In an increasingly connected and interdependent world effective communication not only becomes more important but also much more difficult. Ironically, it is often not dissimilar languages that cause the greatest problems but rather much more mundane and harder to detect cultural differences. One such difference is that of a high context culture versus a low context culture.
A low context culture is one in which things are fully (though concisely) spelled out. Things are made explicit, and there is considerable dependence on what is actually said or written. A high context culture is one in which the communicators assume a great deal of commonality of knowledge and views, so that less is spelled out explicitly and much more is implicit or communicated in indirect ways. In a low context culture, more responsibility is placed on the listener to keep up their knowledge base and remain plugged into informal networks.
Low context cultures include Anglos, Germanics and Scandinavians. High context cultures include Japanese, Arabs and French.
The implications are obvious. Interactions between high and low context peoples can be problematic. For example:
- 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.
High context cultures are vulnerable to communication breakdowns when they assume more shared understanding than there really is. They are strongly inclined to indirect methods of communication. This is especially true in an age of diversity.
Low context cultures, on the other hand, are not known for their ability to tolerate or understand diversity, and tend to be more insular. The explicitness with which they communicate can often cause offence and resentment.
The point, of course, is that in an age of diversity these cultural differences are just as likely to appear across a desk as they are across borders. Don't assume a common geographic location guarantees a common heritage.