Culture, communication and your international exchange student

Knowing high and low context cultural behavior will assist host families in understanding and communication with their exchange students.

In a previous article, “Communication is driven by cultural differences,” the designation of high and low context cultures was introduced.  In high cultures, much of the communication is understood by the group either by non-verbal coding, which refers to common body language. On the other hand, in low context cultures, the communication process is comprised of more verbal messages, communicating plain and literal meanings.

The French are experts of the shrug, using subtle nuances of hands, eyes, shoulders and lips to convey countless meanings: I agree, I disagree, I don’t care, What can I do?, Who knows, You are a fool, or even, do as you like. This behavior is an example of high context cultural behavior.

The term high context refers to communication that is:

  • Less verbal, less written or formal information
  • More internalized understanding of what is communicated
  • Multiple cross-cutting ties and intersections with others
  • Long-term relationships

When dealing with exchange students, host families need to look for signs that may indicate that you should understand without being told and notice the frustration of having to explain what seems obvious. Patience is vital as well as explaining to students that you are trying to connect across the different ways of communicating.

The United States is a low context culture in that people tend to have many connections but of shorter duration or for some specific reason. Low context cultures are defined as:

  • Rule oriented
  • More knowledge is external but accessible
  • Sequencing separation – of time, of space, of activities, of relationships
  • More interpersonal connections of shorter duration
  • Knowledge is more often transferable
  • Task centered; focused around what needs to be done with division of responsibility

Host families, in low context cultures like the United States, of international students from high context countries will be met with an “of course I understand” and a look that says, “You don’t have to talk down to me” when the host family is explaining any number of situations such as matriculation in the local school, family rules, etc. . Youth from high context cultures also define friendship and acquaintanceship differently than we do in America. When they are asked, “Have you made any friends at school today?” They will look disdainfully at you because they believe friendship is a long process over time. Yes, they have made acquaintance with many people but they are not friends. Low context cultures like the United States find worth in many friendships of all different degrees of closeness. To find out more about this information look in Contexts of Cultures: High and Low on the University of the Pacific webpage.

It is thought-provoking to find the difference in cultures when observing what behavior is expressed when low and high cultures meet.

Find 4-H exchange information at 4-H International Exchanges.

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