When Cultures Collide: Low-Context Versus High-Context

Edward T. Hall coined the terms “high-context” and “low-context” cultures in his 1976 book Beyond Culture. Hall defines “context” as “the information that surrounds an event and is inextricably bound up with the meaning of that event.”

Any close-knit group with similar values, experiences and expectations would be a high context culture. Its members don’t need as many words and explicit explanations as a low-context culture, as meanings are inferred through the strength of the culture. A couple married for a long-time would tend to be relatively high-context in the husband and wife’s communication patterns. Silences and other non-verbal cues for example, would have more meaning to such a couple than to an outsider.

Cultures around the world are classified as high-context or low-context but it’s misleading. It’s true that countries with history and tradition tend to be high context, Japan being a great example. But high-context-low-context classification is not an absolute yes-or-no kind of deal; the mix of all the elements that go into events and context is different proportionally for any given cultural group. Hence, context is a matter of degrees on a theoretical scale, with each country falling on a different point between high-context and low-context extremes.

As a starting point it’s useful to compare extremes. Looking at the “high-context-low-context” model, on one end of the spectrum are the high-context Japanese; on the other end the low-context Germans.

Also present on the Japan side of the scale are the high-context Arabs and Mediterranean folks. The Germans are in the same general neighborhood as Americans and Northern Europeans.

Hall says that high context cultures favor and rely on well-developed, informal information networks, the perfect description of Japanese communication patterns in the workplace: messy, inefficient, informal, but very effective within the context of their culture.

No surprise that low-context Americans are always looking for context, because our fragmented culture doesn’t provide it for us. We need detailed background information so we understand the big picture and where we fit in. We Americans don’t like to commit to anything until we know our niche within the grand scheme of things.

A visual representation of America’s cultural fragmentation is how we lay out our workplace versus the Japanese. U.S. business favors walls and cubicles for “privacy,” a euphemism for isolation. The elites in a U.S. company get their own office and consult with only a limited, select group of people. These advisors are the communication pinch points that filter and control the flow of information to the guy at the top.

Even middle managers in America sequester themselves in high-walled cubicles, and tend to exchange information in a more linear way than Japanese counterparts.

Japan in contrast uses the open-office concept, where all desks are arranged in an open space with no walls, and traditionally, no cubicles. Positions are determined by rank, a legacy of Confucianism’s enduring hierarchy (a legacy that also happens to provide lots of context).

Exceptions exist to the open office layout within Japanese companies, depending on the industry, company culture, etc. For example I’ve seen Japanese-owned subsidiaries in the U.S. compromise with their American workforce by providing low-walled cubicles but it’s still an open office concept. Even in this environment, Japanese CEO’s generally sit among the troops and talk to whomever happens their way, with mini-conferences and gatherings happening frequently–sometimes to a fault. Japanese executives have diverse sources of information, and they know whom to seek out to get the information they need.

Filtered through my American values, the downside of the Japanese style open-office concept is that it’s hard to focus on your work for any sustained period of time. I prefer to work in a linear mode: start with A then move to B then C and so on.

Unfortunately that’s not how the Japanese work: they juggle A, B and C, and consult with everyone and their brother before making even the most insignificant decisions.

As inefficient as this approach can be in running a business, the shear power of human bonds in a Japanese organization is extremely effective in getting things done. But as you might expect, it’s really tough for low-context, efficiency-loving Americans to get in the Japanese loop.

In a previous life before spreadsheets were ubiquitous, I used to make monthly press schedules for a Japanese metal stamping and assembly operation start-up using just my feeble brain and a calculator. As my scheduling deadline approached each month, I wanted to find a place to hide so I could concentrate on the task at hand, something very difficult to do in an open office. Making a press schedule required lots of concentration and a myriad of variables to juggle in my head. But in an exposed Japanese office I was vulnerable to distraction. Every couple minutes someone would stop by to ask a question, issue a request, or too often, give me more work. Tim-san, please interpret the production meeting right now!

With all these interruptions it was impossible to get my feeble brain into the schedule deep enough to effectively keep all those variables in the air, so to speak. So  I’d always be forced to take my work home with me.

While I see the value of the open office concept from a communication perspective, it tends to encourage a work style that’s tough for linear, efficiency-loving Americans to embrace, certainly in my case.

No wonder the Japanese have to stay at work for 14 hours! Their high-context modus operandi, as effective as it can be, is too inefficient to get enough done in 8 hours, because in Japan, efficiency must compete with the ethic of harmony, collectivism, and a non-linear polychronic perception of time (what I call “the eternal now”). This is a battle that efficiency will never win in Japan.

In the next post we’ll focus on the communication process itself, more specifically, which “direction” information is expected to flow in different cultures.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2011

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