- In high-context cultures, people need time get to know others in order to build deep relationships
- In low-context cultures (including the U.S.), people require constant feedback in the form of words, numbers, and data
- This difference is important to grasp when dealing with international business partners and clients
Imagine yourself on a date for the first time. As you get into the car to head to the restaurant, you suddenly are hit with a panic: “I have nothing to say to this person!” The brief silence in the car is painful and unless somebody can think of something to say really fast, this date is going nowhere.
Compare this situation with that of a couple who has been married for 50 years. As they drive down the freeway toward the restaurant, they both sit in comfortable silence. Why is there a difference? It’s because the married couple has built the context of their relationship with more than 50 years of experiences. They don’t need words to fill up the empty space. The young couple on the first date, however, has no previous experience to draw from. Without the context of previous experiences, the people on the first date need real words to be spoken.
Sociologists say that in many cultures, it is common to act like the old married couple in the above example. That is to say, people store information over time, which then becomes the context for their communication later. These are called high-context cultures. In these cultures (think Asia and Latin America), people need time get to know others in order to build deep relationships. North American culture, however, exemplifies what is called a low-context culture. Rather than store information, Americans rely more on the actual words that are communicated. We put a lot of importance on spoken and written words because these help form the foundation for our behavior. We like numbers, data, rules, and overt information — and we base much of our behavior on them.
So how do you know if you are more of a high-context or low-context oriented person? Ask yourself what you do at a red traffic light when it is 3 a.m. and there is nobody else at the corner. If you say to yourself, “It is 3 a.m. and given that nobody is around, it makes no sense to wait at this red light” and you then go through the red light, you are more of a high-context person, because the context of the situation governs your behavior. If, however, you decide to wait for the green because you believe society works better when everyone follows the rules and the rule says to stop at red lights, you are more of a low-context person.
This difference between high-context and low-context cultures appears over and over again in professional settings. North Americans rank as one of the lowest of the low-context cultures (although traditionally the Germans have us beat). One brief example will suffice. There is a well-known anecdote of the American who negotiates with Japanese partners. If the American asks, “How about $500 per unit?” the Japanese partner will pause, look up to the ceiling, and quietly ponder the offer, saying nothing. The American then panics, thinking that he didn’t like the offer. So he lowers it, “OK, OK, how about $450 per unit?” As the Japanese partner again looks toward the ceiling, the American again wonders if his price is too high. What’s going on here? It could simply be that the Japanese person is thinking through the proposal. A serious proposal requires serious consideration. From the Japanese perspective, quietly taking a moment to think everything through is appropriate behavior. From the perspective of Americans, whose communication depends on actual words, the silence is misinterpreted as a rejection. Low-context people dislike the silence.
Notice the following example from our executive interviews. In this video clip, Ya Liu, a professional from Shanghai, offers insight into the importance of context, as opposed to the overt communication with numbers and data that characterize North Americans. (The clip is in Chinese, and the English translation is below.)
"People say that Americans, when doing business, are more concerned with data and numbers, rather than personal relationships. For example, when we are working on a project and run into a problem for which you have to make a proposal, Americans will often ask you, “Why? Do you have any numbers to support this?” When this happens we may need to give them a spreadsheet or something else to support our inference. Only in this way will they more readily have confidence in the plausibility of the proposal. And this is different with Chinese people. I think that when doing things like this, Chinese people are more concerned with people’s feelings. For example, if someone has had previous associations with the company, then they aren’t going to care too much about the numbers, but rather they will focus on what has been done and the kind of contact they’ve had in the past. They build a kind of mutual trust and dependence. Perhaps they don’t put such a heavy focus on numerical data as the Americans. Even when Americans know each other well, when it comes to work, I feel that numbers and data are still everything."
The notion of high- and low-context cultures is an important concept to grasp when dealing with international partners and clients. People from high-context cultures think Americans overstate the obvious, because their communication depends on the actual words that are spoken. Americans, as low-context communicators, often find Asians and Latin Americans to be evasive, because they don’t come out and specifically say things. So, what is my advice? Here in the United States, I suggest that you think twice before going through the red light at 3 in the morning. There is no guarantee that the police officer who catches you will understand your high-context thinking!
At the UT Center for International Business Education and Research (CIBER) we have developed a series of online materials related to international business, culture, and language. All of the materials are provided open access and without password restriction. Feel free to visit Prof. Kelm’s Homepage and the CIBER website for more materials and information.