High-Context, Low-context and Constructive Criticism across Cultures

True story: We were brought in to run global team building program for an international team that was struggling with a decreasing amount of trust and cooperation.

In our initial pre-program research we uncovered several internal struggles that were impacting the group’s effectiveness. One of the greatest sources of tension came from two team leaders: one American gentleman (we’ll call Mark) and one German gentleman (we’ll call Wolfgang).

While at first he wasn’t consciously aware of it, during the program, Mark came to realize that he felt resentment toward Wolfgang, because in his mind Wolfgang was purely critical and did not recognize Mark’s hard work.

Wolfgang, it turns out, was a big fan of Mark’s. He thought highly of Mark and his contribution to the team. Wolfgang routinely provided constructive feedback to Mark on joint projects when appropriate. He had no notion that Mark felt a disconnect.

Here is an animated dramatization of their interact:

Constructive Criticism across Cultures

While not as low-context as Germany, the United States is a fairly low-context culture. As a result, an American providing feedback is likely to be straight-forward, but he or she is likely to also attempt to balance negative feedback with positive feedback. If the feedback is only negative, between two Americans, it is likely that the person giving the feedback was extremely disappointed with the effort.

A German, on the other hand, is more likely to go straight to the point and talk about the areas that need focus.  The (subconscious) thinking in the German culture tends to be: Why state the obvious. There is no need to talk about anything beyond the areas that need attention.

Therefore, Mark mistakenly took Wolfgang’s feedback as a condemnation of his work. Wolfgang did not even realize that Mark was offended, in part because the idea of balancing the negative feedback with praise was literally a foreign concept to him and in part because, as a German, Wolfgang was not accustomed to reading into body language or tone. It’s quite possible that Mark’s body language or tone of voice may have revealed his disappointment to another American.

When giving or receiving constructive criticism across cultures, be aware of this potential for misunderstanding, so you don’t get caught in this common pitfall.

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