Low context communication

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Cultures differ on the importance and the place of words in communication. In some cultures words are central and the main means of communication. This is low context communication. In other cultures things, apart from words, are very important in communication. Implied meanings arising from the physical setting, relational cues, or shared understandings form an important part of communication. This is high context communication.

All of us engage in both high-context and low-context communication. There are times we “say what we mean, and mean what we say,” leaving little to be “read in” to the explicit message. This is low-context communication. At other times, we may infer, imply, insinuate, or deliver with nonverbal cues messages that we want to have conveyed but do not speak. This is high-context communication. Individualistic oriented cultures tend to prefer low context communication and communal oriented cultures tend to prefer high context communication.

Problems Caused by Cultural Differences

  • If you greet your Austrian client. This is the sixth time you have met over the last 4 months. He calls you Herr Smith. You think of him as a standoffish sort of guy who doesn't want to get really friendly. That might be true in America, where calling someone Mr. Smith after the 6th meeting would probably mean something -- it is marked usage of language -- like “we're not hitting it off”. But in Austria, it is normal.
  • A Canadian conducting business in Kuwait is surprised when his meeting with a high-ranking official is not held in a closed office and is constantly interrupted. He starts wondering if the official is as important as he had been led to believe, and he starts to doubt how seriously his business is being taken.
  • A British boss asked a new, young American employee if he would like to have an early lunch at 11 am each day. The employee said ‘Yeah, that would be great!' The boss immediately said “With that kind of attitude, you may as well forget about lunch!” The employee and the boss were both baffled by what went wrong. [In England, saying “yeah” in that context is seen as rude and disrespectful.
  • In the US, a firm, short handshake indicates self-confidence and (heterosexual) masculinity. A limp handshake by a man can be interpreted (usually wrongly) as a sign of homosexuality or wimpiness. But in most parts of Africa, a limp handshake is the correct way to do it. Furthermore, it is common in Africa for the handshake to last several minutes, while in the US a handshake that is even a few seconds too long is interpreted as familiarity, warmth and possibly sexual attraction.
  • In Britain, men do not look at women on the streets. The French do. Recently, a French public figure mentioned in a speech that the Brits are all gay -- the evidence was their lack of overt interest in women.

Low context communication

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Low context refers to societies where people tend to have many connections but of shorter duration or for some specific reason. In these societies, cultural behaviour and beliefs may need to be spelled out explicitly so that those coming into the cultural environment know how to behave. E.g. Low context cultures include Anglos, Germanics and Scandinavians.

The properties of the high context communication are:-

  • Pure information transfer
  • People say what they mean
  • No double meanings
  • No misunderstandings
  • Language as a tool for communication ONLY
  • No interference from idioms, slang, dialects, etc.
  • No cultural problems

Some characteristics of low context communication are:

  • Verbal communication is on the foreground; Non-verbal communication is more on the background or functions on an unconscious level.
  • Subject matters are addressed directly and openly and precise words are used to describe what somebody thinks or feels.
  • Low context communication is a speaker-oriented style where speakers do not hesitate to offer their opinions and expertise (Self-enhancement style).
  • Interpersonal contact between people in general and between those directly involved in communication is usually superficial.
  • People of low context communication are usually very task oriented. Communication has lot to do with decisions and activities on what needs to be done to complete a task.
  • Rules are important in different life contexts.
  • Low context communication leads to lot of public knowledge, external and accessible for any person.

High context communication:-

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High context refers to societies or groups where people have close connections over a long period of time. Many aspects of cultural behaviour are not made explicit because most members know what to do and what to think from years of interaction with each other. Your family is probably an example of a high context environment. E.g. High context cultures include Japanese, Arabs and French.

The properties of the high context communication are

  • Hidden assumptions
  • Double meanings
  • Coded information
  • Use of idioms
  • Extra, “Spam” information
  • High speed
  • Use of slang
  • Problem of dialects
  • Important information difficult to identify
  • Cultural gap

Some of the characteristics of high context communication are:

  • highcontextLess verbal and written communication than in low context communication. Deliberate non-verbal communication is more on the foreground than in low context;
  • Silence often part of communication;
  • Many networks of relationships between people and groups have an influence on communication - what is said and how it is said.
  • High context communication builds on long term relationships;
  • High context communication is listener oriented where speakers do not present themselves forcefully to other (Self-effacement Style)
  • Decisions and activities build upon personal relationships and often centre around a person of authority

Communication breakdowns can easily occur when people from low and high context communication styles interact. Low context speakers may fail to notice the subtle and indirect messages which high context speakers send to them non-verbally or misinterpret their silences or ambiguous speech. High context speakers may not listen to the words of low context speakers, but try to discover the non-existent hidden message behind the actual words of the speakers. High contexts can be difficult to enter if you are an outsider (because you don't carry the context information internally, and because you can't instantly create close relationships). Low contexts are relatively easy to enter if you are an outsider (because the environment contains much of the information you need to participate, and because can you form relationships fairly soon, and because the important thing is accomplishing a task rather than feeling your way into a relationship). Remember that every culture and every situation has its high and low aspects. Often one situation will contain an inner high context core and an outer low context ring for those who are less involved.

E.g.

  • Japanese can find Westerners to be offensively blunt. Westerners can find Japanese to be secretive, devious and bafflingly unforthcoming with information.
  • French can feel that Germans insult their intelligence by explaining the obvious, while Germans can feel that French managers provide no direction.

When people who prefer low context communication interact with people who prefer high-context communication, it may be helpful to remember that:

  • Non-verbal gestures, social settings, numbers of people present, dress codes, time keeping, silences and food may all be part of a verbal message or be taken into account when interpreting the verbal message. The “messages” sent this way may be as important as the verbal message.
  • Status and identity may be communicated indirectly in a non-verbal manner and it must be acknowledged and respected for good communication.
  • Face-saving and tact are important aspects of communication and should in most cases not be considered as deliberate attempts to avoid issues or to speak the truth. Frank and open discussions should always take place in a context where people feel save and experience respect.
  • Building good relations with communication partners and important people to them, will enhance the ability to interpret the verbal and non-verbal messages of the high context communication partners.

When people who prefer high context communication interact with people who prefer low-context communications, they should remember that:

  • They must focus upon what is actually said and not look for hidden messages behind the words or in non-verbal ways. Non-verbal messages may be unintentional and must be interpreted with caution.
  • The speakers will concentrate on the matter under discussion and that the status and identity of the people involved are of lesser importance. There is no intention to ignore people or be rude.
  • Direct questions, observations or proposals are not necessarily meant to intimidate or to offend, but to clarify and promote the task or mutual goals.
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Indirect or non-verbal messages may not be detected or wrongly interpreted by the communication partners. More direct messages are needed to keep the communication process going.