increase productivity and lower costs, it turned out that the Thai staff would participate in video conferencing for the US headquarter’s benefit but then travel to other locations to have face to face meetings afterwards.
Ultimately there is no magic bullet for communicating between high context and low context cultures using information technology. The only long term solution is to join a frequent fliers’ club, buy airplane support socks in bulk and brush up on some Beatles songs.
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