How do the world’s cultures differ in terms of communication? How have these differences come about?
On a communication spectrum, cultures can be classified into high-context (where people communicate and interpret messages at face value) and low-context (where you have to read between the lines to get the message). According to Erin Meyer, a culture’s communication style is shaped by its language and history.
In this article, we’ll look at the two factors that underlie cross-cultural differences in communication: language and history.
How Do the World’s Cultures Differ in Terms of Communication?
In her book The Culture Map, Erin Meyer attributes cross-cultural differences in communication to two factors: language and history.
How Language Shapes a Culture’s Communication Style
English-speaking countries cluster at the low-context end of the axis, countries that speak Romance languages cluster in the middle, and Asian countries cluster toward the high-context end of the axis.
Meyer correlates the number of words in a language, the number of words that can have different meanings, and the number of expressions related to “reading between the lines” with a culture’s communication style.
A higher number of words is associated with lower-context cultures, while the reverse holds true for higher-context cultures. (English has 500,000 words, whereas French, a high-context culture, only has 70,000.) A higher number of words may correspond to a lower-context culture because when you have more words, you’re far more likely to find one that matches your meaning exactly, so you can create a clear and direct statement.
Similarly, higher-context cultures tend to have more words that can have different meanings. (Japanese has many words that mean different things in different contexts and also many homonyms. English has very few.) A higher number of homonyms and words that mean different things in different contexts may correspond to a higher-context culture because there is more potential for ambiguous statements—so listeners have to depend on context to interpret these statements.
Finally, higher-context cultures tend to have more expressions that are related to “reading between the lines.” (In French, both the expressions “sous-entendu” and “deuxième degré” refer to the idea that there is a second meaning that hasn’t been explicitly stated.) It’s possible that higher-context cultures need more expressions about “reading between the lines” because it’s a more commonly used skill in those cultures.
|The Life-Saving Power of Switching Contexts|
Meyer’s assertion that language shapes a culture’s communication style is supported by the story of Korean Air detailed in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. Korean Air drastically improved their safety record by making English the language of in-air communications. South Korea is a high-context culture. When the crew spoke in Korean, the constraints of their high-context language didn’t permit them to use direct language with a superior. So the flight crew used only mitigated speech to warn the captain of a 1997 Korean Air flight about the dangers of his landing approach. He didn’t interpret the underlying message correctly, and the crew thought speaking more directly was culturally unacceptable—resulting in a plane crash that killed 228 people. But the switch to English removed the notion that it was the listener’s responsibility to interpret what was said to them and allowed the South Korean crew to communicate more directly when lives were at stake. If switching to a low-context language creates low-context communication even in a company from a high-context culture, it’s likely that language shapes people’s communication styles.
|Why Context Matters in Translation|
In business, we see this interplay of language and cultural communication styles most often in translation. When translating documents from high-context cultures, a literal translation isn’t always enough because even if the words are technically accurate, the meaning isn’t the same. Conversely, translated documents from a low-context culture may confuse people from high-context cultures, who will persist in looking for underlying meanings where they don’t exist. As translation company Ulatus points out, these miscommunications are avoidable if you have culturally fluent translators. But as machine translation comes to dominate the translation landscape, it’s an issue we should all keep in mind.
How History Shapes a Culture’s Communication Style
Meyer also defines a country’s history as an important factor that shapes its communication style.
Low-context cultures tend to be younger and ethnically heterogeneous, so there are fewer cultural norms that are universally understood. The United States, which Meyer classifies as the world’s lowest-context culture, is both very young and immigrant-heavy.
In contrast, high-context cultures tend to have a long history and be ethnically homogeneous. As such, Meyer posits, they’ve had more time to develop social norms and unspoken rules of communication that are universally shared within the culture. Japan, which Meyer classifies as the world’s highest-context culture, is 98.5% ethnically Japanese, is an island nation, and was isolated from the world for 214 years.
(Shortform note: History doesn’t always determine whether a culture is high or low context. Meyer considers India a high-context country. While India does have a long shared history, it’s also extremely diverse and uses English as a common language. And in fact, one University of Helsinki paper posits that although India is traditionally a high-context culture, its communication style is becoming more low-context. Potential reasons include India’s globalization, specifically in trade, technology, television, and travel. The paper also suggests that Indians tend to be more talkative and direct than other traditionally high-context countries, which may support its shift to a lower-context culture.)
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