October 18, 2007

High Context vs. Low Context

In order to communicate effectively with people in other countries, it’s important to know the business hierarchy and how people relate to each other. One way to understand this is in terms of "high context" and "low context," a classification based on how people in different cultures communicate.

High context refers to societies in which people have close connections. High-context people are generally defined as:

  • Less verbally explicit. Instead, they rely more on indirect verbal interaction and are proficient at reading non-verbal cues.
  • Having less written/formal communication. High-context cultures are more interested in fostering trust than in signing contracts.
  • Having strong boundaries. They have more clearly defined roles of authority, and differences in status are valued. They rarely call people by their first names.
  • Relationship-focused. Decisions and activities are focused around personal, face-to-face relationships.
Examples of high-context cultures: Brazil, China, India, Japan, Mexico, Russia and Singapore.

In low-context cultures, people tend to have many connections but of shorter duration. Low-context people can be generally defined as:

  • More accessible. Status/authority is not as valued as experience and knowledge.
  • Task-centered. Decisions and activities focus around what needs to be done, and there is more division of responsibilities.
  • Informal. Calling people by their first names is not considered disrespectful.
  • Direct. They often say what they feel and don’t avoid saying "no."
Examples of low-context cultures: Germany, United Kingdom, United States.

When dealing with people from different cultures, it’s helpful to know beforehand whether they come from a high-context or low-context culture. This will make you more aware of the reasons behind their words and actions, help you avoid misunderstandings and, ultimately, make you a better communicator.

Sources:
Business Cultures
Communicating Across Cultures
Cross-Cultural Training
Culture and Non-Verbal Communication

6 comments:

RFSJ said...

I imagine there can be a lot of friction in business relationships between high and low context parties. Any specific ideas for helping to negotiate those?

RFSJ

CBP Team said...

Hi, RFSJ. Thank you for your question. Yes, we'll get into more detail on that as the blog progresses. :-)

Neets said...

I read this posting with interest...what I wonder is: when dealing with businesses in high context countries, is it better to try to mirror those behaviours and engage in more subtle language and gestures? Or would we ultimately fail in trying to do so if we come from a natually low-context culture.

CBP Team said...

That's a great question. I think it needs to be a mix of both. You want to make them feel you: (a) have put an effort into knowing their culture, and (b) fit in/get along with them. At the same time, though, you don't want to mimic them just for the sake of doing so, or you will come off as disingenuous. It's a fine line, but if you're really trying to understand them, and not just going through the motions, you should be successful.

Nadia Carvalho Lustosa da Costa said...

In Brazil we call people by their first name and in Germany by their last name.

Nadia Carvalho Lustosa da Costa said...
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