Cultural dimensions and their implications: “High context”

You’ve probably heard it said before: Germany is a low-context culture. But what does that mean? The terms “low-context” and “high-context” were coined by American anthropologist Edward T. Hall. In low-context cultures, people attribute less importance to context. Low-context cultures are explicit, clear, textual cultures, which derive meaning from the actual words on the page, and less from non-verbal contexts or other subtle signals in the environment. Communication in low-context cultures is often straightforward and direct, formal and polite; things are formulated clearly and with a high degree of precision, and usually put in writing. There is very little beating around the bush.

Not so in Romanian culture, which ranks as “high-context”. Communication there relies heavily on context and implicit meaning. People in high-context cultures build and value long-term interpersonal relationships, where certain things take on certain meanings over time (see inside jokes, for example), which become self-explanatory for the members of that group, but not for outsiders.

Needless to say, when people from high-context cultures interact with people from low-context cultures, the potential for miscommunication is huge. Participants or negotiators from low-context cultures might take an utterance at face value and understand it literally, missing out on its more subtle or implicit nuances. To put it plainly, low-context cultures work with clear information and stable meanings, and pretty much with the cards on the table. For high-context cultures, the same utterance might mean very different things depending on the context.

A few examples:

  • When dealing with German institutions, applicants can find the entire information listed clearly and in detail on the web page, sometimes even in the form of a downloadable “Merkblatt” (checklist) which summarizes all the necessary documents, etc. Not so in Romania, where it is not uncommon for people to discover at the counter that for their particular situation, some additional forms or documents are needed, or that they need a different counter altogether. (This has now improved somewhat with the digitization of private and public services, but web pages are not always up to date.)
  • Business agreements are nearly always in writing in Germany, with the terms and conditions neatly spelled out. Not so in Romania, where the phrasing might be more vague and ambiguous. Especially among non-business people, it is not rare for people after a tenants’ meeting, for instance, to be confused about what had actually been decided and what the exact deadlines are.
  • In business contexts, presentations might take a long time to actually get to the point in high-context cultures. There is long-winded rhetoric for relationship building, ideas are being floated all the time, and there is less focus on dry facts.
  • In personal situations, context is king in Romania. Let’s say you are trying to help out a relative, but if they can tell that you are very busy or in a hurry, they might insist that they don’t need/want your help simply because they sense your discomfort. They might even be so adamant about not wanting the help, as to be totally convincing. A few months later you’ll be surprised to learn that they had, in fact, wished for the help, but decided to yield so that they are not a burden to you.
  • In high-context cultures, you might not understand why a joke is funny, simply because you are not privy to the entire context into which that joke plays. Context can also be used to exclude. Take high-context organizational cultures, for example, or HR departments that rely heavily on acronyms to screen outsiders and evaluate a good professional match.
  • When getting from A to B, the directions you get in a high-context culture might be less straightforward and leave out essential information – usually because it is so obvious and well-known to the locals that they fail to realize it might be news to you.

If you come from a low-context culture, living and doing business in a high-context one might feel like trying to solve one of those “escape room” riddles. Get information about the relevant context ahead of time (market research, history, geography, workplace culture, politics, personal relationships, etc.). Ask questions to pin down the details that are important to you. Try to get samples or pictures, make actual visits on the ground, so that you are less dependent on other people’s interpretation or perception of things. You shouldn’t assume that you are getting the whole story in verbal form, and you are well-advised to prepare for the unexpected.

If, on the other hand, you come from a high-context culture into a low-context culture, don’t expect things to adjust to your particular context, or to obtain preferential status simply by building relationships. Some principles will remain universal and non-negotiable, and it is not uncommon for people in Germany to avoid intervening even in favor of their closest friends and relatives. Helping someone get a job might simply mean referring them to the site where they can get all the information about that job and then apply like everybody else. (OK, Bavaria might be different. Vitamin B = Beziehungen/Connections is quite important here…)

For outsiders, new cultures always exhibit a higher level of unpredictability. This is why it’s always a good idea to have an intercultural mediator on your side until you “catch on”.

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