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How to Avoid Virtual Miscommunication

Keith Ferrazzi
APRIL 12, 2013
Why is miscommunication common in the virtual workplace? Lack of context. And its not just
that e-mails and phone conversations lack a persons visual reaction to what youve said.
Think about the information you can glean just from the seating arrangement in a physical
conference room who sits next to whom, whos at the head of the table, who has put a little
extra distance between herself and her neighbor, and so on. All those cues are missing in a
typical teleconference.
As a result, even the simplest of things can be misinterpreted. For instance, does the use of
an exclamation mark in a text message (I didnt know that!) indicate that the writer is excited,
surprised, or angry? Before sending an important e-mail, ask someone else to read it just to
make sure it wont be misconstrued. Moreover, I strongly advise that virtual communications
use respect, positive affirmations, and gratitude to set the right tone and proper context.
When you have shared context and you exchange information, youll have a shared
understanding, says Karen Sobel-Lojeski, a professor at Stony Brook University.
To achieve that shared understanding, I recommend the following best practices:
Fight the illusion of transparency. We often think that others are more in synch with what
were thinking than they really are. The obvious fix for this illusion is greater empathy. Put
yourself in the position of the other person. Actually visualize that individual in his office as
you send him an e-mail. Since virtual teams might lack the necessary context for empathy,
managers should encourage team members to share information about themselves, perhaps
on an intranet site. Researcher Yael S. Zofi recommends that virtual team members actually
give a video tour of their offices or cubicles to provide a mental image for others when
communicating through e-mail, phone, or texting.
Speak the right language. In the book The 5 Love Languages, author Gary Chapman
describes five different preferences people can have for expressions of love through
affirming words, spending quality time, gifts, acts of service, or physical contact. Similarly, we
all tend to prefer a certain language for communications at work. Some people are more
quantitative (preferring raw numerical data) while others are more visual (favoring pie charts
and bar graphs). For others, storytelling and anecdotes are best. Managers should encourage
teams to express such preferences at the start of a virtual project. In one study team
members shared their Myers-Briggs Type Indicator to provide a feel to co-workers for how
they perceived the world and processed information. Knowing communication style prevents
misinterpreting someones curt e-mail as annoyance or anger if youre aware of his typical
Amplify the signal. We often communicate less information than we think we are, a syndrome
psychologists call signal amplification bias. Virtual teams, lacking contextual cues that the
other person hasnt understood what were trying to say, often hear only too late that I
thought it was obvious that or, I didnt think I needed to spell that out.
How to avoid signal amplification bias? Spell things out! Dont just say, Circle back with me.
Do you want final input to a decision or just want to be informed of the decision after its been
made? For important communications, Yael Zofi advises her executive clients to use more
than one medium. So, for example, if you have a phone conversation about possible delays in
a project, follow up with an e-mail to minimize misunderstandings.
Remember that the medium is (partly) the message. When Marshall McLuhan coined the
phrase, The medium is the message, few could have imagined todays variety of
communications media (e-mail, IM, texting, videoconferencing, online discussion boards,
etc.). The resulting communication issues have multiplied as well.
Heres a classic example. An executive overhears a rumor at a conference and texts that
information to someone on his staff. Later that day, hes baffled to learn that his entire team

has been scrambling all morning to confirm the rumor, which he had merely passed along as
idle industry gossip. The lesson here is that certain media (like texting) imply urgency, so be
mindful and dont let the medium color your message.
Respond promptly (if only to say youll respond later). A persons response time can matter as
much as the medium. In general, people will interpret the promptness of your response to an
email or voice message as an indication of the quality of your relationship. When your reply is
tardy, the other party is left wondering whether you value that relationship or not. Of course,
oftentimes a slow response simply means you were extraordinarily busy. But in a virtual
environment, the limited contextual clues like response time tend to take on greater
Avoid sloppy e-mailing. A new status symbol in todays generally more egalitarian business
environment has arisen: sloppy e-mails. One provocative study found that many executives
have write terse e-mails with half-sentences, bad grammar, and atrocious spelling. The
underlying message is that those individuals are far too busy to be bothered with writing
perfectly polished text. Unfortunately, sloppy e-mails at best require wasting time trying to
decipher them, and at worse cause workplace misunderstandings and costly errors. For
offenders who claim they simply dont have time to write better emails, researcher Jaclyn
Kostner doesnt mince words: I tell them you have to find the time; otherwise, youre not fit for
the job and somebody else should be doing it. Or maybe you need to offload some
responsibilities because theres no excuse for sending people cryptic emails.
Finally, encourage everyone to expect problems. At the start of any virtual project, experts
recommend a meta communication of basic guidelines, such as how quickly people should
respond to e-mails and what media should be used for which purposes (for instance, all team
meetings will take place through videoconferencing). A major component of that document,
according to Pam Brewer, a professor at Appalachian State University, should be a
mechanism for resolving such communication problems as the volume of e-mail becoming
unmanageable. Setting the expectation that there will inevitably be problems makes everyone
much less hesitant to raise an issue. In fact, the team leader could emphasize that point by
adopting the attitude of, If no one has any communication issues, its a sure sign that we
really do have problems.
Keith Ferrazzi is the CEO of Ferrazzi Greenlight, a research-based consulting and training
company, and the author of Whos Got Your Back (Broadway Books, 2009).

