Tuesday 22 February 2011 - Low/Strong Context Cultures
After the male/female, short/long time, power distance, uncertainty avoidance dimensions, there is a new scale to contribute to culture definition and it is the contextual dimension of the culture. The original article is in French http://www.expatlive.com/magazine/culture-loisirs/contexte-communication-expatriation but for our non-French speakers friends, I am going to translate the most important parts (my mistake if there are some approximations)
There are some cultures where the context is required to really understand what the answer means, and some others where we would have no ambiguities because the words only would be enough to get the right message. When you consider that a message can include 7% words, 38% intonations (speed, accent, tone...) and 55 % body language [Albert Mehrabian], there is room for misunderstanding. That’s why we can describe cultures in two categories: Strong context / Low context
In the strong context culture, what is important is not the message itself but the context around the message like a sigh, a look, a gesture, a face, the voice volume and the voice tonality... All together could bear a whole different message than the words themselves and the potential for ambiguities and insinuations is much higher. This type of communication can work (against an apparent opacity) if based on a common cultural ground where a common knowledge, experience, codes and customs are shared by all community members.
The article gives one of the following examples: While being in Indonesia for a year, a young Belgian woman asked to her Indonesian “mother” if she can go to the movies. This one answered “Of course” and then looked at the clear blue sky and added “Don’t you think it is going to rain?” By this strange answer, this woman implied she preferred the young woman not to go the movies. Such a message would not be self-explanatory for an individual who is not familiar with this culture.
Another example is France where yes could mean no, no could yes, and maybe could mean yes, no or maybe (It looks like a normal French woman to me...) but on the worldwide scale French as well as the other Latin languages would be considered as among the strong context ones.
In the low context culture, communication is only based on the information contained in the message, in its words themselves. In the American culture, for example, messages are very explicit, information is clear and detailed, and misinterpretations reduced. Indeed, in low context cultures, shared cultural ground by community members is smaller than strong context ones ; which lead individuals to be more transparent and more comprehensive in their communication.
How to deal with that ? Be curious and prefer face to face meetings