Many Western cultures are very low context, focusing chiefly on words to deliver a message. So, if so much attention is given to what is spoken (or written), why are there so many misunderstandings between Western and Eastern teams? As it turns out, to someone from a high context culture, there’s a lot more to a message than just words.
Low context communication uses chiefly words to get a message across. There was this great study done in which Canadian students and Chinese students were asked to go into a room, and negotiate a business topic, and their negotiation was observed by researchers. They found that there were huge misunderstandings between [the students].
Low / High Context Misunderstandings
For example, [the researchers] might talk to the Canadian, and the Canadian would say, “Oh, everything went great, I’m sure we’re going to be in business together.” Then, they’d go talk to the Chinese student, and they would find out that this person would never do business with the other person.
It turns out that these low context / high context communications were completely missing the mark. The Canadian would see the Chinese student, perhaps, lean back a little bit in their chair, take a very relaxed pose, or cross their arms a little bit, or establish some long eye contact. Well, the Canadian thought of that as being relaxed, and interested — and paying attention. Unfortunately, in Chinese high context cultures those are all indicators of hostility and rejection.
Low Context Communication: Chiefly Words
Westerners, especially Americans, are very low context. But there are also a number of European countries that tend to be low context, the Germans and Swiss, for example. These cultures focus on direct, clear statements. They focus on words, and because of that, they tend to miss a lot of high context cues. They interpret everything that is not a clear “no” as an invitation to just continue the negotiation or talk, which tends to send the message that they’re willing to push their own topic through, no matter what the cost.
This direct communication is usually a source of rejection or insult to a high context culture — whereas, the high context communicator is wondering, “Why isn’t he getting all of these messages I’m sending?” When low context and high context culture comes together, there tend to be a lot of problems that crop up.