The terms “high” or “low context” in reference to culture first appeared the anthropologist Edward T. Hall’s 1976 book Beyond Culture. In low context cultures, (The U.S. being one of the best examples), people say what they mean directly and with little embellishment. In high context cultures, people communicate more obliquely, letting the shared cultural experience, tone of voice and body language fill in the gaps. Arab and Asian cultures are often cited as a great examples of how subtle and complex communication can be. Rather than disagree openly with you, a high-context communicator may say, “perhaps” or “I’m not sure.” If you go away happy, thinking you have won your point, you may be dismayed later to find that you’ve not won your point – or your deal.
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Americans, British, Germans, Israelis, and people from colder weather places like Scandinavia and Russia tend to be low context communicators. They also tend to value being on time and efficiency in meetings and business communications. High context cultures include Asian countries, Middle Eastern cultures, African, Polynesian and warmer countries anywhere. In these cultures, people understand much more than they say; body language, gestures and the speakers’ rank in relation to one another all provide a hidden context that may be a complete mystery to a foreigner.
Even within a culture, communication can vary widely. We Americans are generally direct communicators, with very low context. But within a family, or even a close-knit team in an office, the communication will often be very high context. Look for the number of “in-jokes,” unfinished sentences and knowing glances that help group or family members understand much more than they say. “Ah yes, Uncle Jim is of course, an exception…” “Oh, you want to do it the Cleveland way…” Every group has its own language and culture, and it can take months for a new member (or son-in-law) to learn to fit in and speak the language.
Italy is a high context culture, and I had to learn to adjust when my husband and I were stationed in Sicily for a tour of duty. Italians famously speak with numerous and colorful hand gestures, and they are an affable and helpful people. It took me months to understand that being helpful did not mean that they considered efficiency a priority (at least in our small village.) Whenever we needed a household or car repair, the estimate of when the work would be started or completed never varied: “Domani.” Technically, that word translates into English as “tomorrow.” Tomorrow, for an American, means “the next day.” Wednesday inevitably follows Tuesday, but domani could mean anything from three days to three weeks.
It drove me crazy, until another Italian translated for me. “You Americani are always in a hurry,” he said. “Always want it done tomorrow; so we tell you what you want to hear. It makes you happy, and you go away with a smile.”
“How can we ever know what domani means, then?” I asked.
“Ah, that’s easy; you watch his hand. When he says domani, he will move his hand to describe it.” (Hold your right hand waist high and rotate the wrist in a circular fashion away from you several times, as if you’re wafting a scent into the air.) “Watch the number of times he waves his hand. That will be the number of days he estimates. Domani with three wrist rolls means three days (give or take.)”
Thank goodness he helped me crack the code; I was able to hold my temper and keep my sanity for two and a half glorious years in Italy.