High context communication is very subtle. It uses many techniques other than words to send a message. And when words are used, those words are usually pretty subtle too. You might hear, “it’s not a problem,” or “let’s think about it,” or perhaps, “let’s talk about this again later.” In fact, those are usually pretty direct, high context messages that actually mean “no.” But, it’s about saving face, and learning how to communicate across cultures will mean avoiding nasty misunderstandings.
High context communication is about using many cues to send a message, not just words. So timing, when was a message sent, was there a delay, that can be very important. Stories are a way of sending a message without directly criticizing.
The Wrong High Context Message
Here’s a true story: There’s a Texan who went to Thailand to set up a new business venture, and he met his Thai business partner when he arrived. Towards the end of his trip, the Texan was really missing out on important communication cues. It all came to a head in the final day, when he thinks everything is going great and he’s expecting to sign a contract. He slaps the table and he pulls out a couple of cigars, offers one to his Thai host, and he puts his feet up on the table. Well, his Thai host stands up, marches right out of the room, and our Texan never hears from him again.
A number of different things happened there. One, the thing that really put it over the edge, is that putting your feet up on a desk, and showing the soles of your feet to somebody in Thailand is terribly, terribly offensive.
High Context Means “Rich,” “Subtle”
So, high context communication is very subtle. It uses many techniques other than words to send a message. And when words are used, those words are usually pretty subtle too. You might hear, “it’s not a problem,” or “let’s think about it,” or perhaps, “let’s talk about this again later.” Those are usually pretty direct, high context messages that mean “no.”
But, it’s about saving face. Specifically, it’s about saving your face. Your partner isn’t going to tell you that your idea is bad. Instead their going to circuitously say: This isn’t working for us right now; why don’t you take the time to come back, later, with a better answer? When you have an Asian business partner, and they’re telling you a story, it’s probably a good idea to look for the hidden meanings in that story.
This kind of subtle communication is often completely lost on Westernized cultures, meaning the United States, Canada, many European cultures, because those cultures focus on low context communication, which is all about just using words.