CQ – How are we different? Part Nine – Context

I hope you have had a good holiday season. Did you indulge yourselves and/or your children? Or did you practice and/or teach restraint? Or some of both? Did you think about the future and practice some long-term time orientation while thinking of the new year and beyond? Or did you just think about bowl games and parades and immediate results as a short-term oriented culture? Are you plunging into the new year of 2020 with high uncertainty avoidance or low uncertainly avoidance? Understanding your own cultural tendencies will help you have more awareness with people who may be a bit different from you.

This week we will talk about communication. As you probably already know, communication can be challenging. When you add the cultural dimension of context, it becomes more so.

Context is the extent to which communication is indirect and the degree to which the context is used to provide meaning. An individual with a Low Context Orientation values direct communication and believes people should “say what they mean and mean what they say”.

A person with a High Context Orientation pays attention to what isn’t said as much as what is said and a great deal of attention is put on where people are seated, how people are dressed, and reading in between the lines.

In The Culture Map, Erin Meyer’s entire first chapter is on communication, specifically context. (I highly recommend the entire book for understanding cross-cultural issues.) Giving an example of how dramatic the cultural difference in this area can be, Ms. Meyer says:

“In the United States and other Anglo-Saxon cultures, people are trained (mostly subconsciously) to communicate as literally and explicitly as possible. Good communication is all about clarity and explicitness, and accountability for accurate transmission of the message is placed firmly on the communicator. ‘If you don’t understand, it’s my fault.’

“By contrast, in many Asian cultures, including India, China, Japan, and Indonesia, messages are often conveyed implicitly, requiring the listener to read between the lines. Good communication is subtle, layered, and may depend on copious subtext, with responsibility for transmission of the message shared between the one sending the message and the one receiving it.”[1]

Those of us who have learned to communicate in low context cultures struggle with understanding high context. We don’t know what we don’t know; we do not know what to ask or look for and we often have a high expectation of others to speak clearly. In the US, we have a saying: Say what you mean and mean what you say. Because of those expectations, this is one of the cultural differences that creates some of the largest points of conflict for many teams.

Look at this chart comparing lower context versus higher context communication. [2] Any surprises?

How do you fall on the chart below with low context versus high context communication? Do you have any conflicts with people that might be explained by this different cultural dimension?

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­|______________|_______________|________________|______________|

Low Context                          Communication                                High Context

History can help us understand the different communication styles. Compare the US and Japan. Until WWII, there had been little international input to Japan’s culture and language. So over time, they developed a way to communicate between the lines. On the other hand, the US is a melting pot of cultures. People had to learn to be more specific in their use of words to communicate.

Two things to note: 1) On the chart above, it’s all relative to others. Though Central Europe is more direct than Asia, notice how it compares to the US. When an American is talking with someone from Central Europe, it might feel like the Central European  is far more subtle. But if the Central European is talking with someone from Korea or Japan, the European will sound far more direct.

And 2), there are different kinds of communication which can be more nuanced, with more distinctions. For example, Americans are low context in general except when giving feedback. The Brits and Dutch generally tend to be opposite; they will “tell it like it is” in their feedback.

Here are some tips:

With Low Context Communicators

  • Be direct and explicit
  • Focus on getting your message across clearly

With High Context Communicators

  • Recognize the importance of silence/reflection
  • Pay careful attention to what is not said

In closing, I will again highly recommend Erin Meyer’s book. You can find it on Amazon here. The hard copy version has a different subtitle, but I think it’s the same content.

Happy communicating!


[1] Meyer, E. (2015). The Culture Map: Decoding how people think, lead, and get things done across cultures, p. 31. New York, NY: PublicAffairs.

[2] https://media.risechina.org/uploads/2019/03/low-high-context.jpg  Retrieved January 6, 2020.

Just a reminder that I get a lot of my information from training materials from the Cultural Intelligence Centre.

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