II. High context versus low context

In order to communicate successfully you have to consider the cultural differences and the predominating communication process in individualistic and collectivistic cultures. It is best to explain theses differences in terms of low- and high-context communication. Context has to do with how much you have to know before you can communicate effectively.

When workers from high-context and low-context cultures have to work together often problems occur by the exchange of information. These problems can be categorized as differences in „direction“, „quantity“ and „quality“. At differences in direction employees from high-context cultures like China and France adapt to their good friends, families and also to close colleagues (in-group members). They communicate with them intensively (quantity difference) and exchange specific/detailed information about many different topics.The result is that every in-group member is constantly up-to-date with the facts around the business.

In comparison to high-context cultures low-context cultures like USA and Germany orientate on many people of their daily life because they don’t differentiate as much as high-context cultures between in- and out-groups. So their direction of communication is orientated on personal personal characters and referred to situations (direction difference). They mostly communicate within their out-groups in a broad and diffuse way (quantity difference). Within communication they exchange information just to the necessary extent so that work can be done and they don’t discuss or exchange information constantly in their work environment and colleagues (quality difference).

In China communication tends to be very efficient because of their information-flow at work and in privacy. They discuss everything in advance and consider meetings as an official „ceremony“ where the already commonly agreed decision will be announced. This is important in the way of „giving and keeping face“. The Americans and Germans in contrast inform the participating attendants in a meeting about the hard and necessary facts. The decission-making process takes place within the meeting. To French it is similar with their Asian counterparts. They are also well informed before they meet each other. Much explicit and detailed discussions would probably seen as an insult because everything is already clear.

High-context means that

„most of the information is either in the physical context or initialized in the person, while very little is in the coded, explicit, transmitted part of the message.“ (Hall, 1976, p 79). In comparison to the meaning of low-context communication is „the mass of information is vested in the explicit code“ (p 70). *2

To understand what someone really meant in a conversation and to avoid misunderstandings it is important to realize „how“ it was said. In high-context systems people expect from their interlocutor that he or she knows what the message of the communication was. This can be done without that it was specifically told Chinese and French use a high-context communication. They place great importance on ambience, decorum, the relative status of the participants in a communication and the manner of massage’s delivery. In France it might be hard to feel fully accepted for outsiders within their culture because of their big diffuse connections. In comparison members of individualistic cultures using low-context communication like Germans, Americans and Finns sometimes ignore those differences from high-context countries cultures. In case of a meeting where those countries from low- and high-context cultures would have to work and discuss the French and especially the Chinese would not interact and express their disagreement or reservations. For Chinese issues, circumstances and relationships are as important as work so they would comment only in a more private or appropriate occasion.

Chinese people tend to be reserved which is considered as active behaviour in collectivistic cultures. They first need to build up an interpersonal relationship – a foundation where it is possible to find the right level of context. In contrast low-context cultures they argue about each other’s opinion within the decission-making process and take discussions in their own hands to come to an agreement. Within this process members of low-context tend to be precise and provide just the required information and in case of silence it has to be filled. but this is just a generic statement. In contrast the Finns regarding to silence have a different cultural behaviour. Silence is seen as polite and doesn’t have to be replaced with communication. In this point they differ immensely from the Americans who are seen as the characteristic low-context country. They need to know what is going on and have to be provided with detailed background information. Information is freely available in an American company.

In contrast the Germans try to hide information which is sacrificed even within a company or department. French are a high-context culture. They assume that the listener knows everything. It can happen that the

„French will think the Americans think they are stupid because they start explaining everything, and vice versa.“ *3

When dealing with different people from high- and low-context cultures you always have to be aware of your interlocutor’s cultural origin. This helps to avoid misunderstandings and creates a better basis for further discussions.

*2 „Communication with strangers“ by William B. Gudykunst and Young Yun Kim (1997), page 65
*3 „Managing Cultural Differences: Strategies for Competitive Advantage“, Lisa Hoecklin (1995), page 98