Issues in Cross Cultural Teams

Cross-cultural teams can have their fair share of problems once the novelty of interacting with
new people fades. From simple issues like understanding language idioms to more complex
work culture issues, there is scope fot a lot of problems. Global organisations are transferring
people increasingly to other countries which creates cultural diversity within work teams.
Though teams are now an accepted form of planning, strategizing and operation, team based
management techniques are still evolving world over and when you introduce the additional
element of cultural diversity, it throws a whole new spanner in the works!
Potential Problems Areas in Cross Cultural Teams:


A) Communication, Language and Expression

The quality of communication is a key concern in cross cultural teams. Everybody could be
speaking English, but certain forms of slang or colloquialisms may not be clearly understood
leading to misinterpretations. Teamwork is a collective effort and all the players have to fully
understand the direction that the discussion is taking. Misinterpretations can be kept to a
minimum if everybody aims for clarity, otherwise team effectiveness is bound to suffer. To
prevent problems associated with miscommunication, team members have to be encouraged
check with each other for clarity either through paraphrasing or by asking questions.
Paraphrasing basically involves restating a point and then asking - "Is that what you meant?"
Communication problems are particularly significant in cross cultural virtual teams. Here are
an example of two kinds of virtual teams:
The international virtual team that typically interacts across continents and countries, to
collaborate on a common task. This is almost always a cross cultural team.
Virtual teams within the same country or city when a part of the team opts for telecommuting
they use email and other forms of telecommunication technologies to coordinate work.
Both types of teams will work on a project without regular face-to-face interaction, and
therefore have to make their written email communication and telephone conversations as
clear as possible. They also have to develop a work ethic of prompt response to queries, if
this is not forthcoming it can be a little unnerving and there is no chance of you dropping by
the office of your team colleague to discuss the issue.
In the international virtual team with its cross cultural mix of people, it should be expected that
some amount of ambiguity is bound to creep in. Care has to be taken with wordings
especially when there is disagreement on an issue. Even mildly sarcastic comments meant as
a joke can be misinterpreted by a team member in another country and cause a conflict.
Information gaps are another problem area for the virtual cross cultural team. Everybody has
to be on the same wave length as far as information and data goes. These teams can greatly
benefit from Groupware software, a relatively recent concept in networking using multi-user
technology. This kind of software allows access to a shared database, provides email
services, allows sharing of work files, allows online chats, scheduling, and tracking of joint
projects. Companies are paying a lot of attention to the use of the right technology to make
communication and collaboration among virtual teams effective. For instance, at 'Cisco' their
collaboration technologies are enabling their teams to share resources, information, and
talent regardless of time or location. A case study at portrays how
Microsoft developed tools for their virtual teams in order to address collaboration
requirements across disparate locations and cultures
The other issue with international virtual teams is decision making. Decision making is a team
activity and given the time zone differences, the team has to find a mutually agreeable time
band for direct communication through conference calls or video conferencing. If there is a
great deal of divergence and disagreement on the right course of action to be adopted, then a
stalemate may be reached. The team may need to follow up with lots of explanatory emails
and calls before they reach a consensus.
B) Work Style
Work styles and approaches may also vary when a team has a cross-cultural mix of
individuals. Some work cultures foster individual thinking and offer rewards for individual
contributions like the Americans for instance. In some work cultures people are
uncomfortable with independence on the job and prefer to be tied to the apron strings of the
boss in decision making! When your team has a mix of styles, the individualistic team
members may prove to be aggressive team players while the not-so-individualistic ones may

