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 secondsAnthropologists 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 secondsOr 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 values in situated social contexts. We examine Hall’s High-Low Context dimension and how this impacts communicators from those backgrounds.

We welcome you back for this week of focusing on some ways that communication styles vary across cultures. Most scholars and practitioners note that the field of intercultural communication that this course focuses on emerged from Edward T. Hall’s focus on some of these prominent and practical patterns of communication.

When Hall stated, “Culture is communication, and communication is culture,” he emphasized how much our cultures and the ways we communicate overlap. Building on anthropological and other scholars emphasis on verbal and non-verbal communication, Hall proposed the broad contrast between High Context (HC) and Low Context (LC) cultures focus on those differences in a systematical way.

High Context (HC) cultures typically:

  • Emphasize non-verbal aspects (a person’s rank or status, facial expressions, eye movements, vocal tone) and appropriate or expected physical expressions (e.g., types of greeting nods, waves, hugs, handshakes, bows, kisses, protocol, etc.)
  • Prefer implicit, indirect communication, with unwritten “rules” that are learned by observation; important meanings are often symbolized, ritualized, or embedded when talk is necessary
  • Usually consider situational factors more important than what is being said: who is talking, to whom (consideration of relational and status levels), where, when, why
  • Value relational trust as important than specified contents (relationships need to be built while words are flexible, contracts are changeable)
  • Consider more group orientation, we-talk or at least we-awareness (in-group) towards building relational closeness (often subjectively)

Low Context (LC) cultures typically:

  • Emphasize verbal aspects (say what you mean, mean what you say)
  • Prefer explicit formulations and rules, direct, clear, sometimes frank speech (don’t beat around the bush, precision, clarity, let’s get down to business),
  • Usually aim at efficiency, concise use of words, and elaboration if meanings are unclear
  • Value being articulate, a good speaker or clear writer, capable summarizer
  • Consider detailed, specified writing helpful and often necessary, bilaterally negotiated to the satisfaction of both sides, with the documented result important, and if a contract, to be signed as legal and binding for each partner equally (objectively)

While no culture is expressly one or the other, the HC-LC distinction can illustrate many types of 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.

For example, an English teacher may become exasperated if he or she thinks that the students are not being too passive, not responding to the questions actively or being duly engaged in a class. Conversely, those students might feel that the teacher is being too direct and confrontational pointing out students to speak up, and look down or away because they feel worried, embarrassed or threatened.

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.

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This video is from the free online course:

Intercultural Communication

Shanghai International Studies University (SISU)