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WHAT ARE LOW CONTEXT VS HIGH CONTEXT CULTURES & WHY YOU'D BETTER CARE?!

Picture source: author's private archive; Winston the pug

So you decided that the world is too intriguing and the life too short to dwell in one location only .You have dealt with multiple procedures and piles of documents, abandoned your comfort zone to end up in a destination that makes you feel so alive. The infatuation with the language, people, food and views feels so good, that you just give yourself high five, as it was the best decision ever made! Be warned, though – no matter how much all of us would like to avoid it, sooner or later this honeymoon stage phases out as you move on to stage #2 where the frustration takes over as a natural process of the culture shock experience. 

Picture source: author's private archive; Winston the pug,Photo Credit: Nick

The fatigue of not understanding gestures, signs and habits as well as miscommunication happens frequently. However, the good news is that after that , phase  #3 adjustment and #4 Acceptance follow! And guess what – you will deal with the unhappy phase #2 even faster once you acknowledge and embrace what we will tell you now. So make sure you are in a comfortable position  and focus.

Picture source: author's private archive; Winston the pug

The way we  see the world in our own culture seems obvious and commonplace. Yet, just because we have grown up in it and got used to it, does not mean it is the only right one to live by. The main culprit of our culture shock struggles, misunderstandings and frustrations is the lack of awareness of 2 major types of societies: high-context and low-context and how they affect our behaviors

Picture source:urbino.net

Erin Meyer - a professor at INSEAD, one of the leading international business schools and according to HR Magazine – one of The  Most Influential Thinkers for 2017 -  created a culture map across 8 scales to show how  cultures vary from one extreme to its opposite.

Picture source:Erin Meyer, multicultural charactetistics chart

1.COMMUNICATION 

Picture source: Infographic Portrait by Yang Liu.

 LOW CONTEXTGood communication = precise, simple & explicit  

HIGH CONTEXT: Communication is sophisticated, nuanced and layered with reading between the lines.

2.EVALUATING

Picture source: slideshare.net

LOW CONTEXT: Typically use strong words when complaining or criticizing in order to make sure the message registers clearly and honestly. Direct cultures tend to use what linguists call 'upgraders' -  words preceding or following negative feedback that make it feel stronger, such as absolutely, totally, or strongly: “This is absolutely inappropriate,” or “This is totally unprofessional"

 

HIGH CONTEXT: Indirect cultures use more downgraders, words that soften the criticism, such as kind of, sort of, a little, a bit, maybe, and slightly. Another type of downgrader is a deliberate understatement, such as “We are not quite there yet” when you really mean “This is nowhere close to complete.”

3.PERSUADING 

Picture source:wikihow

LOW CONTEXT: Priniciples first, application later.People from principles-first cultures, such as Germany, France and Russia want to understand the “why” behind proposals or requests before they move to action.

HIGH CONTEXT: Opinions or factual observations, concepts later, if necessary. General conclusions are reached based on a pattern of factual observations from the real world. Application-first cultures tend to focus less on the “why” and more on the “how”.

4. LEADING

Picture source:study.com

LOW CONTEXT: The best boss is more of a facilitator among equals  and he is just one of the guys.

HIGH CONTEXT: The lower level gives obedience to the higher, while those who are higher protect and mentor the lower.

5.DECIDING

Picture source:study.com

We often assume that the most egalitarian (low context) cultures in the world are also the most consensual, and that the most hierarchical ones are those where the boss makes top-down decisions. That’s not always the case. The Japanese are strongly hierarchical but have one of the most consensual cultures in the world. Germans are more hierarchical than Americans but also more likely to make decisions through group consensus.

6.TRUSTING

Picture source: Picture source: Trust in bussiness to bussiness relationship Marketing Space, linkedin.com

LOW CONTEXT : Cherish cognitive trust  based on the confidence you feel in another person’s accomplishments, skills and reliability. This is trust from the head.

HIGH CONTEXT :

Affective trust that arises from feelings of emotional closeness, empathy or friendship. This type of trust comes from the heart.

7.DISAGREEING

Infographic Portrait by Yang Liu.

LOW CONTEXT:

Conflict and dissonance are seen as revealing hidden contradiction and stimulating new thinking. Points are made passionately.They like to disagree openly and say things that shock. Afterwards, they feel that was a great meeting and say, “See you next time!” With confrontation you reach excellence, you have more creativity, and you eliminate risk.

HIGH CONTEXT: Confrontation is considered rude, aggressive, and disrespectful. Open disagreement, particularly in a group forum, is strongly avoided. Even asking another’s point of view can feel confrontational.

8.SCHEDULING

Infographic Portrait by Yang Liu.

LOW CONTEXT: People in these cultures value structure over flexibility and typically stick to the plan.

Much more emphasis put on being flexible than on being structured.In these cultures strongly emphasizing punctuality signals an inability to adapt and even a lack of priorities.Schedule is just a suggestion.

HIGH CONTEXT: Much more emphasis put on being flexible than on being structured.In these cultures strongly emphasizing punctuality signals an inability to adapt and even a lack of priorities.Schedule is just a suggestion.

We hope that you will find this short list helpful in your adaptation process and  that you will remember one thing: you made this journey across the oceans and found new home on this planet to become a better person. Every location in the world contains qualities that can support some kind of beneficial change inside you – whether it is learning most productive ways to disagree, building trust across cultures or at least understanding when to spek up and when to shut up. By recognising the cultural factors that shape human behaviour and analysing the reasons for that behaviour, we can improve our effectiveness at solving thorny cross-cultural misunderstandings or better yet, avoid them altogether.

Picture source: author's private archive; Winston the pug, Photographer: KajaMajka
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