The contribution of videoconferencing establising trust at a distance is proportional to the way cultures value space. “Proxemics” defines how a person’s use of space is an elaboration of cultural preferences (Hall, 1966). The influence of culture on our special perceptions is frequently outside of our awareness. Just like fish cannot see the water, we cannot see the cultural divide.
Consider the closeness people establish when they are talking to each other. The United States is a “noncontact” culture with bubbles that extend out approximately 18” (45 cm). Even Northern Europeans and Asians flinch at casual touch and avoid voluntarily intruding into someone’s space (crowded trains are not voluntary). On the other hand, Arabic cultures tend to be contact people, and prefer much closer conversation. In fact, there is no equivalent to the word “privacy” in Arabic.
Just like walls that surround conference rooms, Hall contends that people establish an invisible bubble, where if a person invades ones’ personal space instead of being invited, it will incite stress. Now consider what happens when you call someone by desktop video: suddenly you are face to face. This technology is more intrusive than a phone call or standing in the office doorway. You are invited into someone’s personal space.
Scheduling a meeting is one way to avoid “invitation stress”, but that goes contrary to the spontaneity needed for collaboration. Out of respect for others that may feel the call is an intrusion into their personal space, once can send an instant message in advance of dialing, or arrange to meet on a video bridge rather than call the other party directly. The awkwardness of connecting by video diminishes in proportion to the frequency of calls between parties.
We use sense receptors to gauge space between parties. At intimate distance (<18”), vision is limited, verbal communication reduces in volume and body heat, smell and touch become much more relevant. Hall (1966) theorizes that when our bubbles overlap, we are able to tap into emotions and sync to match moods. If Hall is correct, the images we use during a videoconference should reflect the cultural comfort of the parties and the meeting objective. Hence the importance of having a variety of videoconferencing systems that either reinforce intimacy or offer less intrusive collaboration opportunities.
As video becomes pervasive in emerging markets, there is an interesting trend for unobtrusive video connectivity. Analyzing trends in desktop utilization for a global financial services company in 2015, I discovered several Mumbai and London teams making video calls that stayed permanently connected. The application was an outlier and skewed the average call rates. By Western standards, their use was inappropriate, since the calls were constantly consuming network bandwidth even when there was no interaction. I recall asking myself “why couldn’t they simply hang up when they were done with their conversation?” After all, network bandwidth to India is very expensive. Recognizing the difference in cultural utilization of videoconferencing came a few months later, with the roll out of Microsoft Lync across the firm. Teams in Bangalore started asking for “watercooler” installations of videoconferencing (in areas where staff informally congregate) the rather than desktop video or huddle rooms. For the Lync deployments teams in the United States and Great Britain, the concept of walking up to an always-on video session between two offices was a “nice to have” but not a top priority. To the Western mindset, providing everyone an equal experience through video and collaboration software at the desktop should make employees more productive and mitigate the need for informal walk-up installations. The take-away is that the influence of local cultural context of space can prevent senior decision makers from seeing the strategic importance of providing less obtrusive installations that foster collaboration in India and similar low-conflict cultures. Managers in India may be equally unaware of the importance that space has on their team’s ability to collaborate at a distance.
Context determines the preference for a specific type of collaboration experience. According to Hall, some cultures favor indirect, implicit communication (high context) whereas others prefer direct and explicit approach (low context). Much of the video products in use today came from countries that favor low context and are more tolerant to intrusion. Videoconferencing is unique in exchanging non-verbal cues, which means the investment provides significant benefit to higher context countries if engineered to minimize the obtrusive characteristics.
While high and low context is useful in describing the preference of a culture, one can never say a culture is truly "high" or "low" because there is a continuum of interactions in these societies. "High" and "low" context is more useful in understanding particular situations and environments (Beer, 2003), and for determining the appropriate collaboration technology to use. Direct statements and causal explanations are examples of low context messaging whereas in high context, very little of the communication is actually expressed in the verbal message; most of the information is either internalized or expressed in the physical context. While the entire spectrum of remote collaboration technologies can work in low context, videoconferencing is best suited for high context situations.
Utilizing a tool that favors low context, such as audio conferencing or application sharing, does not change high context messaging to low, particularly if high is the society’s preference. In fact, using the wrong technology will result in important information not being conveyed. Similarly, societies that favor low context messaging and related technologies need to appreciate that simple direct messaging may not be easily adopted by cultures that tend to favor complex communication signals and interpersonal relationships. Thus, conflicts will arise when low and high context messaging intersect. This challenge provides an appreciation for using collaboration technologies such as Skype for business that have the ability to adjust to context (text, audio, video) without disconnecting the call. Skype video is less effective in high context situations. The quality of the experience may not be suitable for identifying and resolving cultural conflicts. Special considerations and selecting the proper videoconferencing technology to capitalize on cultural diversity will be discussed in the next post.
Beer, J. E. (2003). Communicating across cultures. Cultures at work. Retrieved from http://www.culture-at-work.com/highlow.html
Hall, E. T. (1966). The Hidden Dimension. Doubleday, Garden City, N.Y. Retrieved from http://monoskop.org/images/6/60/Hall_Edward_T_Beyond_Culture.pd