Paradoxes of Culture and Globalization
Have you ever told someone that you are not a “mind reader” and you need them to specifically state their needs or what they are wanting? Or the opposite situation where you were able to tell what a person was going to say even before they even said a word? These examples illustrate differences between low and high context communication styles. People have a dominate way they prefer to communicate and cultures define these styles. There are differences in the way high and low-context culture members behave and interact with each other.
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However, there are times and situations where an individual will flex their style based on the situation at hand. In the end, both styles can be an effective way to communicate in the proper situation or context. A low-context culture is one that is explicit in its communication, orally and in writing. These cultures tend to be dominant individualistic cultures such as white, Anglo-Saxon Americans and Germans. In these cultures there is a desire to be very clear about communicating what they mean to ensure that there is a common understanding with other parties.
For example in a low context culture, successful project managers and the teams will be very clear with deadlines and deliverables, such as the 2 page summary report will be due on Tuesday at 1pm. A person that favors a low context culture will appreciate the clarity in goals and expectations. Societies that favor low context communication are also seen as monochronic. These people find comfort in doing one thing at a time, make time commitments, are accustomed to short-term relationships, and stick to plans.
An example of a profession that tends to be low-context is engineering. There is a saying that many engineers can easily relate to: “A place for everything and everything in its place”. This saying implies a high need for organization. I have worked on assignments with several engineers that get easily frustrated when details of the project or product change mid-stream due to a shift in the marketplace or a customer request. The feedback that is given to me from a few of the engineers is that it is difficult to deliver a project on-time when things change.
However, without the change, the project may not achieve its overall goal: to satisfy the customer’s need. This is a prime example of how low-context cultures prefer to be very specific. They favor very clear, specific, and fixed objectives. On the other hand, high context cultures communicate in an implicit manner where members understand the message without direct oral or written communication. Mexico and Japan are examples of high-context cultures.
People in these cultures have a difficult time refusing a direct request or disagreeing with others in public. There is a heightened sense to not embarrass others or to be embarrassed in these cultures. These cultures also are more polychronic. People that are polychronic are flexible with time commitments, are easily distracted, tend to form deep and long relationships, and value relationships over deadlines. Working with high-context cultures can feel very difficult for low-context individuals that are not aware of the difference in styles.
Based on my personal experience when dealing with a high-context cultures and individuals, I have had many challenges because I was not aware of the culture difference. The challenges developed because I was not aware that the group may have been avoiding difficult conversations. For example, I thought that I had agreement from others in a Mexican factory with clear deadlines and deliverables for a project. Only later to find out that they thought our agreement was more of a “target” or a guideline for them to work towards.
Deadlines were often missed by weeks even with weekly meetings confirming deliverables and deadlines. Another example using a similar context that I have had is when asking a team member from China and Mexico a question such as “are we on-schedule or ahead of schedule” and getting a reply of “yes” because it’s difficult for them to reply with an answer they may feel with disappoint me if the project is behind schedule. This can prove to be detrimental to a project if it’s unclear the project is behind schedule.
However, a great attribute of high-context teams is their willingness to be flexible. They can also leverage their strong relationships with others to get tasks accomplished effectively. Both high and low context cultures will change their style based on certain circumstances and situations. I have personally seen communication styles flexed in contract negotiations. Many contract negotiations that I have been involved in have a final written document that both parties can use to refer back to at later times to understand the original agreement.
This document is very explicit in nature and has specifically defined terms and language. This is an example of a low-context form of communication that high context cultures use even if it may be more comfortable to go through the negotiations using more high-context communication and strategies such as talking through ideas and feeling the other party out using social environment situations. On the other hand, an example of low-context individuals using high context tactics may happen is when couples are dating.
Very few emotions or expectations are communicated explicitly early on in the relationship but yet even low-context individuals can “read between the lines” about another person’s feelings or emotions during the courtship phase. Another example of high-context communication that can be used by low-context cultures is the use of silence. This can be a very powerful tactic to encourage others to say more than they might normally say to break the silence or if they are assuming you are waiting for more information before responding. Silence can be a negotiators’ best friend when used appropriately to gather more information from other side.
The Japanese have been known to use silence or length of pauses to communicate messages such as disagreement or rejection of an offer. In summary, high and low context cultures can behave in very different, almost opposite, ways when communicating. However, each can and will use other others’ style in different situation. The key for effective communication is to understand the other’s contextual style and be ready to be flexible to change your style as needed. Both low and high-context styles can be used to communicate well and neither is better than the other.