Communication is driven by cultural differences

Communication methods differs in different countries and cultures; understand the difference to communicate more effectively.

The designation “high and low context culture” broadly refers to the way people communicate in cultures. In high cultures, much of the communication is understood by the group either by non-verbal coding, which refers to common body language; distinct in-groups and out-group’s, which refers to the cohesiveness of the group; and covert and implicit messages, which refers to what we refer to as “reading between the lines.” On the other hand, in low context cultures, the communication process is comprised of more verbal messages, communicating plain and literal meanings. This concept was first advanced by Edward T. Hall in the 1950s.

According to M.Q. Jeffrey, “High context cultures are more common in the eastern nations than in western and in countries with low racial diversity. Cultures where the group is valued over the individual promote group reliance. High context cultures have a strong sense of tradition and history, and change little over time, such as tribal and native societies. For instance, the French assume that the listener knows everything. Therefore, they may think that Americans think they are stupid because Americans will habitually explain everything to their counterparts.”

On a scale from high context cultures to low context cultures, the following countries would range from high to low in this order:  Japan, Arab Countries, Greece, Spain, Italy, England, France, North America, Scandinavian Countries, German speaking countries. 

For example, a German business man will explain verbally any concept he thinks is important for his French counterpart to understand. He may also have his proposal in writing and a slide presentation. The French counterpart will feel like his intelligence is being questioned because he does not have to have the obvious explained to him in such detail.

Every culture has its high and low aspects. Small towns in the United States may be considered higher context culture as a microcosm of a low context country due to the cohesiveness of the community and the understood issues of the community. In a town meeting or in the local coffee shop, verbal explanations are not given on every topic discussed because over time, it is now understood by the citizens.

The next installment of this article series will discuss how high and low cultures act together within student exchanges if students and host families are on the opposite ends of the high-low cultural context continuum.