Context is Everything

03 Cross-Cultural Communication

Context is Everything

Communicating in High- and Low-context Cultures
Scroll

Introduction

Context literally means “with text”—it’s all of the information surrounding what is being said, from the setting to the people involved and their standing within a given culture. The context of any interpersonal exchange can impact much of what is said and meant. Cultural norms regarding context vary greatly. In many ways, these cultural differences related to context influence how people communicate.
The differences between high-context and low-context cultures is one of the most challenging things to navigate and one of the most important and distinct differences that exists across cultures. Having a firm grasp on what constitutes high- and low-context, particularly in a communication setting, will truly help you better understand each interaction you experience.

Low- and High-context

Consider this example:

Illustration of white woman
Name: Cindy
Age: 26
Country of Origin: USA
Occupation: Operations Manager
Communication Style: Low-context

Cindy grew up in San Francisco. She prides herself on how quickly she got a management position after graduating college and attributes it to her hard work and “go-get-’em” attitude.

Illustration of asian woman
Name: Runa
Age: 28
Country of Origin: Japan
Occupation: Operations Manager
Communication Style: High-context

Runa grew up in Tokyo. She has earned several promotions since her university internship based on hard work and following company protocols. She has also greatly increased the efficiency in her department.

Cindy is hosting a conference at a local hotel for U.S. Operations employees as they meet their Japanese partners for the first time.

Cindy and Runa have had several productive phone calls before the conference, and they are happy to meet each other. They are now setting up the room the day before the meeting.

Transcript
Video Transcript
Cindy
Good morning, Runa! Thanks for offering to help me set up the room. We only have about ten minutes before we’re expected downstairs, so I’ve already gotten everything set up.
Runa
(thinking) This table is a mess!
EXPERT
For Cindy, as long as they get the necessary materials, the manner of display is not important. In Japan, presentation is important, and Runa wants to impress her colleagues.
Runa
Thanks for doing that. I think I’ll move things around just a little bit though before people get here.
Cindy
Oh, I don’t think we have time for that. Plus, the participants will just mess it all up anyway.
EXPERT
While the U.S. norm for conference room set up is to have a neat, uniform look, Cindy is acting quickly since she is pressed for time. While Cindy’s response is practical, Runa still feels uncomfortable.
Runa
Well… actually it won’t take me that long, just give me a second.
Cindy
Ugh, we just have to make sure they get what they need, but fine.
EXPERT
Runa quickly reorganizes everything. She believes that her conference behavior needs to reflect the careful attention she gives her work in Japan.
Runa
See, it’s no problem. I think that looks much better.
Cindy
I guess. Either way, they’ll get what they need. Thanks.
EXPERT
As you can see, there is underlying tension between Runa and Cindy because each of them believes that their way of doing things is correct. Neither person is wrong here, because they’re both doing what they know. When you are communicating with someone who relies on a different set of norms, try to remain open to their way of doing things. You will learn their values from their behavior and gather clues as to how you can make communications smoother.
The previous video highlighted how cultures range along a continuum from low-context to high-context for how they communicate. Different cultures and different individuals will fall at some point along the continuum, and that may change position depending on circumstances and the players involved.

Understanding the nature of context and learning how to communicate in both low- and high-context styles can help you navigate many difficult questions more effectively.

Let’s take a closer look…

Runa
Cindy
Whether or not people rely heavily on context plays a major role in how people communicate. Use the following interaction to explore the definitions of low- and high-context in more depth.
Low/High Context Background
LOW-CONTEXT

We speak in a straightforward manner and place value in “meaning what we say” and “being taken at our word.”

We are often focused on problem solving, getting things done, and we’re likely to be personal and informal with our peers and superiors.

HIGH-CONTEXT

Our speech is tailored toward who we’re talking to and how we fit into relationships with those people.

We are often focused on maintaining the peace and seeing the bigger picture. We rely on hierarchies and rules around formality to modify how we communicate.

