Cross-Cultural Communication Styles: High and Low Context

The concepts of high context and low context refer to how people communicate in different cultures.  Differences can be derived from the extent to which meaning is transmitted through actual words used or implied by the context.

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High context implies that a lot of unspoken information is implicitly transferred during communication.  People in a high context culture such as Saudi Arabia tend to place a larger importance on long-term relationships and loyalty and have fewer rules and structure implemented.

Low context implies that a lot of information is exchanged explicitly through the message itself and rarely is anything implicit or hidden.  People in low context cultures such as the UK tend to have short-term relationships, follow rules and standards closely and are generally very task-oriented.

Understanding whether your international colleagues are high context or low context will help you to adapt your communication style and build stronger relationships with them.  These concepts are covered during cross-cultural training programmes such as Communicating across Cultures and managing international teams.  Cultural awareness training which focuses on one or more specific cultures like Doing Business in India or Living and Working in China will also address these concepts.

When doing business in a high context culture such as Mexico, Japan or the Middle East, you might encounter the following:

  • Misunderstanding when exchanging information
  • Impression of a lack of information
  • Large amount of information is provided in a non-verbal manner, e.g. gestures, pauses, facial expressions
  • Emphasis on long term relationships and loyalty
  • ‘Unwritten’ rules that are taken for granted but can easily be missed by strangers
  • Shorter contracts since less information is required

When doing business in a low context culture such as Germany, Switzerland or the US, on the other hand, you might find the following:

  • All meaning is explicitly provided in the message itself
  • Extensive background information and explanations are provided verbally to avoid misunderstandings
  • People tend to have short-term relationships
  • People follow rules and standards closely
  • Contracts tend to be longer and very detailed

High and low context cultures usually correspond with polychronic and monochronic cultures respectively.  The table below shows some general preferences of people from high context and low context cultures.

High Context Low Context
Indirect and implicit messages Direct, simple and clear messages
Polycrhonic Monochronic
High use of non-verbal communication Low use of non-verbal communication
Low reliance on written communication High reliance on written communication
Use intuition and feelings to make decisions Rely on facts and evidence for decisions
Long-term relationships Short-term relationships
Relationships are more important than schedules Schedules are more important than relationships
Strong distinction between in-group and out-group Flexible and open

 

Participating in a cross-cultural training programme such as Doing Business with India and Doing Business in the UK, you will gain a comprehensive understanding of the high or low context preferences in the country or countries where you are working and the impact these preferences have on doing business with them.

 

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