The quest of mutual understanding

A few days ago, I finished reading The Culture Map by Erin Meyer and, because of it, I gained a deeper understanding about how subtle cultural differences are at times and how important it is to be aware of them to prevent misunderstandings. It made me very curious to discover how my personal profile compared to that of Romania and other countries and so I took Erin Meyer’s test. The results were quite surprising.

Although there are eight dimensions that are measured, I will only refer to the one that has made me reflect the most – the preferred communicating style. According to anthropologist Edward Hall, cited by Erin Meyer in her book, given their language and history, each country developed a particular communicating style, ranging from low-context to high-context. Low-context communication is very explicit and precise and usually what is said is what is meant. High-context communication is implicit and nuanced and what is said relies on a shared context to be interpreted. Of course, there are no absolutes when we are referring to cultures, everything is relative: the predominant communicating style of one country is only so compared to another one. And of course, individual differences within the same country are possible.

Excerpt from my Personal Profile Tool (

As you can see, according to the study, the majority of the Romanian population tends to rely more on high-context communication, on the sous-entendu of what is said. And the fact that I tend towards the low-context side made me ponder for a little bit: was I always there on the scale or is it a result of my life experiences thus far?

I remember the days of the inside jokes within my group of friends and I also remember the shocks they brought to those outside of it. I remember my school days when I was acting as a mediator between my teachers and my colleagues when miscommunications happened and I also recall the pain of not being understood when communicating. As a child, I liked spending time and befriend with many people, from different backgrounds and ages, and I was always fascinated about their choice of vocabulary and the meanings they attributed to the same words I would use.

Somehow, from a very young age, good communication has been for me a place of pain and gain. It is probably why I was so drawn to Communications and Public Relations as my undergraduate studies: somewhere deep inside I had this conviction that misunderstandings do not occur because of bad intentions, but because of the inability to clearly communicate those intentions. Call me a romantic, but I still believe this way.

Unfortunately, while a student, I would soon discover Thomas Kuhn and his theory about scientific revolution and paradigm shift. Why unfortunately? Because for me it was the perfect analogy for how incommensurate we are as human beings and how difficult, if not impossible, true understanding is. The main idea behind Kuhn’s theory is that scientific revolution occurs not by accumulation but through a paradigm shift (by paradigm he understands the consensus of a community of scientists). The new paradigm can neither be measured by the standards of the old one, nor considered better. It is simply different, using different arguments and even solving different problems than the previous one. For this reason, Kuhn refers to paradigms as being incommensurate. It’s like trying to measure the performance of an aircraft engine through the standards of a car engine. It is simply futile. Even if they are both used for transportation purposes, they respond to different needs and building requirements.

Although addressed to the scientific community, Kuhn’s theory made me think about our own mental paradigms. Those unique sets of beliefs informed by our unique background, experiences and interpretation of them. At that point, I realized that the only world that I would ever accurately know is my own and no matter how much I want and try to understand the others, no matter how precisely and clearly they communicate with me, I only have access to an imperfect translation of their worlds. I admit that for a romantic in the search of absolute harmony and understanding (I know, I know…) this realization was depressing. And the more I thought about it, the more accurate the theory felt. I was always astonished by how differently my brother and I remembered and interpreted the same events from our childhood. If that was possible for two people with the same background and upbringing how could I expect it to be different for two complete strangers?

Thankfully, I also learned about interpreting authors’ works through the lenses of their particular historical period and personal lives. That really opened a new understanding for the power of the context and I believe it was the catalyst for a paradigm shift for me. In Romania, the education system is more centered around principles and truths that can be replicated in every situation (see the persuading scale from Erin Meyer’s model) instead of being able to respond to particular ones. We are not trained to debate ideas, we are evaluated for how well we retain them. Yet, most often than not, reality teaches us that the brilliant solutions that stem from a particular context are not always as brilliant in a different one. This is true also for our own reasoning systems.

The reason I mentioned all of these past experiences is because they were some of the stepping stones that have made me develop a more low-context communication. How? By being as specific as I can when communicating my ideas, by sharing pieces of (framing) the context that have led to those ideas, and by asking more questions when others communicate with me to better understand their assumptions.

The need for specificity and questioning assumptions have also been enforced throughout my career, both as a project manager, as well as a trainer. Teaching about best practices in a highly practical field has shaped tremendously my communication style. The success of a training session depends much on how much clarity participants perceive to have gained in the process and how engaged they felt. Being able to share information in a clear and specific manner is one of the most important assets of any teacher. As well as “reading the air” (something that is highly valued in Japan). Teaching is about sharing as much as it is about listening. Listening to the energy of the room and adapting to it is probably one of the most challenging, yet beneficial, factors in every training session. Having to swap between low- and high-context communication for many years is probably the reason why I am not farther to the left on the communicating scale.

In addition to communicating as clearly as possible, one of the most valuable lessons I learned as a project manager was the impact of unverified assumptions. I believe that stakeholder management is one of the most difficult tasks in project management simply because of the many assumptions involved. The higher the number of stakeholders, the higher the number of different assumptions, and therefore, the higher the project risks. Questioning assumptions is not as easy as it seems and there are many times when I still fail at it. Yet I tend to ask for clarifications on the underlying assumptions when I am presented with a different opinion or when I don’t fully understand the other person’s argument.

Communication leads to community, that is, to understanding, intimacy, and mutual valuing.

Rollo may

Clearly, high-context communication has a poetic and romantic nature to it and there are many times when I prefer a good story or a philosophical debate instead of a clear and explicit style of communication. I love watching movies and I love imagining the end of the movie as the story unfolds. But, as rewarding as this exercise might be for my inquisitive mind, I am also aware of its dangers in real life without checking the facts. Given my personal pains regarding miscommunications and misunderstandings I believe I will always strive for low-context communication in delicate or important matters.

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