Understanding High- and Low-Context Cultures
In different parts of the world, there are different native languages spoken. Some of these languages are very concise and clear (low-context) while others rely heavily on context clues in addition to what is being said (high-context). This is an extremely important distinction when doing business globally, because it can make the difference as to whether or not the business effectively communicates with consumers.
High-context cultures are characterized by a heavy reliance on implicit communication and non-verbal cues. Common high context cultures are found in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Central Europe, and Latin America. Relationships in these cultures develop slowly and are based on trust. Common non-verbal elements such as tone, facial expressions, and gestures hold a high significance, meanwhile verbal communication can often be vague or indirect. Space is often considered very communal and people stand close to one another and share space. Low-context cultures believe everything deserves its time, and timing is difficult to plan and stick to a strict schedule.
Low-context cultures rely on explicit verbal communication between individuals. Information is defined specifically and clearly. These cultures often have western European roots, including the United States and Australia. Relationship in these cultures generally begin and end quickly. Social structure is much more decentralized and communication is more open. Non-verbal elements are insignificant and often overlooked, while information and opinions are clearly laid out in a verbal manner. Most spaces are compartmentalized and people desire privacy and a “personal space bubble.” Meetings and events have a strict beginning and end time, and individuals consider their time as their own and value it very highly.
Not all communication is equal. Individuals and businesses need to adapt the way they communicate depending on the culture they are doing business in. If you plan to do business somewhere, have a clear understanding of what to expect when it comes to communication and how to best convey your message. You do not want to show up for an important business meeting in Hong Kong not knowing what to expect and missing significant social cues and trying to do all of the business verbally. Know the culture you are doing business in.