By Ben Yang

How cultural values and assumptions influence international students and newcomers’ career choices and job search behaviour

In his bestselling book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey advocates the habit “Seek first to understand, then be understood.” This is a motivational message that has inspired immigrants to overcome culture and language barriers to integrate into the Canadian workplace. However, when it comes to understanding immigrants, there seems to be a lack of reciprocal awareness for learning other cultural values and behaviours on the part of the host community. Often career practitioners focus their efforts on teaching Canadian norms and expectations.

Culture, the ‘lens’ through which we view the world

As a former international student from China, I remember my uneasy feeling at the “assertiveness training” offered at my university’s career centre. Rationally, I understood that communicating confidently was an important skill for my career success in Canada. But, emotionally, I felt that the assertiveness, promoted in the workshop, came across as impolite and selfish. It contradicts the Eastern virtue of being humble and modest; the cultural value I was brought up. As a result of this internal conflict, my assertiveness act, in the workshop role play, was unconvincing and lacked authenticity. After nearly 30 years living in Canada, putting on an assertive persona is still awkward for me, similar to wearing someone else’s jacket.

Cultural values are instilled in people by a dominate social norm during the formative years. Once they are formed, cultural values are deeply rooted and carry a strong inertia. They profoundly impact on an individual’s attitude and behaviours towards communication, relationships and decision making. Kevin Avruch and Peter W. Black, two scholars at George Mason University in Virginia, define culture as “the ‘lens’ through which we view the world; the ‘logic’ by which we order it; and the ‘grammar’ by which it makes sense.”
In the area of career development, cultural values significantly influence individuals’ approach in finding work and workplace behaviours. What information can be shared or kept private in an interview; how punctuality is understood; how to relate with people in authority; what is considered ethical and unethical at a networking event; to what extent people can negotiate their salary; whether a conversation with a co-worker should be formal or informal; and even what is viewed as formal and informal are all interpreted through a particular cultural “lens”, “logic” and “grammar.”

“High-context culture” vs. “low-context culture”

Since culture is complex, it is impossible for any individual to learn all aspects of one culture, let alone to know everything about many cultures. The “high-context culture” and “low-context culture” framework developed by the American anthropologist Edward Hall in the 1970s provides a valuable tool for career professionals to understand communication styles and cultural values that are different from their own.

According to Hall, high-context cultures rely more on non-verbal and contextual cues to convey a message. The responsibility for comprehension lies mainly with the receiver of the message, who is attuned to subtleties conveyed by markers such as body language, silence, a person’s status, tone of voice, and the presence or absence of significant individuals. People from high-context cultures regard the emotional quality of communication as more important than words. Maintaining social harmony and “saving face” by avoiding open conflicts are paramount for high-context cultures.

Countries in Asia, Africa, Middle East and South America are considered high-context cultures. Indigenous communities in North America also share high-context cultural characteristics.
In contrast to high-context cultures, low-context cultures communicate information in a direct manner that relies mainly on words. There is little or no implied meaning apart from the words that are being said. Cohesiveness is less important and emphasis is placed on persuasion and logical argument. The responsibility for communication lies mainly with the sender of the message to provide clear reasoning and facts. In low-context cultures, evidence is more important than intuition in decision making. Individuality (personal space and privacy) and independence are valued in low-context cultures. Social conformity and behavioural expectations are not emphasized to the same extent as in high-context cultures. Countries such as the US, Canada, Germany and Switzerland are considered low-context cultures.

The impact of cultural differences

Some years ago, I was a part of a group that developed a mentorship program to match Canadian lawyers with internationally trained lawyers. The objective was to help immigrant lawyers to enter the legal field in Canada. A female attorney at a law firm in Toronto volunteered to mentor a female lawyer recently immigrated to Canada from Iran. The mentor was enthusiastic and eager to help but she was very upset when her mentee, the Iranian lawyer, stormed out during their first meeting.

“How did it happen?” I asked the mentor. “I don’t know,” she replied. She explained, “Right after I asked the question ‘Why do you want to stay in Canada?,’ her face changed and she stood up and walked out.” For most Canadians, “Why do you want to stay in Canada?” is a value-neutral question without any implied judgement. From a low-context culture background, the Toronto lawyer was totally surprised to learn that according to the “logic” and “grammar” of a high-context culture, the question was interpreted as a sneaky way of degrading the immigrant’s home country and challenging the legitimacy of the mentee’s intention to immigrate to Canada.

In another interaction, a Chinese student tried to give an expensive watch to a manager of an IT company at a networking event. In China, the concept of “networking” is more than getting to know each other and exchange information. Fancy banquets, gift giving and even passing “red bags” (red envelopes with cash that symbolize good luck) are not uncommon at networking events. However, viewing from the “lens” of the low-context culture employer, the gift giving symbolized an expectation of a favourable hiring decision. In his mind, it was bribery and unethical. What frustrated the manager even more was that when he criticized the student, she kept smiling while she was saying “I’m sorry.” In East Asia, there are many types of smiles that have nothing to do with humour. Certain types of smiles actually express embarrassment, apology and guilt. The non-verbal cue was completely missed in the exchange between the high-context culture student and the low-context culture manager.

Understanding differences for more effective career counselling

There are countless examples where behaviours are considered perfectly “normal” in one culture, but unacceptable and even unthinkable in the other. Sometimes people personalize an unfamiliar intercultural encounter and become suspicious about the other’s integrity and intention. But when people examine the unfamiliar closely, they realize that the parties involved simply conducted themselves using a different “lens”, “logic” and “grammar” without any sinister intent.

Based on Hall’s framework, most of the career strategies such as “assertiveness training” and “self-directed career decision making” are developed according to the “logic” and “grammar” rooted in low-context culture values. Since Canada plans to welcome 280,000 to 305,000 new immigrants in 2016 (2015 Annual Report to Parliament on Immigration) and the majority of them are from high-context cultures – a trend that is forecasted to continue – it is critical for career professionals to gain a deeper understanding of the clients they serve and develop culturally effective and appropriate strategies to assist immigrants to succeed in the Canadian workplace.


Ben Yang came to Canada as an international student from Beijing, China. Currently he serves as the Director, Global Engagement at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, ON. Prior to this, Yang worked at the University of Toronto for 19 years as a Career Counsellor and then as the Director of the International Student Centre. He is a frequent presenter on cross-cultural communication and career development to international students and immigrants in Canada.


Avruch, Kevin and Peter W. Black. 1993. Conflict Resolution in Intercultural Settings: Problems and Prospects, in D. Sandole and H. van der Merwe, eds., Conflict Resolution Theory and Practice Integration and Application. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press. Pp. 133.Hall, Edward. 1976, “Beyond Culture” Anchor Books, A division of Random House. Inc. New York