Have you ever discussed a project with someone from a different culture and found that you have both failed to communicate to each other what you had considered understood? If so, the issue might be one of high context vs low context cultural communications.
In this blog, I will explain the difference between the two and suggest a few guidelines to help bridge the difference in cross-cultural communications.
Understanding Cultural Differences: High vs Low Context Cultures
A high context culture uses more nuanced communication, with lots of inferences and unstated messages that are understood by others within that culture. This style of communication is implicit and layered and expects the communicators to share a large set of shared reference points. One might even go as far as saying that, in a high context culture, the meaning of unstated words is assumed, as if the other person knows exactly what we’re thinking rather than saying. An example of this is Japan or Korea, where an outsider would find it difficult to communicate without a thorough understanding of the cultural context.
In contrast, in a low context culture, we assume very little additional context when we communicate and expect words to convey the entire meaning of the communication. Language we use is explicit, simple and clear. Choosing the ‘right’ words is essential to convey the intended messages, as is ensuring that the words are understood clearly. An example of this culture is the USA and the Netherlands, where words are expected to be taken at face value. This is also true of the UK, although it is slightly more ‘high context’ than the US or the Netherlands.
In a global team therefore, understanding the cultural context will ensure that cultural pitfalls are bridged. I recommend using the following tips to ensure you fully understand those accustomed to communicating in a high context culture.
Useful Guidelines for Communicating in a High Context Culture
1. Observe and listen. If we are accustomed to communicating in a low context culture, we expect words to convey the intended message. Being more observant of body language and gestures when communicating with someone from a high context culture might make it easier to ascertain the message behind their words. It is helpful to also listen more and to speak less, so you can understand the meaning behind others’ words. For instance, when they say “Yes, that’s an interesting idea!”, do they mean “Wow, sounds like a great opportunity!” or might they mean “No, that’s not going to work!”
2. Ask open-ended questions. Questions that start with words like how, what or why are more likely to lead to an explanation or reveal hidden intent will make it easier to understand the message. So instead of asking “Are you happy with this proposal?” you could try asking “How does this proposal sound to you?”
3. Watch out for warning signs. The following phrases are good indications that a high context communicator may not be in full agreement:
- “I guess so”
- “I will do my best”
- “I will think about it”
- “It will be difficult but I’m going to give it a go”
Communication is tricky enough when we speak to someone from a very similar background to us. Communicating with someone who comes from a completely different background is even more complex. Applying your listening skills and being empathetic is therefore more important than ever and understanding some of the contextual communication rules will make it easier to ensure you’re on the same page as your partners and colleagues.
To find out more about communication in different culture, you may find Erin Meyer’s book The Culture Map of interest.