Highs and Lows

Understanding the contexts of cross-cultural communication styles

For business organizations interested in embarking on global joint ventures and strategic alliances, it is important to understand how to engage in appropriate intercultural communication, cross-cultural negotiations and decision-making.  Because communication is culture specific, it is important to understand the different ethical and cultural habits and the appropriate etiquette for conducting business on a global scale. The acquisition of these competitive global skills and competences will enable high-growth businesses to establish lasting strategic relationships.

Language itself is not the only factor that can present challenges to people who engage in global business. Cultural cues are important in every society and of course they vary from culture to culture. We often respond to nonverbal communication, such as facial expressions or posture, without even realizing. However, some cultures emphasize implicit communication more—so much that outsiders may face challenges in every day discourse, especially when trying to conduct business.

Anthropologists often describe the concepts of high and low context communication styles, referring to how people interact in routine communication. Differences in intended messages can depend on actual words or they can be implied by the context of the culture.

Cultural traits in high & low context cultures

In a high context culture, much unspoken information is implicitly delivered during communication transactions. Generally speaking, cultural traits in high context cultures, such as the Middle East, Asia, Africa, South America and American Indian, include relational, collectivist, intuitive and contemplative.  Language is often more ‘flowery’ with detailed explanations.

In a low context culture, most information is exchanged explicitly and the message is direct and determined by words—there is rarely anything implicit or hidden. Cultural traits in low context cultures, such as those found in most populations within North America and Western Europe, tend to be logical, linear, individualistic and action-oriented. Lives are compartmentalized and language is precise and just enough to get the message across.

How to understand & adapt

Determining whether your international colleagues, associates or clients are high context or low context will help you to adapt your communication style  to be appropriate and relevant.

If you are coming from a low context culture, you may face challenges when doing business in a high context culture, such as Mexico, Japan or the Middle East. The following tend to be relatively common:

  • Misunderstandings when communicating or exchanging information
  • Information seems lacking
  • Much of the information is provided in non-verbal cues, such as gestures, long or short pauses, facial expressions, tone, intonation, page layouts, etc.
  • There is an emphasis on long term relationships and loyalty over other factors
  • ‘Unwritten’ rules or standards that are lost on outsiders
  • Shorter term contracts or lack of contracts

On the contrast, a person coming from a high context culture may face challenges when entering business relationships in a low context culture, such as Germany or Scandinavian countries. These include:

  • All meaning is expected to be explicitly provided in the message itself
  • Extensive background information and explanations need to be provided verbally to avoid misunderstandings
  • Short-term relationships are accepted and can override a long-term one
  • People follow stricter rules and standards closely
  • Contracts tend to be longer, very detailed and binding

High and low context cultures usually correspond with polychronic and monochronic cultures respectively.  Monochronic people tend to be more structured, doing one thing at a time as per an organized agenda. They also tend to be punctual and do not like to waste time. In contrast, polychronic people tend to do several things at once, are less organized and less punctual. Monochronic time cultures tend to be low context cultures while polychronic time cultures tend to be high context cultures.  The table below shows some general preferences of people from high context and low context cultures.

High Context Low Context
Indirect and implicit messages Direct, simple and clear messages
Polycrhonic Monochronic
Collectivist Individualist
High use of non-verbal communication Low use of non-verbal communication
Low reliance on written communication High reliance on written communication
Use intuition and feelings to make decisions Rely on facts and evidence for decisions
Long-term relationships Short-term relationships
Relationships are more important than schedules Schedules are more important than relationships
Strong distinction between in-group and out-group Flexible and open

From Communicaid (www.communicaid.com)

Examples of lower context cultures                           Examples of higher context culture

African cultures Arab cultures Turkish Persian
English Canadian
French Canadian French
Greek Hawaiian Hungarian
Indian Indonesian Filipinos Thai Vietnamese
Italian Portuguese Spanish Brazilian
Irish Chinese
New Zealand Korean
Scandinavia Japanese
Switzerland Russian
United States (excluding Southern U.S.) Latin America, Southern United States


Intercultural communication and negotiation

In high-context cultures, such as Japan, meaning is conveyed through body language, pauses, rephrasing words used at negotiation meetings. In a low-context culture, like the United States, meaning is conveyed mainly through spoken words. Direct eye contact is expected and is seen as a measure of honesty, trustworthiness and reliability.

