Communication in Low-Context and High-Context Cultures
Low- and high- context categorizations do not apply to all people in a specific country, but it is important to understand the general tendencies of the dominant culture because this knowledge can hel p you communicate better with those from cultures different from your own (Copeland & G riggs, 1985). Every culture is unique, and when you interact or do business with people from other cultures, you must become familiar not only with the language of the other country but also with its culture. In some high- context cultures, for example, it is considered rude to directly say “no” if someone makes a
request of you, and people instead prefer to communicate the “no” without actually saying t he words. They might say, “maybe” or “I will try,” but it is clearly understood to mean “no” t o someone who is familiar with that culture. The “maybe” or “I will try” answers are simply ritualized responses, much like when we ask someone “How are you?” and they respond “fi ne” (even when they are not). This idea is illustrated in the earlier example of the pilots’ int ercultural communication. Due to the high- context communication he is probably used to given his dominant culture, the first officer a nticipated that his high- context message (“Don’t you think it rains more? In this area here?”) would be appropriatel y interpreted by the captain.
People from low- context cultures such as the United States are used to focusing on being precise and using v erbal communication. So, when an American makes a request of a person from a higher- context society who responds with an indirect, ambiguous message such as “I will try,” the American will typically ignore the ritual and the context, take the words literally, and expec t the person to try to accommodate the request. Then the American may become upset whe n the other person makes no attempt to do so. If the American protests, the high- context person may have difficulty understanding and believe the American is trying to forc e a rude response (Novinger, 2001).
When engaging in intercultural communication, you may have a tendency to be ethnocentri c— that is, to believe that your own culture or method of communication is best or does things “the right way” and that others are wrong. One of the most important skills of competent co mmunicators in this multicultural and globalized world is to recognize that most aspects of cultures are not right or wrong; they are merely different from one another. For example, c onsider oceanic fishing practices. Some cultures perceive fishing to be wrong because of its environmental harm (“What is the environmental impact of the fishing industry?”, 2017). H owever, for a number of indigenous coastal cultures, fishing in the ocean not only provides food, but a connection to the earth and to family (Ota & Cisneros- Montemayor, 2017). This shows that one culture’s values are viewed entirely differently by members of another culture. While neither is right or wrong, this clashing of values may ca use conflict. Figure 3.2 summarizes the different characteristics of communication in low- context and high-context cultures.
Figure 3.2: Communication in low-context and high-context cultures
Every culture is unique, but there are some general factors that we can keep in mind when we interact with individuals from low-context and high-context cultures.
Source: Based on information from Novinger, T. (2001). Intercultural communication: A practical guide. Austin, TX: Universit y of Texas Press.
Individualistic and Collectivistic Cultures
In addition to differences between low- and high- context communication in cultures, another fundamental way in which cultures differ is the ir tendency toward individualism or collectivism. We first introduced the concepts of indivi dualism and collectivism when we discussed Hofstede’s five cultural dimensions. Recall tha t individualistic cultures value a strong sense of personal identity and promote individual g oals, rights, choices, and freedoms. People in the United States, as well as in other individua listic cultures such as Australia and the Netherlands, are encouraged to be unique and self- reliant. They are generally stimulated by individual competition, place personal goals over others’ motivations, and often attribute their achievements to their individual strengths. In an individualistic culture, meeting new people often involves questions about accomplishm ents such as “What do you do for a living?” Many believe that they create their own identity, and they are proud of their personal success. Members of collectivistic cultures, however, value close ties, cooperation and harmony, conf orming to the group, and relying on others for support. The group, family, or community a person belongs to is of high importance in these cultures, and people are more interdepend ent and closely associated with their social network. What is best for the group is the overri ding factor in decision making. Often, there is no differentiation between an individual’s pri orities and the group’s priorities (Hofstede, 2001). In Japanese business situations, for insta nce, decisions are made within the group with little or no personal recognition for individu als (Morrison & Conaway, 2006). Interpersonal communication differs according to how individualistic or collectivistic a cult ure is. In interpersonal communication, individualists focus more on the content of the inte raction, or what is being said, while collectivist communicators focus on the relational impli cations of the interaction, or what the interaction means for the relationship (Goldstein, Ma rtin, & Cialdini, 2008).