merge into the team and outwardly seem to contribute very little to the team process. It is
important to draw out and get the best out of all the team members despite the differences in
personality types.
C) Dominating Influences
There are concerns that a section of the team that has a certain cultural similarity or
homogeneity may attempt to dominate the team process and overrule the rest of the team.
The dominant group within the team may try to swing decisions towards a direction that they
are comfortable with. This can create a frustrating environment for the rest of the team.
D) Motivators and Expectations From the Job
Motivators are basically the factors that indicate the things that make a person tick in a
business and team environment. Team leaders who handle cross-cultural teams usually find
that the factors that motivate each team member vary. The motivators for working
professionals can range from tangible rewards such as monetary increments, incentives and
career progression, to intangibles such as job satisfaction, praise and encouragement or
recognition from top management. It is essential to make the effort to gauge individual
motivators in order to encourage and motivate each team member to excel at their roles. In
the absence of the right stimulus, the individuals may lack the enthusiasm and drive
necessary to perform their role within the team
Making it Work
Cross cultural teamwork is going to increase as businesses expand on a more global
scalemeaning that people from diverse backgrounds interact on a regular basis as a team.
Many large corporations have clients with whom they work across multiple countries and
these clients look for integrated global solutions. In such a scenario the cross cultural team
has a definite advantage in being able to understand the needs of their clients better.
The key to making the multi-cultural team work well, is focusing on the objectives of the team.
The objective is the main output that a cross cultural team can potentially deliver. Team output
is usually better when there is diversity of experience among the team players. This applies to
any team output, whether or not multi-cultural. The chances of drawing out innovative thinking
gets amplified when there is diversity. This is the factor that works in favour of cross cultural
teams. The general consensus among experts is that the multi-cultural experiences that
individual team members bring to the discussion tends to lead to superior creative solutions.
The problems and conflicts are certainly going to be there just as one would have conflicts
and problems within teams who belong to the same market. Pre-emptive measures in areas
like communication, information sharing, motivation drivers, and group dynamics are called
for to assist in the cross cultural team process. The goal should be to try and build on the
strengths of such cross cultural teams, minimize conflicts, and diffuse the occasional
miscommunication that diversity creates.

Instructor: Jennifer Lombardo

Cross-cultural communication is imperative for companies that have a diverse workforce and
participate in the global economy. It is important for employees to understand the factors that
are part of an effective, diverse workforce.
Cross-Cultural Communication
Cross-cultural communication has become strategically important to companies due to the
growth of global business, technology and the Internet. Understanding cross-cultural
communication is important for any company that has a diverse workforce or plans on
conducting global business. This type of communication involves an understanding of how
people from different cultures speak, communicate and perceive the world around them.
Cross-cultural communication in an organization deals with understanding different business
customs, beliefs and communication strategies. Language differences, high-context vs. lowcontext cultures, nonverbal differences and power distance are major factors that can affect
cross-cultural communication.
Let's take a look at how cross-cultural differences can cause potential issues within an
organization. Jack is a manager at a New Mexico-based retail conglomerate. He has flown to
Japan to discuss a potential partnership with a local Japanese company. His business
contact, Yamato, is his counterpart within the Japanese company. Jack has never been to
Japan before, and he's not familiar with their cultural norms. Let's look at some of the ways
that a lack of cultural understanding can create a barrier for business success by examining
how Jack handles his meeting with Yamato.
High- vs. Low-Context Culture
The concept of high- and low-context culture relates to how an employee's thoughts, opinions,
feelings and upbringing affect how they act within a given culture. North America and Western
Europe are generally considered to have low-context cultures. This means that businesses in
these places have direct, individualistic employees who tend to base decisions on facts. This
type of businessperson wants specifics noted in contracts and may have issues with trust.
High-context cultures are the opposite in that trust is the most important part of business
dealings. There are areas in the Middle East, Asia and Africa that can be considered high
context. Organizations that have high-context cultures are collectivist and focus on
interpersonal relationships. Individuals from high-context cultures might be interested in
getting to know the person they are conducting business with in order to get a gut feeling on
decision making. They may also be more concerned about business teams and group
success rather than individual achievement.
Jack and Yamato ran into some difficulties during their business negotiations. Jack spoke
quickly and profusely because he wanted to seal the deal as soon as possible. However,
Yamato wanted to get to know Jack, and he felt that Jack spoke too much. Yamato also felt
that Jack was only concerned with completing the deal for his own self-interest and was not
concerned with the overall good of the company. Jack's nonverbal cues did not help the
negotiations either.
Nonverbal Differences
Gestures and eye contact are two areas of nonverbal communication that are utilized
differently across cultures. Companies must train employees in the correct way to handle
nonverbal communication as to not offend other cultures. For example, American workers
tend to wave their hand and use a finger to point when giving nonverbal direction. Extreme
gesturing is considered rude in some cultures. While pointing may be considered appropriate
in some contexts in the United States, Yamato would never use a finger to point towards
another person because that gesture is considered rude in Japan. Instead, he might gesture
with an open hand, with his palm facing up, toward the person.
Eye contact is another form of nonverbal communication. In the U.S., eye contact is a good
thing and is seen as a reflection of honesty and straightforwardness. However, in some Asian
and Middle Eastern cultures, prolonged eye contact can be seen as rude or aggressive in
many situations. Women may need to avoid it altogether because lingering eye contact can
be viewed as a sign of sexual interest. During their meeting, Jack felt that Yamato was not
listening to his talking points because Yamato was not looking Jack in the eyes. However,
Yamato did not want Jack to think he was rude, so he avoided looking directly into Jack's
eyes during his speech.
Language Differences
The biggest issue dealing with cross-cultural communication is the difficulty created by
language barriers. For example, Jack does not speak Japanese, so he is concerned with his

