Communicating With High- and Low-Context Cultures

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Culture Map" by Erin Meyer. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do you often communicate with people from other cultures as part of your job? What differences have you noticed between different cultures’ communication styles?

Learning how to communicate effectively is essential for good business. But contrary to popular belief, the techniques for good communication vary depending on the place you’re in. Cultural communication expert Erin Meyer places cultures on a communication spectrum and defines the two extremes as “high-context” and “low-context.”

In this article, we’ll look at the difference between high- and low-context cultures and present some strategies for working well with people whose communication styles differ from yours.

Defining a Low-Context Culture

Meyer defines low-context cultures as cultures where people communicate and receive messages at face value. Both the speaker and listener act under the assumption that all relevant information has been explicitly stated.

In a low-context culture, the onus for communication lies with the speaker. If a misunderstanding occurs, someone from a low-context culture will find fault with the speaker because it was the speaker’s responsibility to communicate their message clearly.

According to Meyer, the United States is the lowest-context culture in the world. (Shortform note: The extent of the U.S.’s low-context culture is evident in its signposting—even in tiny towns, where everyone knows one another and the location of every local business, the streets have signs and the buildings are numbered sequentially. The onus is on the city to make sure that people get where they want to go.)

If you interact with someone from a lower-context culture than yours, you might walk away thinking that person is overly blunt (because of how direct their communication style is) or condescending (because they’re explaining their ideas or instructions unnecessarily).

Strategies for Communicatingm With Low-Context Cultures

Be clear and specific. Follow the English maxim “say what you mean, and mean what you say.” (Shortform note: If you feel uncomfortable, remind yourself this is normal for the other culture. In these situations, it’s better to over-communicate than under-communicate.) 

Ask questions. When you don’t understand what someone’s saying, don’t look for subtext in your conversation. Just ask! Meyer also recommends asking questions to determine whether your counterpart has understood your message, such as “Am I being clear enough?” (Shortform note: If this is too explicit for your tastes, try, “Do you have any questions?”)

Recap what was said, and follow up. People in lower-context cultures tend to write things down to make sure that ideas and processes remain transparent. Meyer recommends following this process: Review the content of the conversation, the action steps, and who’s responsible for each action step at the end of each conversation or meeting. You should also send a follow-up email with the same content to keep everybody informed. In this email, clarify any points you think the other person might have misunderstood during your conversation. (Shortform note: Although email etiquette varies between cultures, the American model is a good place to start since the United States is the lowest-context country in the world. This article suggests sending it shortly after the meeting, explains who to send the email to, and offers a template you can copy. Don’t forget the subject! The clearer it is, the more likely it will get read.) 

Defining a High-Context Culture

Meyer defines high-context cultures as cultures where communication doesn’t occur at only face value. To communicate effectively in a high-context culture, you must read between the lines. 

Meyer explains that people from high-context cultures have a shared cultural understanding, etiquette, and norms that influence their communication style. So both the speaker and the listener act under the assumption that not all relevant information has been explicitly stated. They assume that there is an underlying message and that the listener must look for it.

In a high-context culture, the onus for communication is shared between the listener and the speaker. If a misunderstanding occurs, the fault lies with the speaker for not communicating effectively, but also with the listener for not interpreting the message correctly. 

According to Meyer, Japan is the highest-context culture in the world. (Shortform note: In contrast to the low-context U.S., high-context Japan has relatively little signposting—even in big cities like Tokyo, there are streets without names and buildings without numbers. The onus is on the individual to make sure she gets where she wants to go.)

Meyer states that if you interact with someone from a more high-context culture than yours, you might walk away thinking that person is bad at communicating or purposefully hiding information to spite you.

The Origin of High- and Low-Context Cultures 

Meyer uses the terms “high-context culture” and “low-context culture” exclusively to describe how people communicate messages. In contrast, when anthropologist Edward T. Hall developed the terms in the 1930s, his usage was far broader: The original theory compared different views on relationships, territory, time, and learning in addition to social interaction. For example, Hall thought that people from high-context cultures defined their identity with groups, thought of spaces as communal, resisted strict scheduling, and valued accuracy most when learning. In contrast, he thought that people from low-context cultures were more individualist, thought of spaces as private, loved strict scheduling, and valued speed most when learning.

Strategies for Communicating With High-Context Cultures

Listen more. As you listen, Meyer recommends focusing on interpreting the subtext of what your conversation partner is saying. And don’t repeat yourself! This can come across as unnecessarily condescending, according to Meyer.

(Shortform note: As Meyer notes, active listening is a technique used effectively in low-context cultures. She probably doesn’t suggest it in higher-context cultures because active listening depends on each person being as explicit as possible and actively correcting misunderstandings—not common features of high-context communication.)

Pay attention to the other person’s body language. (Shortform note: But body language differs depending on the culture! Study the body language of the culture you’re in to avoid misunderstandings.)

Ask more questions. Specifically, ask open-ended questions to clarify your understanding of what is being said. Meyer urges persisting until you’re sure about the meaning. (Shortform note: This tip also applies to situations in which you wouldn’t normally think of asking open-ended questions, like scheduling. One strategy is to ask, “How can I help you get this done by X?” instead of “Can you get this done by X?” And pay close attention to the answer! Words like “try” or “probably” often mean no.)

Assume the best in others. Remember, people from higher-context cultures are (most likely) not trying to manipulate you. You may be tempted to think they’re bad communicators. But their communication style works in their culture. It just doesn’t work in yours. (Shortform note: Consider this: Sometimes, the communication you find so confusing is what others prize about their companies/cultures. In a Harvard Business Review article, Meyer describes how Louis Vuitton employees viewed the company’s high-context communication style as key to their success.)

Explain why you’re writing things down. People in high-context cultures can interpret the act of writing things down as a sign you don’t trust them. Meyer suggests explaining that it’s a cultural difference. This will help ease any potential misunderstandings. (Shortform note: Alternatively, only write things down when absolutely necessary. Sometimes, it’s simplest to adjust your work style to the other culture.)

Ask for help. Meyer suggests explaining that you’re having trouble with the cultural difference and asking for help. This might come easier if you combine it with complimenting the other culture and making jokes at your own expense. (Shortform note: Not all humor is universal, so be careful. Self-deprecating humor, which exists in both Eastern and Western cultures, is probably your safest bet.)

When You’re Dealing With Members From Two Different High-Context Cultures

According to Meyer, the biggest potential for miscommunication lies between two people from different high-context cultures. This is because both are looking for subtext, but the cultural norms by which that subtext is informed differ drastically.

Meyer states that you need a low-context communication method for your team to be successful. In order for it to be as successful as possible, follow these principles.

#1: Create a low-context process first. Clearly articulating the communication method before you start doing any work is the most effective way to prevent potential misunderstandings. The goal is to be as explicit as possible on multiple levels to prevent misunderstanding.

#2: Let the team create the communication process. (Shortform note: Meyer states that the team members need to understand why the low-context process exists, but she doesn’t explicitly state why the team members need to create the communication method. Presumably, the team members need to help create the method so they fully understand what they need to do. If someone else creates the process, the team’s high-context members might still look into the underlying meaning of why they’ve been asked to communicate this way. They might even interpret the process as a sign their managers don’t trust them and take offense.) 

Communicating With High- and Low-Context Cultures

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  • The eight axes you can use as a framework to analyze cultural differences
  • How to better relate to those of another culture to accomplish business goals
  • How the Vikings have more gender equality than we see today

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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