Speaking high- and low-context languages
By Robert Moran, Ph.D.
If negotiators want to know what their German, Norwegian or U.S. counterparts really mean when they talk, the best way is to listen their words. Native speakers from these countries and others with low-context languages learn from childhood to say what they mean. They are good at direct communication and comfortable expressing contrary views. Yes means yes, and no means no.
The same approach might not work as well with counterparts from Brazil, China, Japan, Mexico, Saudi Arabia or other countries with high-context languages. Native speakers from these countries use many words and phrases to convey subtle or indirect messages. “Yes” might indicate something different than a firm commitment to meet a deadline or deliver on a promise. A manager working in these countries must consider the full context of each message.
The distinction between low and high context languages is an important lesson first described by U.S. anthropologist Edward T. Hall in 1959. Every student or executive education client who comes to Thunderbird should leave with a basic understanding of this concept. Learning a foreign language is important, but managing cultural differences requires more than a grasp of vocabulary and grammar.
Global managers must be bilingual in a different way. They must learn to recognize and adjust to low- and high-context languages and situations. A direct, low-context approach might work best when finalizing an agreement, dealing with conflict or establishing protocols. But an indirect, high-context approach might work better when building a team or learning about people. Low context is more about speaking, and high context is more about listening and interpreting. Global managers need both skills to avoid communication breakdowns.
Robert Moran, Ph.D., is an organizational and management consultant with specialties in cross-cultural training, organizational development and international human resource management. He is an emeritus professor of international management and former interim chair of the International Studies Department at Thunderbird. He is the co-author of Managing Global Differences and Leading Global Projects.