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Intercultural Communication – High and Low Context Cultures

Intercultural Communication – High and Low Context Cultures

Psychologists have long accepted that semantics (the words we choose and the meanings they connote) can have a big effect on the psychological state of both individuals and groups.  Businesses certainly take word-choice seriously, some going so far, it seems, as micromanaging word use within their companies (e.g. discouraging the use of the word “problem” and replacing it with the word “challenge”.)

Words falling from favor:

  • weaknesses
  • back office
  • offshore

Increasingly popular words/phrases:

  • room for improvement
  • business support team
  • regional experts

In addition, since the advent of globalisation, businesses have realized more and more that the intercultural communication style of a particular region can dramatically affect their employees’ internal communication and, in turn, levels of harmony and cooperation.

There’s masses of research on the topic of intercultural communication but the model I prefer distinguishes so-called Low and High Context cultures (a term first used by one Edward Hall). At the risk of massive over-simplification, a High Context culture tends more towards the implicit, the non verbal, the unspoken whereas a Low Context culture tends towards the explicit, the spoken or written, the literal. One is not better than the other. They just distinct.
At the risk of still greater over-simplification, the image above gives an idea of the “distribution” of High and Low-context cultures across the globe.
And the relevance?

Well, for example, one region’s employees might communicate in a High Context manner with family at home (i.e. a manner that implies rather than states explicitly), but may well struggle to communicate effectively with colleagues at work from Low Context cultures (i.e. more direct, more explicit and so on).
Increasingly global firms acknowledge, understand, accommodate and enjoy the varied benefits of both High and Low Context communication styles. An idea with wider application, I’d have thought. For instance, I can’t help but wonder whether the problems in the Eurozone have some connection with the semantic and cultural differences between the lower context North of Europe and the higher context Mediterranean. What do you think?

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