Picture this scenario: A young German executive from a semiconductor manufacturer is sent to pitch a proposal to a high-level business partner in Japan. The German executive knows his company’s products are superior, and he spends days preparing different documents, case studies, graphs, etc. as evidence. At the meeting he gives these mountains of handouts to the Japanese businessman, launches into his hourlong pitch, shakes the man’s hand and is out the door. The young German leaves confident that he has covered everything and that the deal will close. The Japanese man finds the entire process impersonal to the point of rude, and he ultimately chooses to work with a different provider.

This failed business deal came from a breakdown in intercultural communication. It is a classic case of a misunderstanding between cultures that rely on different levels of context for communication.

What Is a High-Context Culture?

Like the Japanese businessman in our example, high-context cultures rely more on subtlety and discretion. Tone is important. Status, reputation and cultural norms dictate how things should go, and these concepts are so widely understood that they do not have to be said directly. Points are made through body language and eye contact. High-context cultures are typically found in countries with very homogenous populations, such as China and Saudi Arabia.

The Japanese businessman did not need to be told all of the technical information. He had already studied the company’s products – he knew the information. The meeting was intended to be more personal, to show respect, to forge a relationship. He felt like he was being bombarded and talked down to.

What Is a Low-Context Culture?

Low-context cultures, like Germany and the U.K., are much more direct. They are explicit regarding details, expectations, deadlines, etc. People mean what they say, and they tend to say a lot. Things are taken literally. The same topic may be explained several times in several ways in an effort to prevent any confusion. Low-context cultures are typically found in more multicultural areas like the U.S. and U.K. This style of communication was born more out of necessity and to safeguard against misunderstandings.

The German executive in our example explained the product’s technical aspects in great detail, backed everything up with figures and sales data, and explicitly said why his company was superior to its competitors. He gave every bit of information possible about why his product was the best, then left. He did not understand the importance of having been granted a face-to-face meeting with the Japanese businessman. The German man just presented the cold, hard facts.

Are All Cultures either High- or Low-Context?

No. Culture context is best described as a spectrum, and the level of context used varies within a country. The relationship between conversation participants is hugely important. Even in a high-context culture like the U.S., a family dinner would be low-context. Everyone knows one another, their lives are intertwined, and very little needs to be explained explicitly.

Perhaps at dinner, the teenage daughter mentions having eaten lunch with a boy her family does not particularly like. At the mention of his name, the mother shoots her a look to silence her. The mother and father then share a look that means “We need to talk about this later.” They continue eating.

How Can a Company Find Harmony Between High-Context and Low-Context Cultures?

Being aware of these differences can make a big difference in terms of successful preparation and collaboration. Understand that in a high-context culture, things like deadlines or meeting times may not be seen as ironclad.

In Latin America, for example, a collaborative planning session may be scheduled to run from 1:00 p.m. to 2:00 p.m., but locals might understand that to mean arriving at 1:15, 1:30 or some time after lunch. An outsider would have taken that 1:00 p.m. literally and had to wait on everyone else, perhaps thinking them discourteous. That same outsider may leave at 2:00 p.m. whether or not the work had been finished, while members of the high-context culture would continue working. They might see him as being lazy or not a team player.

It is important to understand that an issue like a difference in cultural context is not something to combat. It is something to be aware of and recognize. Communication is essential in the business world, and it is easy for confusion to arise when no harm or underhandedness is intended. Understanding cultural norms and contexts is a key part of successful cross-cultural collaboration.

About the author

Justin Benton

Justin Benton

Justin Benton is a writer and English teacher based out of Colombia.