The Culture Map by Erin Meyer is a great book about how to improve communication between different cultures when you work at a company with a global workforce. Recently I’ve been thinking about how these concepts apply not just at a (geographical) global level, but within the systems of a single organization. What are the norms of how people communicate with each other in meetings, in email, over Slack? What type of confusion/misalignment might happen because of those norms, and how can it be improved?
There’s one dimension the book covers that I think applies particularly well to modern organizations, and that is the difference between high context and low context communication.
High context settings are those where communication relies heavily on implicit understanding. The assumption is that everyone has the same frame of reference, which means a lot is left unsaid, with the belief that everyone “just gets it.”
Low context environments, on the other hand, are those where things are spelled out more clearly. There’s less assumption that everyone has the same background information or knowledge, leading to more explicit communication.
For instance, if you often don’t know what people are talking about in meetings and it makes you feel like you missed something obvious, you might be in a high context environment. Perhaps things move so fast that there’s an assumption that everyone already has all the context of the previous 10 meetings that happened about a topic. It’s natural for this to happen—but it reduces the effectiveness of our work and the health of our relationships.
I’ve been trying to be more deliberate about addressing this issue—at least for myself and the people I work with most closely—by actively going more “low context” in my communication. When something is implied through context, but not explicitly stated, I aim to go out of my way to make it explicit.
The goal is to ensure that no one has to feel like they can’t contribute (or be scared of making the “wrong” contribution) because they weren’t part of every conversation. By making the implicit explicit, we level the playing field. It’s not just about adding clarity to our communications, it’s about fostering an environment where everyone, regardless of their starting point or level in the organization, has the same opportunity to understand and contribute.
By breaking down our messages into clearer, more accessible information, we’re not dumbing down—we’re opening up. We’re building a foundation where everyone can work confidently, equipped with the knowledge they need to contribute meaningfully.
Keep an eye out for opportunities to say the quiet part out loud. To clarify a statement, or state the thing that appears to be said between the lines. It takes work and concentration, but it’s a shift that can make a big difference in how we work and relate to each other.