By Talaera Talks on Oct 11, 2022 11:09:17 AM
Not understanding the differences between high- and low-context cultures can lead to serious misunderstandings at work. In this post, you will learn the different communication styles between high-context and low-context cultures and you will get some (super) easy to apply strategies to make sure collaboration across cultures is smooth as silk.
How does culture affect communication?
Cultural diversity paves the way to better problem-solving, increased creativity, and improved innovation. However, if cultural and language barriers are not handled properly, it can be a source of inefficiency, frustration, confusion, and stress at work. Language barrier
We all have a set of cultural norms engrained and, when people from other cultures don’t behave according to them, we tend to fall into the traps of stereotyping or fundamental attribution error. Our brains tend to find it easier to use cultural stereotypes to make sense of the world around us. However, when we don’t make an effort to understand how culture plays a role in how they communicate and collaborate, we may be missing out on all the benefits of working across cultures (and, what’s worse, suffering all its potential drawbacks).
The first step is to build up your Cultural Intelligence (CQ). What you consider “common sense” or best practices in business is not universal. Other cultures may perceive them differently or express them with subtle (or obvious) differences. What works for a group of people may not work for a group from a different culture. For example, in some Asian countries, great communication is indirect, implicit, subtle, layered, and nuanced. Some Western cultures, on the contrary, consider good communication to be straight-forward, concise, explicit, simple, and clear.
If you aim to be successful working across cultures, you need to embrace the differences, be open minded, and stay willing to learn about different communication styles and adapt your own to the situation.
Important reminder! Culture is dynamic, not static. It is updated in real-time and depends on multiple factors. Also remember that every individual within a culture is unique and may not conform to the general characteristics of that culture. That means that learning about communication patterns in different cultures can be extremely helpful, but you shouldn’t expect everyone in that culture to communicate in that particular way.
Lastly, although cultures differ from one another, no culture or cultural characteristic is better or worse than any other. Different just means different, not better or worse.
Why should you learn about high-context and low-context cultures?
If you work in a multicultural environment, you need to be able to identify and understand both high-context and low context cultures. And not only that, you need to be able to adapt your communication style based on the person you are interacting with. But what are the benefits of understanding the characteristics and differences between high-context and low-context cultures?
1 - Stay away from embarrassing or offensive mistakes
Have you ever heard of the word KY? We certainly hope you are never called that! It is a term used in Japan to describe a person that is speaking loudly in an otherwise silent environment or talking to a client who lost interest a while ago. This pejorative Japanese slang term stands for “kuuki ga yomenai” and literally means “unable to read the air”.
You want to be able to “read the air” or understand the context and underlying meanings o avoid making embarrassing or offensive mistakes. For example, asking a person to directly give you a Yes/No answer may be understood as putting someone on the spot, or forcing them to make a decision when they may not be able to.
2 - Avoid misunderstandings
What is considered good business or common sense differs greatly from one country to another. Find out what is considered appropriate in different situations and adapt accordingly. For example, during meetings, high-context cultures (such as Indonesia) may not sum up the key takeaways or follow up with an email clarifying next steps. However, in low-context cultures (like the U.S.) a summary with the key takeaways and nailing things down is expected after a meeting, as this avoids confusion and sets clear expectations. If you are from the United States and you just had a meeting from a person from Indonesia, don’t be surprised if you don’t always get a follow-up email afterward.
3 - Build stronger relationships (personal and professional)
Understanding how others communicate and how they appreciate to receive information can be a game changer. Ask yourself, will a somebody from Japan appreciate your attempts to get right to the point in one of your first meetings together? Will a potential client from Germany get bored if you keep talking around a subject instead of addressing it directly? And always find out about the person as an individual. Stereotypes and communication patterns exist and can help us make sense of the world, but looking at individuals for what they are is a step you should never skip.
4 - Boost your marketing effectiveness
Adapting your messaging to cater to high and low context audiences can just simply make you ore persuasive. It can help you create a more effective pitch. Advertising and website design in high-context cultures tend to use more colors, music, and visuals to provide more context. They also tend to have more detailed and advanced designs. Low-context ads and websites, on the contrary, tend to focus more on verbal information and linear processes.
High Context vs. Low Context Cultures
When we talk about high context vs low context, it is important to remember that all cultures contain aspects of both. They are not isolated, fixed labels but general, dynamic communication patterns. We’ll first look at some examples where there is some sort of misunderstanding due to the differences between high and low context and then we will dive into the specific characteristics of both.
