Updated: Nov 22, 2018
High-Context vs. Low-Context Culture: Avoid cross-cultural Mistakes
Edward T. Hall’s concept of high and low-context culture is a really useful way of understanding the differences between how western and eastern companies are managed, how managers and colleagues communicate and how decisions are made at work. Generally speaking, countries with a western European influence are low-context in culture; Australia, Canada, New Zealand, most of Europe and the USA. The rest of the world is more closer to a high-context culture.
Low-context culture: rule-based cultures
Companies in a low-context culture use clearly defined rules and regulations to communicate with and manage employees. Companies have clearly written rules, regulations, training manuals, employee handbooks, etc. Employees have a written contract and clearly defined job descriptions to clarify their responsibilities. In a rule-based, low-context culture, people are more comfortable when everything is written down clearly.
High-context culture: relationship-based cultures
Companies in a high-context culture operate differently. Information often isn’t written down and yet everyone seems to know what they need to do without written job descriptions or contracts. These societies are based on relationships much more than rules.
How can this cause misunderstandings? Scenario
Do not Enter!
If an employee isn’t supposed to enter a room in a low-context country, there will be a clear sign saying, ‘Employees do not enter’.
In a high-context culture, they might not be a sign. A western employee who tries to enter this room will be told by a guard the he can’t enter. The westerner will get annoyed because in a western country when someone corrects behavior, it means that the person did something wrong.
But in this situation, there is no sign to say ‘Don’t enter’, so the western employee will be angry and confused. However, all the local Chinese employees know not to enter the room even though there is no sign. Even if the Chinese employee is corrected for trying to enter the room, she won’t feel annoyed because being corrected by another person is a more common and accepted way of managing behaviour in China.
Now think about your company. Have you ever seen one of your western colleagues get upset when he or she was told not to do something?
Now you know why.