Culture Tips for Instant Messaging

February 28, 2022

This year the number of instant messaging (IM) users will reach 4.3 billion - a growth largely driven by an increased need for remote communication during the COVID-19 crisis. The benefits of using Teams, Slack and Zoom are well documented. But many of our workshop participants have commented on the impact of cultural differences in their use of, and communication style on, IM.

Culture and communication are closely linked. One cultural dimension referred to a great deal is low- versus high-context communication. Context being the information surrounding a situation or event. The Chinese, Japanese, Arabs, Brazil, people from the Mediterranean are high-context cultures meaning the information needed is in the nature of the situation and relationship held with the sender, not in the explicit communication. These cultural groups typically have intersecting networks, long-term relationships, strong boundaries and maintaining the relationship may be more important than the task. If they seek information, they will turn to their personal network.

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By contrast US, UK, Australia, Swiss, Germans, Scandinavians and other northern Europeans are low context, in other words meaning is found in the words/instruction. These cultural groups tend to have looser networks, shorter-term compartmentalised relationships and the task may come before the relationship.

The impact of these cultural differences can be seen in the use of IM communication. For example, high-context cultures tend to be more group-oriented cultures too. As they relate themselves to strong in-groups, they prefer group discussions and multi-party chat which enables them to make decisions in group settings rather than individually. To create the intimacy of a group network and replicate social cues, facial expressions, vocal tones etc., emojis are also used more widely in their IM communication. This allows them to express their opinions and feelings during communication.

In contrast, low-context cultures tend not to focus on these situational factors. If they seek information to complete a task, they are more likely to refer to published research (reports and databases) rather than their personal contacts. For these people, we recommend they pay close attention to their high-context, group-oriented colleagues. Look for the meanings behind their communication and check regularly for shared understanding. Remember, for many of them, it will be much harder to share their problems online because they want to save face.

One final point to add, whilst we all have emojis on our keyboards and smartphones, the use of emojis varies greatly depending on culture, language and generation. The thumbs-up symbol may be acceptable as a sign of approval in Western culture, but traditionally in Greece and the Middle East it has been interpreted as vulgar and even offensive.

According to business psychology expert Keith Broni, in China, the angel emoji, which in the West can denote innocence or having performed a good deed, is used a sign for death, and may be perceived as threatening.

But perhaps more confusingly, in China the slightly smiling emoji is not really used as a sign of happiness at all. As it is by far the least enthusiastic of the range of positive emojis available, the use of this emoji instead implies distrust, disbelief, or even that someone is humouring you.

So, what does this all mean for multi-cultural teams? The benefits of instant messaging in the workplace are proven for promoting group engagement. But to sustain relationships it is important to continue those vital face-to-face (when permitted) and one-to-one meetings online to ensure team messaging and communication is fully understood by all.

How can Babel support you?  Babel provides training to help global teams communicate effectively with one another, a skill which is vital now more than ever. Our practical courses provide an introduction to culture and why we communicate in the way we do. Together, we interpret different cultures’ business communication preferences, engage in self-reflection of their own style and how it may need to be altered to effectively and respectfully collaborate better with international colleagues and partners.  Click here for a sample course online for our 'International Communication Skills' programme.


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