One of the challenges that typically tops the list when managing diversity is communication barriers. Differences in languages are, of course, a key element and usually the first one we address. We translate texts for our presentations or marketing materials, get a language coach to communicate when we do not speak our client’s language, or even learn another language to facilitate conversations abroad. But that is one aspect of communications. Another considerably influential aspect is the way we communicate. And that is directly connected to cultural values. This article focuses on one cultural value known as direct and indirect communications, which dictates whether we communicate or perceive communications in a low or high context manner. Lack of awareness of this cultural difference often explains email miscommunications, marketing campaign failures, or even communication breakdown – this is when we can get ‘lost in translation’.
High and low context cultures
For a bit of context (pun intended), we can begin by explaining the differences between the two stances.
High context – or indirect – cultures tend to be more implicit and communicate ‘between the lines’. Some refer to it as ‘reading the air’. High context communications imply a shared knowledge of information, history, background. If you compare two recent acquaintances to a long-standing couple, the latter enjoys a common body of knowledge that allows them to understand each other without necessarily saying everything out loud. Such is the case of inside jokes, double-entendres, and other forms of, one might say cryptic communication codes.
Low context – or direct – cultures rely on direct, more explicit conversations, statements, or explanations. Low context cultures often repeat or ‘recap’ to ensure clarity. This may impact the level of trust between high and low-context cultures. For instance, if a low context manager repeats directives and asks for their subordinates to recap to validate comprehension – a prevalent management practice in North America, for example – a high context subordinate may feel a lack of trust from their superior. This creates discomfort, or perhaps even bias.
Direct vs indirect in management and marketing
This management stumble is quite common and can alienate colleagues or employees from different cultural backgrounds. One misstep or two are forgivable, but this can quickly degenerate into communication breakdown or disconnect on a more permanent basis. Understanding that a particular value lies at the base of communications that can influence how we perceive one another’s words can help remove many of these barriers. And even avoid costly mistakes.
In marketing campaigns, ignoring this critical cultural difference may impede how your audience perceives your campaign. Nike’s “JUST DO IT” slogan may be very clear and motivating to those of a more direct persuasion but seem meaningless or obscure to those of a more high context culture.
A quick reference tool
Low Context (Direct)
- Communicators assume that there is little pre-existing shared reference or knowledge
- Communication is explicit, clear, and direct. The message can be verbally clarified if necessary.
- Most important factor: spell things out clearly, not necessarily how you say it
- Negative comments are direct. One assumes the comment is about the issue, not the person.
High Context (Indirect)
- Communicators assume a shared body of knowledge and internalized points of reference
- Communication is implicit. The verbal part of the message may contain only a small amount of information. Body language is important in understanding the whole message.
- HOWyou say something is as important as WHAT you say
- Negative comments are veiled. Conflict is perceived as personal so may signify a lack of respect.
A bit of context
The concepts of high context and low context cultures first emerged when anthropologist Edward Hall elected to describe how cultural differences affect communications. The founder of intercultural communication explains the notions of how people of different cultures communicate and how explicitly they transfer messages. Hall introduced the notion in his book ‘The Silent Language. This short but rich video provides good comparative notes between the two cultures.
ACCULTURA’s Communicating Effectively with Culturally Diverse Audiences program addresses low and high context cultures and other cultural values to help communicators develop effective campaigns. Contact us to learn more about this program or about other cultural training programs.