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Intercultural Business Communication: High Context vs. Low Context Communication

Updated on March 8, 2011

Intercultural communication is necessary in business today and is a skill that will become increasingly required as businesses expand globally. Understanding a culture includes respecting it’s customs, traditions and etiquette. An ideal intercultural communicator is able to recognize examples of cultural differences in both verbal and nonverbal behaviors, and use that information to better communicate with others.

It is possible to communicate effectively with people from different cultures but not without effort. To be an ideal intercultural communicator you must understand that there is not a "right way" for a culture to interact. This hub will focus on the differences between high context and low context communication, the degree to which the speaker relies on other factor than explicit speech to interpret meanings. Edward T Hall, an anthropologist and cultural researcher developed this concept. Misunderstandings can occur when people are not aware of the difference between high and low context communication. High context communicators are usually indirect and formal, while low context communicators tend to be direct and informal.

High Context Communication

In a high context communication culture the listener must combine messages portrayed by the speakers verbal communication and nonverbal behaviors to get the full meaning of the message. In this style of communication emphasis is placed on understanding without direct verbal communication. Direct communication is when the speaker clearly relays his thoughts and opinion in his verbal message. High context communicators instead expect the listener to read between the lines. Words are not important as context, which includes tone of voice, facial expression, gestures, posture and status. High-context communication tends to be more indirect and more formal. Flowery language, humbleness, and elaborate apologies are common for high context communicators. There are strong boundaries with clearly defined roles of authority. Having transparent status levels is valued. Relationships are important and decisions are made based on how the relationship would be affected. Developing trust is important to business interactions. Face-to-face interactions are preferred so that nonverbal messages can be used to decipher the meanings.

Low Context Communication

In low context communication the meaning of messages is in the verbal communication and emphasis is placed on explicit messages. Low context communicators use words that express the full extent of the intended meaning. Nonverbal and subtle behaviors are not considered when interpreting the message. Direct communication is preferred and respected. People who are low-context cultures communicator’s value logic, facts, and straightforwardness. Knowledge and experience are valued as equal to authority and status levels are not clearly defined. Decisions are made based on how it affects the task at hand and relationships are often not factored in. This is portrayed in the idea of ‘business isn’t personal.’

Which Context is Your Country?

For a communicator to successfully interact with others from a different culture he must know whether his own culture is high or low context and which context is the culture in the interaction. Examples of a low context communication cultures include The United States, the UK, Switzerland, Canada and Germany. High context communication cultures include China, Japan, Korea Italy, Greece, Spain, Russia, South America and Arab counties.

Interactions with High and Low Context

For example, if you ask an American, "Can you please help me carry my boxes to my car?" you may get the answer, "Sure, no problem." The interaction would then be followed by the person helping you. However this interaction is not same for a high context culture, such as China. In a high context culture the person might say "Sure, no problem" but then not help. It is from the behaviors, such as not helping to carry the boxes, that the one can determine that the intended answer was "no." There are many reasons the high context person may not say "No". It might be he doesn’t want to hurt the other persons feelings, or he may be speaking to someone of higher status.

How to Communicate with a High Context Speaker

It is important to have excellent listening and observation skills when interacting with a High Context Speaker. Nonverbal behaviors are just as important as the words being used. Encourage the high context speaker to elaborate in ideas and provide explanations for opinions. Low context culture can be view as cold because they tend to be rule-oriented. They can also perceive low-context people as being excessively talkative and rude. The tendency by low context speakers to focus on written documents such as contracts and manuals can be interpreted as a lack of trust, which is considered an insult. Be wary of this and ensure to not insult a high context speaker by emphasizing written agreements. Instead portray it has a small formality from your company that you agree isn’t too important but unavoidable. Relationship building is vital however; it is considered impolite to ask questions that are too personal in nature. Indirect communication is expected.

How to Communicate with a Low Context Speaker

Understand that nonverbal behaviors do not play a large factor into the intended meanings. Don’t rely on subtle clues, instead focus on the literal meaning of the words the speaker uses. Low-context people tend to view high-context people as sneaky, secretive and overly formal. Recognize that giving opinions is respected, even to a person of a higher status. It is considered polite to ask personal questions, as it portrays an interest. When communicating remember that indirect clues will not be enough to relay your message. Direct communication is expected.

To determine which context a culture is research and observation of the communication patterns is necessary. The ideal communicator would recognize signs of the cultures context and be able to adapt to effectively communicate.

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