There were minimum grade point averages established as well as minimum levels of English-language proficiency. In addition, all hires were expected to have at least five years of relevant sales and marketing experience. In all, there were to be eighteen local hires in Thailand. These staffing standards were established at a meeting six months previously at the corporation's Los Angeles headquarters. Present at that meeting were the Vice President for Human Resources, his assistant, and a Thai national hired to run the regional headquarters in Bangkok. The staffing standards were communicated orally and in a formal written set of job descriptions. The Thai national had graduated from a reputable American university, had worked for the corporation in Los Angeles for six years, and spoke English fluently. There appeared to be no problems until profiles of the proposed new hires in Thailand were sent to Los Angeles for confirmation. In short, the American Vice President was not happy.
He was not happy because the minimum standards for screening and hiring new employees in Thailand were ignored. The proposed hires did not graduate from reputable universities; indeed, three were graduates of a police college. More, academic transcripts showed that many of the proposed hires were, at best, mediocre students. There was no evidence of English-language proficiency and the minimum sales experience requirements had similarly been ignored. There were also a surprising number of the same surnames; as it turned out, a number of people from the same families had been proposed as local hires. The Vice President was furious because the Thai employee seemed to have thrown his instructions out the window.
How did this problem arise To be sure, there were explicit oral instructions and there were formal written job descriptions. The problem, as the following cultural research will demonstrate, was in how people from different cultural orientations interpreted these instructions. The American interpreted these instructions as an explicit manifestation of the corporation's minimum standards. The Thai employee interpreted them as idealistic guidelines which had little relevance in the business environment which is characteristic of Bangkok, Thailand. The Thai employee sincerely felt that he was acting in the corporation's bests interests whereas the American saw these proposed hirings as insubordination, or worse. The truth is somewhere in between these two extreme positions.
From a cultural point of view, the distinction between high-context cultures and low-context cultures is a useful framework within which to analyze this type of intercultural communication issue. Most Asian countries, including Thailand, are high context cultures. This means that cultural expectations and demands are treated as superior to individual demands. Written contracts and oral communications are often mere formalities. This contrasts sharply with a country like America, which has been empirically shown to be a very low-context culture. In America, contracts assume an almost holy place in business operations. Written instructions and oral requests from superiors are expected to be followed diligently. In short, the context