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Communication styles

February 10, 2008

Hello again,

To continue this brief overview of cultural differences, I want to look at high and low context cultures. In high-context ...

...cultures "most of the information is either in the physical context or initialized in the person, while very little is in the coded, explicit, transmitted part of the message." (Edward Hall). In low-context cultures "the mass of information is vested in the explicit code." Of course the terms are relative so that France may seem a relatively high-context culture in comparison with the USA, while China will seem high-context in relation to France.

In low-context cultures people expect messages to be explicit: language is direct and open with little or no use of irony or understatement. However, high-context cultures place great importance on communicating in a way that seems more like a code. People’s relationship to age other, gender, status, the setting of an interaction, body language, dress: all these contribute to the meaning of a message and language may be opaque and coded too. People in relatively high-context cultures will often be inhibited from making direct statements. An example might be the Japanese and their reluctance to show obvious disagreement as this might offend. The result is that Japanese counterparts in business often seem to say “yes” to everything. The “yes” does not signify agreement necessarily. It might simply mean: “I understand what you are saying”. In high-context cultures, rules and contracts may not be all-important. All situations are fluid, needing to be adapted to situations as they evolve. This can be confusing for people from low-context cultures, who tend to feel that once a contract is signed or a rule is passed, it is binding.

In low-context cultures the written and spoken word are very important with words used for their literal meaning. People tend to be uncomfortable with silence. Rules are explicit and contractual obligations are seen as binding.

For people coming together from opposite ends of these spectra, considerable communication problems can occur. In high-context cultures, directness, self-disclosure, loud talking may seem offensive. In low-context cultures, indirectness, flexibility, silences in conversation can seem devious or a sign of non-acceptance of the outsider.

For teachers working abroad, it is important to understand whether they are going to a culture that is higher or lower context than their own. I will give a little example of the problems that occur if you do not understand these differences. Many years ago in Morocco, it was necessary where I was staying to go to the post office to make an overseas telephone call. Each time I went I was told the telephone lines were down. From my relatively low-context perspective, I assumed this was true and went away.
Eventually I asked a Moroccan friend what was going on and why the telephone lines were always down. She was surprised that I didn’t understand that this was code for: “you need to give a small monetary consideration if you want to use the telephone.” I duly returned to the post office, handed over a small sum, and asked the man if he would check the lines for me. Hey presto: I made the call. I later discussed this with my friend and she could sense that I was uneasy about this type of transaction. She reminded me, however, that in the UK we had a system of tipping. I realized that the main difference was that in the UK we tip after the service has been given, but that in Morocco people expected the tip in advance.

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