ability to communicate effectively with Yamato. There are some strategies that Jack can use
to help establish a rapport with Yamato. Jack can explain himself without words by using
emotions, facial expressions and other nonverbal cues. He can also use drawings and ask for
an interpreter.
Additionally, companies that have to deal with cross-cultural communication can hire
employees with proficiency in other languages. Fortunately for Jack and Yamato, they both
had excellent translators who communicated their words. The next cross-cultural issue
regards how individuals deal with power distance.
Power Distance
Power distance relates to how power is distributed within an organization. Typically, American
companies utilize a low power distance and have more informal hierarchies that allow for
interaction between executives and their subordinates. Managers ask for feedback from
employees and will even socialize with subordinates. Companies with high power distance
are typically very hierarchical in nature and have severe differences in authority. Some
Japanese companies may utilize this power structure.

Cross-Cultural/International Communication
Related Terms: Alien Employees; Communication Systems; Globalization
Business is not conducted in an identical fashion from culture to culture. Consequently,
business relations are enhanced when managerial, sales, and technical personnel are trained
to be aware of areas likely to create communication difficulties and conflict across cultures.
Similarly, international communication is strengthened when businesspeople can anticipate
areas of commonality. Finally, business in general is enhanced when people from different
cultures find new approaches to old problems, creating solutions by combining cultural
perspectives and learning to see issues from the viewpoint of others.
Problems in business communication conducted across cultures often arise when participants
from one culture are unable to understand culturally determined differences in communication
practices, traditions, and thought processing. At the most fundamental level, problems may
occur when one or more of the people involved clings to an ethnocentric view of how to
conduct business. Ethnocentrism is the belief that one's own cultural group is somehow
innately superior to others.
It is easy to say that ethnocentrism only affects the bigoted or those ignorant of other cultures,
and so is unlikely to be a major factor in one's own business communication. Yet difficulties
due to a misunderstanding of elements in cross-cultural communication may affect even
enlightened people. Ethnocentrism is deceptive precisely because members of any culture
perceive their own behavior as logical, since that behavior works for them. People tend to
accept the values of the culture around them as absolute values. Since each culture has its
own set of values, often quite divergent from those values held in other cultures, the concept
of proper and improper, foolish and wise, and even right and wrong become blurred. In
international business, questions arise regarding what is proper by which culture's values,
what is wise by which culture's view of the world, and what is right by whose standards.
Since no one individual is likely to recognize the subtle forms of ethnocentrism that shape
who he or she is, international business practitioners must be especially careful in conducting
business communication across cultures. It is necessary to try to rise above culturally imbued
ways of viewing the world. To do this, one needs to understand how the perception of a given
message changes depending on the culturally determined viewpoint of those communicating.
The communication process in international business settings is filtered through a range of
variables, each of which can color perceptions on the part of both parties. These include
language, environment, technology, social organization, social history and mores,
conceptions of authority, and nonverbal communication behavior.
By assessing in advance the roles these variables play in business communication, one can
improve one's ability to convey messages and conduct business with individuals in a wide
range of cultures.
Among the most often cited barriers to conflict-free cross-cultural business communication is
the use of different languages. It is difficult to underestimate the importance that an
understanding of linguistic differences plays in international business communication. Given
this reality, business consultants counsel clients to take the necessary steps to enlist the
services of a good translator. Language failures between cultures typically fall into three
categories: 1) gross translation problems; 2) subtle distinctions from language to language;
and 3) culturally-based variations among speakers of the same language.
Gross translation errors, though frequent, may be less likely to cause conflict between parties
than other language difficulties for two reasons. Indeed, the nonsensical nature of many gross
translation errors often raise warning flags that are hard to miss. The parties can then
backtrack and revisit the communication area that prompted the error. Even if they are easily
detected in most cases, however, gross translation errors waste time and wear on the
patience of the parties involved. Additionally, for some, such errors imply a form of disrespect
for the party into whose language the message is translated.
The subtle shadings that are often crucial to business negotiations are also weakened when
the parties do not share a similar control of the same language. Indeed, misunderstandings
may arise because of dialectical differences within the same language. When other parties

