Let’s be honest, this is a tricky one. The difference between the two extremes of the continuum of this variable is huge. When people from different sides communicate, the scope for misunderstanding and for completely missing information is great.
So, what is it about exactly? This cultural orientation in communication is usually referred to as low context and high context.
In low context cultures, the purpose of communication is to exchange information. So, most of the meaning of the communication is carried in the words. Low context people like clear and detailed instructions, guidance, procedures, lengthy contracts. All the better if it is written and signed. Everything in the communication is taken at face value.
In contrast, in high context cultures, the purpose of communication is to build relationships. Words in themselves carry little importance. Most of the meaning comes from non verbal communication: body language, gestures, facial expressions, tone of voice. It is about how it is said, the context around the words. No meaning can be put on the words without noticing and understanding the context.
From this two descriptions, you can easily imagine how communication could go astray. Imagine a low context person listening to the words and not noticing the body language and expression of their interlocutor. Or taking a yes for a yes when the whole context makes it clear for the person saying yes that it is actually a no.I told you it was a tricky one!
Another difficulty is that context is what it says on the tin: it is very contextual. So, even two persons from high context cultures may have different contexts and will not fully understand each other either. For instance, think about a gesture you could make with your hand. You make it because to you it means something. For another person, it could mean something very different or nothing at all.
Then, what can you do to reduce confusion and misunderstanding? First observe and be aware of the non verbal communication. It can be hard and will take time when you are not used to it. Second, observe the outcome of communication, especially when you are not involved. This will help you relate the meaning, outcome to the non verbal communication you have observed. Third, do not try to interpret when you don’t know. You don’t know the context because it is not your culture, so the likelihood is that your own interpretation will be off the mark. Fourth, accept you will miss or misinterpret some information. So, when you do not get the results you expect, clarify to understand where the meaning has been lost.
Understanding fully all the details of a high context culture may be out of reach in the time you have in this culture. You will still definitely improve with practice and with awareness. When you go from a high context to a low context culture, remember that people will likely miss the meaning of your non verbal communication. Don’t be surprised if they misunderstand you and try to put a bit more of the information you want to convey in your words.
Whatever happens when you meet somebody from the other side of this continuum, accept it will make for interesting conversations.