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It Wasn’t What You Said. It’s How You Said It!

You’ve read or heard the phrase in various contexts. Probably in some comedy sketches, one of those that are painfully close to reality. Hey! Maybe somebody has used that phrase on you?

All jokes aside, that phrase has a more significant cultural load than what it seems at first glance. The anthropologist Edward T. Hall (yes, the same person who introduces proxemics) defined the use of context as a cultural factor as well, dividing it into two: high-context cultures and low-context cultures.

Before diving into Hall’s theory, let’s take a look at a simple communication process. Regardless of what approach of communication you prefer, its essential elements are, more or less: source, message, channel, receiver, feedback, environment, context, and interference. Context is the one we will focus on today.

About Context

“The context of the communication interaction involves the setting, scene, and expectations of the individuals involved.” (McLean, 2005)

We all have solid expectations about certain situations, and it is all about what we expect from each other and where those expectations have their origin. For example, a wedding has several stages, and each one has its set of expectations, for example, when the bride is walking down the aisle, when the best man delivers his speech, and when the bride and groom have their first dance… you got the idea now.

Think about how weddings take place in your hometown. Its ceremonies, non-spoken agreements of behavior, dress code, how you interact with others, etc. Now think about a wedding in a different country. Some, if not many, of these aspects are different, and those differences are based on culture.

Let’s imagine what happens if expectations are dramatically different for a group of people attending our imaginary wedding. For sure, somebody will say or do something considered entirely inappropriate. We would consider it unacceptable because it falls altogether out of expectations, even though the same behavior would not only be regarded as appropriate but expected for a different set of expectations.

Those differences would be easily spotted in our wedding example. And what happens if the rules or expectations are not so evident? Here’s where understanding the context of a situation becomes an asset, especially when you are working across cultures.

High context

According to Hall, in a high-context culture, many elements are taken for granted. People tend to be more indirect and expect the person they are communicating with to decode the implicit part of their message. Factors like body language, voice volume, tone of voice, and choice of words, are as important as the actual spoken words. Sometimes even more important. Once I saw an article claiming that about 25% of the message is the exact words, and 75% is the context.

Here are some characteristics of a high-context culture-oriented society:

  • Use many covert and implicit messages, metaphors, and reading between the lines.

  • People have control over the outcome of events in their lives and have personal acceptance for failure.

  • Much nonverbal communication, such as hand gestures.

  • Reserved, inward reactions.

  • Strong distinction between being part of a group or not being part of a group. Strong sense of family.

  • Strong people bonds with affiliation to family and community.

  • High commitment to long-term relationships.

  • Relationships are more important than tasks.

  • Time is open and flexible.

  • How we get to an objective is more important than the objective itself.

Low Context

On the other hand, in low-context cultures, people tend to be explicit and direct in their communications. That’s where some mottos you’re probably familiar with come from: “Say what you mean” and “Don’t beat around the bush.” It is about minimizing the margins of misunderstanding or interpretation, and low-context communication is all about getting straight to the point.

Here are some characteristics of a high-context culture-oriented society:

  • Many overt and explicit messages are simple and clear.

  • External forces have control over people’s lives and tend to blame others for failure.

  • More focus on verbal communication (what’s being said) than body language.

  • Visible, external, outward reaction.

  • Flexible and open grouping patterns that can change as needed.

  • Fragile bonds between people and little sense of loyalty.

  • Low commitment to a relationship. Tasks are more important than relationships.

  • Time is highly organized.

  • The objective is more important than how you got there.

Like all other elements of a cultural intelligence report, high and low contexts are a generalization, and individuals of a given culture can have different degrees of compliance with the behaviors described for this and any other cultural aspect. A reminder: there’s no right or wrong; it just is.

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