Low and high context culture examples
Take this conversation between Pablo Díaz is a Spanish executive and is discussing with and Mr. Chen, a Chinese employee, about working on Sunday. This example was taken from The Culture Map by Erin Meyer.
- Mr. Díaz: It looks like some of us are going to have to be here on Sunday to host the client visit.
- Mr. Chen: I see.
- Mr. Díaz: Can you join us on Sunday?
- Mr. Chen: Yes, I think so.
- Mr. Díaz: That would be a great help.
- Mr. Chen: Yes, Sunday is an important day.
- Mr. Díaz: In what way?
- Mr. Chen: It’s my daughter’s birthday.
- Mr. Díaz: How nice. I hope you all enjoy it.
- Mr. Chen: Thank you. I appreciate your understanding.
Now look at this other conversation between Mr. Hutchinson (Head of IT, from the US) and Mr. Wong (lead computer programmer, born and raised in Malaysia). This example 3 was taken from the Cultural Component (Sagepub).
- Mr. Hutchinson: The program looks good and passed the test run with only minor errors. When do you think you can put it into production? I don’t see any production schedule here. The changes need to go into the system by the end of the month. Is that possible? When do you want to go with this?
- Mr. Wong: Maybe I should review the requirements.
- Mr. Hutchinson: The errors were minor. Quality Control needs to know when it will go into production. Let’s set the production date now. Just tell me when you’ll fix the errors. I’ll tell QC.
- Mr. Wong: Perhaps I can e-mail you an estimate. I’ll talk to the team.
- Mr. Hutchinson: Couldn’t you just tell me when you’ll have them fixed? Here, it’s no big deal. (Hands Mr. Wong the program) Don’t they seem like easy fixes?
- Mr. Wong: (Looks at the program but says nothing—as if not hearing Mr. Hutchinson’s suggestion)
- Mr. Hutchinson: Mr. Wong? Just give me a date.
- Mr. Wong: Yes. Whenever you prefer is fine. (Hands the program back to Mr. Hutchinson)
- Mr. Hutchinson: I don’t need this. (Hands it back to Mr. Wong) Well, it’s got to go in by the first of next month. OK?
- Mr. Wong: Yes, that is fine.
What these two conversations have in common is that someone believes they are being very clear, and yet the other person misses all the hints. One of them is using the context to indirectly tell the other person that they will either not be able to come on Sunday or that something is wrong, but the more direct communication styles of Mr. Díaz and Mr. Hutchinson prevent them from understanding the message.
If you can relate to Mr. Chen or Mr. Wong, you may come from a high-context culture, while if you feel closer to Mr. Díaz or Mr. Hutchinson, your culture may be rather high context. These concepts were first introduced by anthropologist Edward T. Hall in his 1959 book The Silent Language and better described in his Beyond Culture book from 1976.
High-context and low-context cultures are ends of a continuum that reflects how explicit or direct the messages in a culture tend to be and how much they rely on the context to convey the meaning. Here, context refers to al the non-verbal elements that may influence how we understand a message, like gestures, body language, hierarchy, or relationships.
These are some important high-context culture characteristics to look out for.
High-context cultures: Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, China, India, and Saudi Arabia are some of the highest-context cultures in the world.
Relationships: The components of these cultures tend to value long-term relationships. They often develop strong boundaries with people and there is a distinction between those who are accepted as part of the group and those who are consider as “outsiders”. The structure of their relationships is based on interconnected networks and long-term relationships, and their shared history makes it easier for the members of a group to understand the situation without the need of using explicit words.
Focus on context: Communication in high-context cultures involves using and interpreting messages that are not explicit, reading between the lines, and being sensitive to the body language and the social roles of others. People are expected to read between the lines and find meaning through the context. To fully capture the meaning of the message, focus less on words and more on contextual elements, such as body language, social status, physical settings, and tone of voice.
Good communication: High context communication is sophisticated, indirect, and nuanced. People from high-context cultures often circle around a topic indirectly and look at it from many tangential or divergent viewpoints. They are also more likely to be intuitive, contemplative, and concerned with the collective.
Meetings: During meetings, they may not summarize the key takeaways or follow up with an email clarifying next steps.
Forms of communication: In general, high-context cultures prefer oral communication, as that is where they can best leverage the spacial situation and context. When they communicate in writing, they usually opt for longer forms of communication.
Silence: People from high-context cultures are generally content with silence. Since they do not rely on verbal communication as their main source of information, silence in fact communicates mutual understanding.
