Considering high-context vs. low-context cultures and its impact on cross-cultural leadership communications.
Communicating in your own native language is difficult enough. Add to this the nuances of differing cultures and we have a rather complex matter. Such nuances create certain barriers to communicating in a cross-cultural setting. Today, more than ever, leaders must find ways to influence people in varying cultures. Further, leaders must begin to understand the implications of globalization and how the very patterns of thought are based on the individual’s culture of origin.
Edward Hall, considered one of the fathers of cross-cultural communication, wrote that human communication is non-verbal and always follows cultural and contextual patterns. In his book The Silent Language he introduced the concepts of high-context vs. low-context and polychronic vs. monochronic communication.
High-Context and Low-Context Cultures
Hall presented the argument that in high context cultures ideas are not spelled out nor defined in detail and that in low-context cultures require details. High-context cultures assume that the people we speak to understand the context of our message and that the implied ideas of our message are not spelled out in any detail. High-context cultures such as China and Japan receive information about the meaning of messages based on the setting in which the message is communicated. In high-context environments individuals who share common implied meanings prefer communicating in more indirect or covert ways through nonverbal communication and meanings. A low-context culture would consider high-context cultures to be somewhat passive aggressive in their communication styles.
Hall defined high-context cultures as: covert and implicit; messages are internalized; strong use of nonverbal coding; reserved reactions to messages; distinct in-groups and out-groups; strong interpersonal bonds amongst members; high commitment among members and time is open and flexible.
Low-context cultures such as Great Britain and Germany use their words to embed greater meaning and their messages are more direct when speaking. Hall defined low-context cultures as: overt and explicit; messages are plainly coded; message detail is direct and verbalized; message receivers reactions are on the surface; flexible in-groups and out-groups; interpersonal relationships are more fragile; commitment is low; and time is highly organized.
Polychronic vs. Monochronic communication
In a polychronic culture we find individuals more likely to engage in multiple activities at the same time. They are more likely to become restless in the absence of differing stimuli. Typically Latin, African and Asian cultures are seen as polychronic. According to Hall, polychronic cultures are evident by: fixed appointments at short notice; individuals allow for plenty of time between appointment; agendas are determined at the start of a meeting; participants avoid rushing meetings; and they do not restrict themselves or impose self-imposed deadlines.
Conversely, a monochronic culture will most likely have specific precisions related to time, agendas, and dealing with one thing at a time. The United States, Canada, Australia, UK and any other Anglo-Saxon countries are considered monochronic. Hall’s monochronic cultures include: fixed appointments weeks in advance; agendas are sent in advance of meetings; individuals arrive on time; meetings begin at the agreed and appointed time; meeting participants keep to given schedules, deadlines and agendas; and it is common for individuals to interrupt in order to obtain clarity and understanding of something.
When leaders fail to understand the communication styles as presented through the high-context and low-context cultures, serious difficulties can arise for them when dealing with individuals from differing cultures. Global leaders must begin to find ways to understand and improve their communication skills.
Improving Communication Skills
To improve communication skills we must first understand the mechanics of communications. In 1967, the now famous research by Mehrabian and Ferris noted that communication is typically 7 percent verbal (words), 38 percent vocal (Para verbal) and 55 percent facial (body language).
When considering both high- and low-context cultures, they each hold different delivery and receptions of verbal and non-verbal messages. Considering the Mehrabian and Ferris research, high-context cultures rely heavily on facial/body language to interpret messages while low-context cultures are more likely to utilize all coefficients of the communications process. Add to these mechanics the polychronic and monochronic communication processes and you’ve added an additional layer of complexity to the messages being communicated.
For example: in a monochronic culture would presume that a polychronic culture was disinterested in the message being sent because they are multitasking while the message is presented. Likewise a polychronic culture might believe a monochronic culture to be strict in their approach to communication. Additional considerations would be in how the culture approaches appointments and time. While some may find chronic lateness to be on time, other cultures might receive this as rude. Understanding these deeper nuances as the sum of the communication process is important to interpreting the messages being presented.
Given these complexities, we cannot simply define communication as the act of conveying information through the combined effect of simultaneous verbal, vocal, and facial attitude communications. Listening skills are essential to good communication, but we must consider how the interpretations of such conveyed information is achieved. When we consider the nonverbal dimensions of intercultural communication we much confront the differing cultural behaviors. These cultural nuances become essential to the overall success of the leader from within the culture they operate.
How we view and interpret culture is based predominantly on how we see the culture through our own cultural lenses. Cultures are defined by the very filters and lenses by which we base our decisions. Considering the lenses by which we view the world we can begin to consider the worldview of others. It becomes essential for global leaders to adjust their filters and lenses to include other cultural attributes. Because thought is understood to be culturally based, we begin to view members of the culture differently and notice that they do not think the same way we do. When global leaders begin to adjust these filters they find that language is not just about communicating with individuals but becomes the very reflection of the culture from which they operate.
At its most basic level, becoming a cultural leader is about human relationships and less about economics, finance and productivity. To best integrate into a given culture, global leaders must apply certain competencies to their approach to global expansion. Becoming a competent global leader requires vigilant study and understanding of culture and its many attributes. These complexities of geography, language, customs, values, traditions, laws, ethics and national psychology are interpreted through varying lenses of cultural bias and the leader’s ability to understand and connect with the cultures in which they operate.
The secret formula appears to begin and end with the leader’s ability to connect and build trust with those in which they may have need to influence. Building trust, while a complex matter, is achievable in most all instances. Trust begins with an understanding of power distances and the defining of the culture as either high- or low-context.
When we begin to develop our intellectual and emotional competencies for cultures we open endless possibilities for connection and expansion into markets and cultures otherwise not possible decades ago. It becomes clear that understanding cultural nuance is essential to success in any culture. The greater challenge is in understanding what those nuances are and how to effectively utilize them.
Philip A Foster, MA is Founder/CEO of Maximum Change Inc. Elevating leaders and their organizations to the next level since 2005. Master Certified Coach, Philip A Foster, MA and his associates facilitate effective positive change by helping organizations, leaders and individuals in high demand — design and implement strategies that maximize focus and deliver results. Specializing in Organization and Strategic Leadership.