Practice: Low- and High-context

Read the description and then decide if it’s an example of low- or high-context.
“Claudia will always let you know exactly what she means, regardless of where she is or who she is speaking to.”
Low-context
High-context
“Amit speaks very casually with his friends, but when around his superiors, he tends to change his tone and seems to speak more seriously.”
Low-context
High-context
“Jim seems to have trouble directly saying no. He seems to talk around the subject when asked to do something he can’t with a desire to keep people happy.”
Low-context
High-context
“Bahati needs to be more respectful of her superiors. She’s pretty casual with not just her friends, but with everyone.”
Low-context
High-context
When you’re first interacting with someone, you expect them to use the style of communication that you’re accustomed to. When they don’t, this can be jarring. If you are aware of what their context is, this will shift your expectations and make it easier to adjust your communication style if necessary.

You can manage some potentially difficult situations by being aware of your own communication preferences and understanding when and how to adjust if necessary.

Remember to remain flexible and open to others’ approaches when you’re encountering different ways of communicating out in the world.
PDF icon View more information on high/low context and the Dimensions of Culture.

What Would You Do?

Now that you’ve seen low- and high-context communication in action and have some practice identifying the differences between those styles, let’s take it a step further.

Here are some scenarios where you’ll have to think about how you would respond. Keep in mind there are no right answers, but some responses might go better than others.

People on bus
You are riding downtown on a bus from your neighborhood to meet some friends. You are talking with a friend on your phone. As you are talking, someone on the bus notices you are speaking English and begins to pay attention to your conversation. When you hang up the phone, he states that he is learning English and is eager to practice. At this point he engages you in conversation and asks about your country’s election. During this encounter, he is standing very close to you and holding your arm, making you feel uncomfortable.
How do you respond? There are pros and cons to each option.
  • A. You patiently hold your ground and pleasantly answer his questions.
  • B. You silently stand up and deliberately move to another area on the bus so he cannot touch you.
  • C. You say, “I’m sorry, I’m in a bit of a hurry” and get off the bus at the next stop.
  • D. You turn to him and say, “Excuse me, that was a private conversation and I am not comfortable discussing politics.”

In some cultures, even strangers will stand close to one another and touch in a non-threatening, non-sexual way while engaging in casual conversation. This option is viable if you personally feel comfortable maintaining this close proximity.

Pro: You are likely to make a good impression on this person and help him to practice his language skills, and you may have started to create a friendship with a stranger. He will likely walk away with a positive perception of Americans.
Con: You will have to deal with being uncomfortable for a bit and may have future encounters with this person.

Review each other option to see the pros and cons to making that decision.

In most cultures, you have the right to sit wherever you like, and you are little concerned with offending a stranger. However, it would be more polite to excuse yourself.

Pro: You don’t have to engage in an exchange that makes you uncomfortable.
Con: By not addressing the man you might have insulted him and he may follow you to try and continue the conversation. He may walk away with a negative perception of Americans.

Review each other option to see the pros and cons to making that decision.

This is a possibility if you feel threatened even if it inconveniences you on your journey.

Pro: You were respectful, even if not entirely truthful, and you don’t have to continue engaging with someone who makes you uncomfortable.
Con: You may have wound up in a location that you didn’t intend to be in and you could be stuck there for a bit, and if you see the person again, he may try to engage you in the future.

Review each other option to see the pros and cons to making that decision.

This is a reasonable response. You politely address the man but clearly state that you are unwilling to continue the conversation.

Pro: You address your concerns and are honest with the person who has approached you.
Con: Depending on the man’s level of insistence, he may press on with other topics. He may also be offended.

Review each other option to see the pros and cons to making that decision.

As you have recently arrived in a new culture, you are keenly observing how people interact with each other. One of the more puzzling behaviors is how people greet each other. You try to determine what the protocols are for how women greet women, how men greet men, and how women and men greet each other.

Your spouse’s organization is hosting a gathering for the families, and you watch how people interact. Some only nod their heads in the direction of the other person and some shake right hands. Some shake right hands but then draw close for a hug as well. Some will kiss each other, just touching cheeks and not kissing on the lips, but some touch right cheeks and some touch left cheeks. This is all so confusing! You want to be friendly and appropriate, but you also don’t want to offend anyone.