with full control over the language with whom the nonnative speaker communicates assume
that knowledge of this distinction exists, conflict deriving from misunderstanding is likely.
Attitudes toward accents and dialects also create barriers in international business
communication. The view that a particular accent suggests loyalty or familiarity to a nation or
region is widespread in many languages. The use of Parisian French in Quebec, of Mexican
Spanish in Spain, or subcontinental Indian English in the United States are all noticeable, and
may suggest a lack of familiarity, even if the user is fluent. More importantly, regional ties or
tensions in such nations as Italy, France, or Germany among others can be suggested by the
dialect a native speaker uses.
Finally, national prejudices and class distinctions are often reinforced through sociolinguistics
the social patterning of language. For example, due to regional prejudice and racism certain
accents in the United States associated with urban areas, rural regions, or minorities may
reinforce negative stereotypes in areas like business ability, education level, or intelligence.
Similarly, some cultures use sociolinguistics to differentiate one economic class from another.
Thus, in England, distinct accents are associated with the aristocracy and the middle and
lower classes. These distinctions are often unknown by foreigners.
Environment and Technology
The ways in which people use the resources available to them may vary considerably from
culture to culture. Culturally-ingrained biases regarding the natural and technological
environment can create communication barriers.
Many environmental factors can have a heavy influence on the development and character of
cultures. Indeed, climate, topography, population size and density, and the relative availability
of natural resources all contribute to the history and current conditions of individual nations or
regions. After all, notions of transportation and logistics, settlement, and territorial organization
are affected by topography and climate. For example, a mountainous country with an
abundance of natural waterways will almost certainly develop different dominant modes of
transportation than a dry, land-locked region marked by relatively flat terrain. Whereas the first
nation would undoubtedly develop shipping-oriented transportation methods, the latter would
concentrate on roadways, railroads, and other surface-oriented options.
Population size and density and the availability of natural resources influence each nation's
view toward export or domestic markets as well. Nations with large domestic markets and
plentiful natural resources, for example, are likely to view some industries quite differently
than regions that have only one (or none) of those characteristics.
Some businesspeople fail to modify their cross-cultural communications to accommodate
environmental differences because of inflexibility toward culturally learned views of
technology. Indeed, cultures have widely divergent views of technology and its role in the
world. In control cultures, such as those in much of Europe and North America, technology is
customarily viewed as an innately positive means for controlling the environment. In
subjugation cultures, such as those of central Africa and southwestern Asia, the existing
environment is viewed as innately positive, and technology is viewed with some skepticism. In
harmonization cultures, such as those common in many Native American cultures and some
East Asian nations, a balance is attempted between the use of technology and the existing
environment. In these cultures, neither technology nor the environment are innately good and
members of such cultures see themselves as part of the environment in which they live, being
neither subject to it nor master of it. Of course, it is dangerous to over-generalize about the
guiding philosophies of societies as well. For example, while the United States may
historically be viewed as a control culture that holds that technology is a positive that
improves society, there are certainly a sizable number of voices within that culture that do not
subscribe to that point of view.
Social Organization and History
Social organization, as it affects the workplace, is often culturally determined. One must take
care not to assume that the view held in one's own culture is universal on such issues as
nepotism and kinship ties, educational values, class structure and social mobility, job status
and economic stratification, religious ties, political affiliation, gender differences, racism and
other prejudices, attitudes toward work, and recreational or work institutions.
All of these areas have far-reaching implications for business practice. Choosing employees
based on rsums, for example, is considered a primary means of selection in the United
States, Canada, and much of northern Europeall nations with comparatively weak concepts
of familial relationships and kinship ties. In these cultures, nepotism is seen as subjective and
likely to protect less qualified workers through familial intervention. By contrast, it would seem

