Friday, February 12, 2016

I'm high(er) context

Anthropologist Edward T. Hall (not related) is noted for his classification of "context preferences" of different cultures, describing high- and low-context cultures. His 1976 book, Beyond Culture, identified how certain cultures prefer these different communication styles. High- and low-context communication is why, for example, German and English speakers interact differently with each other.

From Hall's cultural factors definition, low context cultures tend to be more direct, and high context cultures more indirect. Germany is a classic low context culture. It's not rude for a German to get right to the point, or to say "I think you're lying" if they detect what you are saying isn't true. A low context value is to provide many overt and explicit messages that are simple and clear. Germans also prefer you to be exactly on time. If you say you'll be there at 7pm, you need to be there at 7pm; if you are there at 7:10, you are late.

Japan and China are typical examples of a high context culture. Communication will be very indirect, or even nonverbal. High context cultures also hide reactions; you may not realize if you've offended someone because it would be rude to react and risk embarrassing you. And it may take a very long time for a high context speaker to get to the point.

Italy and France are somewhere in the middle of low and high context. The US and England are between the middle and low contexts, at about the one-quarter mark. We appreciate that you are on time, but we don't worry if you're a bit late. We speak openly about what's on our minds, but we're cautious not to embarrass or offend. We are organized, but not strictly so. We get to the point, but also use "phatic language" and talk about the weather or sports as a way to "ease into" a conversation.
Hall's high- and low-context is a broad cultural classification, and individuals may differ, but you can apply the high/low context classification to understand the speaking styles of different audiences. And in doing so, you can become a more effective communicator.

While the US overall tends to be lower context, you can find examples within the US that deviate somewhat. New York is probably lower context than, say, Minnesota. And you may find differences within industries. I find higher education to be higher context than industry. But as a national average, we're around that one-quarter mark, trending to low context.

It's interesting that higher education is higher context than other industries. I found this to be true when I worked in higher ed. My professional background began in industry, even working for lawyers in my second company. I identified with lower context behavior; I got to the point quickly, and said what needed to be said. But in higher ed, especially when interacting with faculty, I found that sometimes my message was lost. My audience didn't hear me because I was too brief. They didn't see how my story connected with theirs, or perhaps I just "jumped the gun" and didn't provide enough background.

After I learned about high- and low-context cultures, and realized higher ed was lower context than industry, I adjusted my speaking style. I adopted higher context practices. I avoided being too "to the point." When I spoke with faculty, I took my time, established a connection, and provided the backstory.

I internalized the "higher context" culture of higher education so well that, after moving to government, I find myself adjusting to a different culture. Government is lower context than higher ed. We value direct communication, short emails, brief voicemails. Say what you need to say, then let's move on. Don't bore me with your long report—give me the highlights, and put the supporting information in a separate appendix.

I'll admit I am occasionally challenged by the different culture. My first emails were considered wordy; I have since re-learned to write brief emails. If you need more from me, I'll assume you will call or reply and ask for details. For now, my mantra in writing emails is 1. write message, 2. delete most of it, 3. click Send.

I encourage you to learn more about Hall's cultural factors. How does your organization communicate? How do others in your field work together? While the US tends to be lower context, at about that one-quarter mark, some regional and professional variances mean you may need to adapt your personal style to suit the environment you work in. Understand how best to communicate, so your message will be heard.
images: mine