How do you attempt to greet people? There are pros and cons to each option.
  • A. Just offer your right hand, as this seems the safest for greeting both men and women.
  • B. Find a “cultural informant,” a local person who can explain the local customs to you.
  • C. Wait and see how people greet you, and then reciprocate in the same way.
  • D. Use your observations at the party to start a conversation with someone, and ask for their explanation.

This will likely work in many cultures for greetings between two people of the same gender, but perhaps not when men and women greet each other. If you see men and women shaking hands, then you can also do this if it is comfortable for you.

Pro: This will likely feel familiar, as it’s the most common form of greeting in the United States and in many locations it will be received relatively well.
Con: There’s a possibility that this could cause you some trouble if greeting someone of the opposite gender. Also, in cultures where people are more accustomed to physical contact, this might come off as a bit cool.

Review each other option to see the pros and cons to making that decision.

When being informed by someone who knows the culture, you acquire a general list of rules. Some cultures are exact about habits (“everyone gives two kisses, right cheek then left cheek”). Other cultures might say, “It depends on the relationship. I shake hands with acquaintances and superiors but I always hug my friends.”

Pro: You will be able to get all kinds of good information from a cultural informant, including ways to greet and the meanings behind greeting practices.
Con: You might well be stuck if there’s no one there who can serve in this role.

Review each other option to see the pros and cons to making that decision.

It is a viable option for a newcomer, although if you extend your hand but the other person draws close for a hug, you can have an awkward encounter.

Pro: You’ll likely be able to figure things out if you follow someone else’s lead.
Con: If you’re in a hierarchical culture, the other person may be waiting for you to take the lead, so this could get awkward.

Review each other option to see the pros and cons to making that decision.

It is a wonderful way to start a conversation with someone you don’t know at a party, and learn something about the local culture in the process.

Pro: This is like drafting a cultural informant on the spot, which could be very useful and can get you into a conversation with a new person.
Con: If you’re uncomfortable already, it might be difficult to strike up a conversation with a stranger.

Review each other option to see the pros and cons to making that decision.

Some paths are easier to navigate than others but there’s often no “right” way to respond, since what is “right” is so often guided by culture and circumstance. By taking some time to reflect on what you learned from these encounters and thinking about different possibilities for your own course of action, you’ve begun to incorporate some strategies for communicating successfully across cultures.
Map of the world with pins in different locations.

About this Resource

Representing the United States—and Americans—while living and working abroad is an honor and privilege. At the same time, it can be overwhelming and intimidating to answer questions on behalf of a nation and its people, especially considering the diversity of the American experience. Every American living or working abroad needs the skills and confidence to answer difficult questions politely and substantively, while at the same time respecting the many cultural realities of all interpersonal encounters.

This interactive resource, So You’re an American? A Guide to Answering Difficult Questions Abroad, is designed to build skills and confidence in responding to difficult questions about culture and nationality. Specifically, this resource focuses on handling everyday inquiries from curious folks around the globe. Have you ever jumped in a taxi and been confronted with “Why do Americans love their guns so much?” or some such question mired in history, culture, and values? Or, have you been at a local market trying to purchase a gift and been surprised that what should have been a 10 minute encounter has turned into a 45 minute ritual of tea, presentation of goods, and detailed explanations of the craftsman’s process?

So You’re an American? A Guide to Answering Difficult Questions Abroad is an online resource created by the Department of State’s Foreign Service Institute for all Americans living and working abroad who are eager to prepare for the many informal and unofficial questions they will receive while overseas. Throughout this resource, you will explore cross-cultural communication techniques as well as various aspects of culture through self-paced activities, videos, and simulations. Participants will develop confidence in their ability to navigate difficult questions and conversations, including knowing how to disengage appropriately. This resource limits its scope to non-foreign policy questions, as those demand answers from official sources.