Thursday, September 30, 2010

High Context vs. Low Context in International Business

An insight into how to avoid these and some other problems American business people encounter on the global scene can be gained by considering what anthropologist Edward T. Hall calls high-context and low-context cultures. The United States, Germany, Switzerland, Canada, and the Scandinavian countries are low-context cultures, meaning that business people tend to send unambiguous messages with a lot of specificity and clear descriptions. For them, time is a straight-line commodity when it comes to getting things done. You start at point A and you go right to point B.
High-context countries include China, Japan, Korea, Spain, Greece, Turkey, the Arab world, and Latin America. High-context cultures place more emphasis on nonverbal communication, indirect verbal signals, and implicit meanings. Rituals are important. Time is not a straight-line concept. The road from point A to point B is highly textured.
The road has curves and detours and scenery.
Low-context people tend to view high-context people as sneaky, secretive, or at best, mysterious, and high-context people tend to view low-context people as moving too fast on the one hand and being excessively talkative and redundant on the other. So, when dealing with high-context business people, you need to be patient and to recognize that a lot of things are happening at once. Let’s take the example of a savvy American business executive visiting the office of a Korean colleague:
The appointment is at noon, and even though the visitor knows it is important to arrive on time, he expects to be kept waiting. The American waits quietly. Reading or doing something else while waiting is not a good idea: Doing so would indicate that the upcoming meeting is not the visitor’s primary focus. The host comes out to greet the guest. They shake hands, and the American gives a slight bow. Other people are in the office where the meeting is to take place. The American greets them: more handshakes, slight bows. The guest sits, keeping both feet on the floor.
If refreshments are offered, the guest accepts after a mild and insincere refusal.
He uses his right hand to drink.
All the while, the Korean host is being gracious and hospitable, and the American responds in the same spirit. They do not discuss business just yet. The host may hold several conversations at once, talk on the telephone, and otherwise digress. But he will always return to the important issues, and inevitably, things will get done, and all parties will part cordially.
This experience may strike the American as inefficient, but it works for a considerable segment of the world.

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