anywhere from mildly to highly inappropriate to suggest to members of many Arabic, central
African, Latin American, or southern European cultures to skip over hiring relatives to hire a
stranger. For people in these cultures, nepotism both fulfills personal obligations and ensures
a predictable level of trust and accountability. The fact that a stranger appears to be better
qualified based on a superior rsums and a relatively brief interview would not necessarily
affect that belief. Similarly, the nature of praise and employee motivation can be socially
determined, for different cultures have settled upon a wide array of employee reward
systems, each of which reflect the social histories and values of those cultures.
Finally, it is often difficult to rid business communication of a judgmental bias when social
organization varies markedly. For example, those from the United States may find it difficult to
remain neutral on cultural class structures that do not reflect American values of equality. For
instance, the socially determined inferior role of women in much of the Islamic world, or of
lower castes in Indiato name just twomay puzzle or anger Western citizens.
Nevertheless, if the Western business-person cannot eliminate the attendant condemnation
from his or her business communication, then he or she cannot expect to function effectively
in that society. An individual may personally believe that a country's social system is inefficient
or incorrect. Nevertheless, in the way that individual conducts business on a daily basis, it is
necessary to work within the restraints of that culture to succeed. One may choose not to do
business with people from such a culture, but one cannot easily impose one's own values on
them and expect to succeed in the business arena.
Conceptions of Authority
Different cultures often view the distribution of authority in their society differently. Views of
authority in a given society affect communication in the business environment significantly,
since they shape the view of how a message will be received based on the relative status or
rank of the message's sender to its receiver. In other words, conceptions of authority influence
the forms that managerial and other business communications take. In working with cultures
such as Israel and Sweden, which have a relatively decentralized authority conception or
small "power distance," one might anticipate greater acceptance of a participative
communication management model than in cultures such as France and Belgium, which
generally make less use of participative management models, relying instead on authoritybased decision making.
Nonverbal Communication
Among the most markedly varying dimensions of intercultural communication is nonverbal
behavior. Knowledge of a culture conveyed through what a person says represents only a
portion of what that person has communicated. Indeed, body language, clothing choices, eye
contact, touching behavior, and conceptions of personal space all communicate information,
no matter what the culture. A prudent business person will take the time to learn what the
prevailing attitudes are in such areas before conducting businesses in an unfamiliar culture
(or with a representative of that culture).
As business has turned more and more to an integrated world market to meet its needs, the
difficulties of communicating at a global level have become increasingly widespread. Lack of
understanding deriving from ethnocentrism or ignorance of culturally based assumptions
erroneously believed to be universal can readily escalate to unproductive conflict among
people of differing cultural orientation. This may occur on the domestic front as well. With the
increasing numbers of immigrants to the U.S. our "melting pot" society leads to cultural
diversity in the workplace. In combination with a growing emphasis on global markets and an
interdependent and internationalized economy, the need for dealing with intercultural
differences and cross-cultural communication barriers has grown.
Small business owners and representatives face a sometimes dizzying array of
communication considerations when they decide to move into the international arena, but
most issues can be satisfactorily addressed by 1) respectfulness toward all people you meet;
2) thinking before speaking; and 3) research on current business etiquette, cultural and
customer sensitivities, current events, and relevant history.
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