Throughout the world, cultural differences shape and define the communication of identifiable groups. These differences appear in content and relationship-level exchanges in different, predictable ways. In low-context cultures, people value and expect straightforward, unambiguous, direct language. Conversely, in high-context cultures, people value interpersonal relationships: they communicate and interpret information through a holistic understanding of meanings and a collective understanding of a situation. Because of these differences, individual words express little meaning until they can be used in an appropriate context that considers culture, human relations and individuals to create strategic business messages for cross cultural communication.
The United States and Canada are considered low-context societies, whereas Japan is considered one of the highest high-context societies in the world. People in the United States value direct, unambiguous dialogue; Japanese draw on deep personal relationships, context and traditions to interpret and convey meaning. As a result, because communicators assume a collective understanding, people in Japan place little emphasis on stating specifics. For instance, in a low-context society, managers tell employees to meet them at a specific time, at a specific place, to discuss a specific subject. Conversely, in a high-context society, the manager’s subordinate might assume where the meeting will take place, what time the meeting will occur, who will attend, and whether tea will be served.
3 Dimensions of Relationship-level Meanings
Communication researchers have identified 3 primary dimensions of relationship-level meaning that must be considered when creating strategic business messages for cross cultural communication. These include Responsiveness, Respect and Influence. A short description of each follows.
The dimension of responsiveness describes how much attention and focus others place on us. For example, people who seem easily distracted and fail to focus attention on what you are saying may have little interest in you. While you are addressing them, they often refrain from making eye contact and are distracted by other sounds, sights and happenings. In the United States and Canada, low responsiveness is communicated through broken eye contact, preoccupation with other things, doodling, and other signs, such as using electronic devices under the table. As a Houston Translator explained, people who show heightened levels of responsiveness may look you in the eyes, ask questions, nod in agreement and even respond verbally.
The next dimension describes the level of respect, endearment and affection that is communicated. Respect can be communicated through facial expressions, vocal tone and pitch, choice of words and desired proximity to others.
The third dimension describes the level of influence, power and control that one person has over another. Most relationships exhibit an imbalance of power in which one person holds command over another. One is more likely to win debates or establish a course of action, while the other person is more likely to follow.
Communication and Culture
Across cultures, international managers need to realize the diversity in which societies communicate, ranging from impersonal to interpersonal. International managers should also recognize that interpersonal cross cultural communication is a complex, methodical process that permits individuals to understand and interpret the intentions and beliefs of others. The meanings we derive frequently reflect previous encounters and past interactions, making every interaction highly individual and unique.