Assumptions in Communication

Published on 2011-05-31

My first real boss, when I was age 14, taught me a phrase which I try to keep in mind in a variety of situations. He said, “Never assume, as it makes an ‘ass’ out of ‘u’ and ‘me’. When I use this example during a training, it adds a little levity to the proceedings, but also is a nice mnemonic for remembering the dangers of assumptions.
Lots of my training is concerned with communications, both verbal and written. And in cross cultural situations, assumptions can lead to disaster, frustration, inefficiencies, and continual fruitless exchanges to clarify and explain. One of the things we stress in trainings that there are fundamental differences in how people from ‘High Context’ cultures, like China, communicate, as opposed to people from ‘Low Context’ cultures, like many native English speaking countries. In many business situations, you need to modify your ethnocentric assumptions as to what is needed.
I use this anecdote to illustrate this: In 1998, when I first came to China, I needed to go to the US consulate in Shanghai. As the only map I had was in Chinese, and there was no such thing as Google Maps, I asked a local teacher how to find the US consulate. Here is how this conversation went:
“Hi Ms. Liu, do you know where the US consulate is?”
“Sure! It is near the Hilton Hotel.”
“Uh, ok, where is the Hilton Hotel?”
“Oh, it is near the very famous Jing’an Temple.”
“Ms, Liu, I just moved to Shanghai last week, can you give me more specific directions?”
“Of course, the US consulate is on HuaiHai Zhong Lu.”
Clearly there was a mismatch of assumed needs.
High Context cultures consider the whole of the situation, taking into account shared experiences, history, and expectations of norms. Low Context cultures are more specific, less generalized, and try to be more direct in their messages. This can cause a clash of communication cultures. So, when you sometimes want to pull out your hair or scream in frustration, realize that there are multiple assumptions in play and try to find solutions.