How they may perceive low-context cultures: They may find low-context cultures as too simplistic, extremely detailed, and distrustfu. They may also perceive the repetition of messages as a waste of time.
These are the main characteristics of low-context cultures.
Relationships: Groups in low-context cultures tend to be ore diverse, without a shared background. This means that communication must be basic enough to allow for as many people to understand it as possible. Based on this principle, communicators generally assume that listeners know very little and must be told practically everything. The purpose and outcome of communication is considered more important than interpersonal relationships. Careful! The fact that the information has been made simple and straightforward and available to everyone doesn’t mean that low-context cultures are easy to learn. There are many factores, rules, and traditions that can still take years to understand.
Focus on words: Communication in low-context cultures requires attention to the literal meanings of words, much more so than the context around then or body language. Rules are specifically written out or stated.
Good communication: Low-context communication is accurate, simple, and clear. Messages are conveyed and understood literally, and repetition and summaries are appreciated it. People from low-context cultures tend to be more logical, analytical, or action-oriented.
Meetings: Summarizing key takeaways from a meeting and nailing things down in writing are expected to avoid confusion and set clear expectations. During a speech, the speaker often starts by saying what they are going to talk about, then they say it, and then they tell the listeners what was just talked about.
Forms of communication: Most communications take place through verbal language, and they favor written communication. Emails are used to send quick, frequent messages that are to the point, and they also like to focus on basic questions (What’s happening? Where is it happening? When is it going to happen? How is it going to happen?).
Silence: Members of low-context cultures are dependent on words to convey meaning and may become uncomfortable with silence. They may feel a need to speak, as silence often feels awkward. Those who do not talk or who allow for silences in a conversation are perceived negatively. Silence somehow communicates a problem.
How they may perceive high-context cultures: ..How they may see high context: undisciplined, secretive, lacking transparency, and unable to communicate effectively.
Strategies to work effectively with people from high context cultures
High and low context cultures can understand each other, especially if there is mutual understanding and willingness to adapt. If you are from a (rather) low-context culture (such as the United States, Australia, Canada, the Netherlands, Finland, Denmark the UK, or Poland) and need to communicate with people from a high-context culture (like Japan, Indonesia, Iran, China, Kenya, India, or Singapore), here are some effective strategies to communicate effectively across cultures.
1 - Agree on a communication framework
Identify your own communication style and that of your team members. Some may expect others to read between the lines, while others always say what they mean. Working as a team, it is important that you develop your own language and agree on a communication style that works for everybody. It should be based on understanding cultural differences and it should benefit everyone. Assess where communication often breaks down and seek help to fill those communication or skills gaps.
2 - Pay attention to nonverbal cues
People from high-context cultures believe that we have two eyes, and two ears, but only one mouth because we are supposed to look and listen more than we talk. Keep in mind body language, tone of voice, eye positioning and facial expressions. Listen more carefully and take social status and relationships into account. And remember that “yes” and “no” don’t necessarily mean the same across cultures.
3 - Use open-ended questions to find meaning
Provide the canvas an let them paint. When you communicate with people from high-context cultures, stay away from yes/no questions. These are often leading questions and may make people from high-context cultures feel uncomfortable. Instead, use open-ended questions to find meaning.
Pay special attention to the cues that may indicate that the other person may feel cornered. Watch out for these phrases as a sign to extract more info: I will think about it, I guess so, I will do my best, It will be very difficult, but I am going to give it a try. If you hear them, it may be a good time for you to dig deeper with open-ended questions.
Compare these two examples.
- We need to submit the application as soon as possible. Do you think it’ll be ready tomorrow?
- I will do my best.
- We need to submit the application as soon as possible. When do you think we could have it ready?
- Probably on Wednesday or Thursday.
- Great, can I add that as our deadline?
4 - Allow space between questions
Allow space between a question and its answer. Your conversation partner might not be done speaking! Or they could just be thinking. Remember that high-context cultures tend to prioritize relationships, and these often take a long time to forge, so don’t rush it!
Some cultures are more direct, others need more context, and others avoid saying no. Start by learning what some of those differences are, like what topics you should avoid in small talk and what U.S. Americans may mean. But most importantly, develop your Cultural Intelligence and work on communicating effectively across cultures.
Check out our free communication resources and share them with your international teams. For any additional information or questions, you can also reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org. Interested in getting the best offers and receiving free content on Business English communication? Subscribe to our newsletter and we will keep you in the loop with offers, free events, and development materials!
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