Chinese businesspersons employ a number of communication strategies designed to receive face or give face to others, such as indirectness, intermediaries, praising, requests and shaming. In order to save face, they often try indirectness by avoiding public confrontations. Using intermediaries avoids direct confrontation, especially in conflict situations. A contact should always be established before representatives are sent to China. The culture favors a win-win negotiation strategy that allows both sides to be winners in order to increase the strength and scope of relationships. Chinese businesspersons employ praise to recognize status and position. For instance, Chinese people often directly request favors because this signals that a business relationship is firm. It is customary for Chinese businesspersons to resort to shame when the trust of a relationship is violated.

In China and in some parts of Africa, direct eye contact is considered rude and inappropriate. Similarly, direct eye contact with a superior or senior person demonstrates disrespect and hostility in India.

Global business etiquette and ethics

If you are interested in pursuing a multinational business venture, it is vital to learn about the different cultures and human behaviors around the world. Becoming aware and sensitive to different countries’ business etiquette is the key to establishing business relationships with individuals and businesses.

Chinese business etiquette is directly related to the Chinese sensitivity to face which serves as an evaluation of a person’s credibility, integrity and self-image.   When conducting business in China or in the United States with a person from China, the rules of business etiquette are controlled and determined by face giving and taking.  While individualist cultures are most concerned with saving their own face (self-face concern), collectivist cultures are concerned with saving the face of its in-group members (other-face concern).

In Chinese and Taiwanese culture, preserving others’ face in social encounters is important so supervisors usually do not directly point out mistakes to their subordinates. When giving introductions, remember that the surname comes first and the given name last. The introduction is accompanied by a bow which is uncommon in many other cultures.  Another specific illustration of how face influences Chinese business etiquette is the importance of the business card exchange at meetings or social gatherings. Chinese business cards represent the person to whom you are being introduced. Therefore, it is polite to study the card carefully and respectfully before putting it in the pocket or on the table as a sign of respect.

Business etiquette in Great Britain is based on a strong sense of identity and nationalism. The English businessperson tends to be matter-of-fact and deadline oriented. Unlike businesspersons from the U.S., business friendships are not necessary. Because of their individualist culture, like the Americans, they focus on the tasks set out in their job description and think it is normal for a boss to reward individual effort.  The English businessperson’s negotiation processes also reflect cultural characteristics—they are formal, polite and place great value on proper protocol and etiquette.

German businesspersons prefer a hierarchical organizational structure because it avoids uncertainty. Power is ensured within the organization. They are autocrats who prefer formal communication when conducting business. In addition, they focus on personal achievements. Truth and directness are important aspects in business. The German businessperson’s strict adherence to behavioral expectations is manifested in their standards of business etiquette. For example, being on time for all business and social engagements is of paramount importance to the German culture.  In Germany, you always use a title when addressing someone unless told it is okay to use first names.

Japan’s style of business etiquette, as with other Asian cultures, is based on high-context communication.  Much of the messages delivered are carried in cues and rely on “between the lines” interpretation. These contextual differences are apparent in the way businesspersons in Japan approach situations such as decision-making and negotiating.

For example, building relationships and friendships in Japan is a necessary prerequisite for doing business in their country. Signing a contract in Japan, as well as in other Asian cultures, does not signal a sale or negotiation but a continuation of a relationship with obligations and duties in the future. The Japanese say “yes” for no but indicate whether “yes” is yes or really no by the context. As high context communicators that tend to communicate more implicitly, when a Japanese businessperson speaks, they expect the person to interpret what they mean by their knowledge of the cultural values that lie behind the words.


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Joe Garavente

Joe Garavente

Joe is the director of publications and communications for Meadowlands Media. He oversees editorial, advertising, production and distribution for all Meadowlands Media digital and print products. Meadowlands Media is the media and communications division of the Meadowlands Chamber, Meadowlands Live! | Convention & Visitors Bureau and the Meadowlands 2040 Foundation. Meadowlands Magazine—which has been serving the region’s business community for over 40 years—is the flagship publication of Meadowlands Media and reaches over 50,000 business owners and executives. It is the official publication of the Meadowlands Chamber. Meadowlands Media has also grown to publish for consumer, business and visitor audiences across print and digital platforms, offering readers critical information and advertising partners prime exposure for their brands. Joe can be reached at (201) 939-0707 or JGaravente@meadowlands.org

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