I live and work in an real multicultural environment.
The city where I live is Brussels that hosts about 150 different nationalities. The place I work with is the European Commission where all the 28 European Union nationalities are represented.
Sometimes it is difficult to communicate to each other, as you have to pay much attention to other’s sensitivity, emotions and feelings.
Day after day, I learned that each culture has their own approach to communication.
I found a very interesting the book of the anthropologist Edward Hall, Beyond Culture. He identified the importance of context in communication and raised the attention on the “invisible” type of communication, by which groups of people understand and interpret the world.
The framework proposed by Hall for approaching intercultural communication is high-context and low-context cultures, which refer to the values cultures place on indirect and direct communication.
It is important to note that no culture is completely high-context or low-context, since all societies contain at least some parts that are both high and low. For example, the United States is a low-context culture while doing business, but during family gatherings tend to be high-context.
Let us see now the main features of the two cultural types.
A high-context culture relies on implicit communication and nonverbal cues. In high-context communication, a message cannot be understood without a great deal of background information. Asian, African, Arab, central European and Latin American cultures are generally considered to be high-context cultures.
With people belonging mainly to high-context cultures, you may encounter the following:
- Misunderstanding when exchanging information
- Impression of a lack of information
- Large amount of information is provided in a non-verbal manner, e.g. gestures, pauses, facial expressions
- Emphasis on long term relationships and loyalty
- Unwritten rules that are taken for granted but can easily be missed.
A low-context culture relies on explicit communication. In low-context communication, more of the information in a message is spelled out and defined. Cultures like the Germans, Scandinavians, Americans and Australians are generally considered to be low-context cultures.
Dealing with people belonging mainly to low-context cultures, you may find the following:
- All meaning is explicitly provided in the message itself
- Extensive background information and explanations are provided verbally to avoid misunderstandings
- People tend to have short-term relationships
- People follow rules and standards closely.
To avoid “diplomatic incidents”, I try to pay much attention to my interlocutor languages and “imitate” them using the technique of the mirror, namely, repeating the body language, the type of words they use, how they overall handle the conversation.
What about you? Which culture do you think you belong to? Which technique do you use to better communicate across cultures?