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Skip to 0 minutes and 7 seconds [CHI Ruobing] Welcome back for another week of our course on intercultural communication. [Steve Kulich] In past weeks we’ve moved from introducing the relevance of this course to considering perceptions of cultural identity, variations of values, and now we’d like to discuss with you the ways that communication styles vary across cultures. [CHI Ruobing] It could be argued that the field of intercultural communication emerged from Edward T. Hall’s focus on some of the prominent patterns of communication. Hall once said, “Culture is communication– and communication is culture.” In saying so, he was trying to emphasise our culture and how we communicate overlap much.

Skip to 0 minutes and 53 seconds Anthropologists and speech communication scholars have been noticing the differences in verbal and nonverbal communication in different cultural groups for some time, but it was Edward T. Hall who proposed the broad framework of high context and low context cultures that help us compare and discuss about those differences in a systematic way. [Steve Kulich] To understand this HC-LC distinction, it may help us to think of the ways in which our communication differs. Have you ever thought about or noticed the ways in which you communicate, or people from other cultures have different styles? For example, have you ever felt that some communicator was rude or pushy because they were being too direct, too pointed?

Skip to 1 minute and 46 seconds Or are you of that cultural style that feels efficiency is really important– therefore, we really want to make things as clear as possible, be explicit, and get the job done? Both have their value. [CHI Ruobing] These communication differences may already start with greetings. At an airport, you may have noted that some people simply shake hands. Some bow politely. Some give big hugs. And others give kisses on the cheeks once, twice, or even many times. These are all natural behaviours that people are carrying from their own cultures. Sometimes variations in nonverbal expressions are the most obvious and easily noticeable, but most of us are adaptable enough to not get too frustrated if others are not responding as we expect.

Skip to 2 minutes and 45 seconds [Steve Kulich] However, more problems might occur if we are unaware of these perspectives, or not realise how much other people’s behaviour or perception of our own intentions affect all of this. For example, an English teacher may be very exasperated if he or she thinks that the students are not being active enough– too passive, not responding to questions, or showing their expectations of due engagement. At the same time the students might feel threatened, or that the teacher is too confrontational in singling out a student or expecting them to speak up. It might be very embarrassing for them to express an opinion in front of all their classmates.

Considering communication and context

The communicative style variance among cultures is often due to historic patterns or value expressions in situated social contexts. We explore Hall’s High-Low Context dimension and how this is reflected in communication.

We welcome you back for this week of focusing on some ways that communication styles vary across cultures. Most scholars and practitioners look to the work of Edward T. Hall, a founder of the field, for inspiration.

Hall believed that “Culture is communication, and communication is culture.” By this he meant that these two things overlap in almost every way imaginable. To help others understand this overlap, he proposed a broad contrast between what he termed High Context (HC) and Low Context (LC) cultures.

High Context (HC) cultures typically:

  • Rely more on non-verbal aspects to communicate meaning (like facial expressions or gestures)
  • Prefer implicit, indirect communication
  • Usually consider situational factors more important than what is actually being said
  • Value relational trust as more important than specified contents (words are treated flexibly, contracts are changeable as long as a relationship is in place)
  • Consider in-group membership and “we-talk” towards building relational closeness (subjectively).

Low Context (LC) cultures typically:

  • Rely on the spoken or written word to communicate meaning (say what you mean, mean what you say)
  • Prefer explicit formulations and rules, direct, sometimes frank speech
  • Usually aim at efficiency, concise use of words, and elaboration of unclear meanings
  • Value being articulate and clear
  • Consider detailed writing helpful and often necessary, bilaterally negotiated to the satisfaction of both sides
  • Value documents and contracts, to be signed as legal and binding for each partner equally (objectively).

While no culture is entirely one or the other, the HC-LC distinction can broadly illustrate communication style preferences within and across cultures, from how we greet each other to how we negotiate business partnerships. They affect the performance of students and expectations of teachers, and a variety of contrastive preferences in political, legal, business, and social communication. Without knowing it, we may be carrying HC expectations into LC situations (or visa-versa) and not be aware of the cultural misunderstandings this may cause.

With these HC and LC variations in mind, you might reflect on situations you experienced or noticed that fell into one category or the other and the resulting discomfort it seemed to cause. Which do you think you prefer and why?

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This video is from the free online course:

Intercultural Communication

Shanghai International Studies University (SISU)