Understanding High-Context Communication

Every time I come to Korea, I am amazed at the welcoming spirit of this country. But no matter how welcoming the people are, working […]

Every time I come to Korea, I am amazed at the welcoming spirit of this country.

But no matter how welcoming the people are, working with a high-context culture is always challenging, so I thought I’d share some useful facts for those of you who have Asian team members or business partners. 

Many Asian and Arabic countries—like China, Korea, and Saudi Arabia—fall into this category so if you work with any of them, this blog post is for you. 

There are some European cultures that are relatively high-context as well, e.g. France, but no culture in the West comes close to the Asian level of complexity.

High-context cultures are difficult to work with because of the complex communication patterns and social protocols.

Unless you know them, you will experience a lot of frustration and confusion, moving from one misunderstanding to the next.

I’ve worked on several projects with Asian teams where incredible amounts of time, money and energy were unnecessarily lost because the Western team members were clueless or completely misunderstood what was communicated or what was happening.

High-context communication is too complex to cover in one blog post, but I’m hoping to at least raise your awareness of this critical aspect of working in multicultural teams. 

Here are the basics to know:

Context: in a cultural sense it refers to the more subtle aspects of conversation and interaction. Some cultures expect people to be very direct and explicit with their communication (e.g U.S.A. or Germany ), but others expect  that shared cultural values and sound understanding of social protocols will allow communication to be more indirect and subtle, without confrontation or hurting people’s feelings. In countries like Japan, China or Korea things are more suggested and understood from the situational context and the relationship between people  than explicitly communicated.

High-context cultures are:
  • Collectivist cultures—they place a higher value on the good of an entire group than on any one individual. This sort of collective understanding guarantees the ability to communicate thoughts, opinions, or feelings without expressing them directly.  From the Western perspective, it is almost like the members of the high-context cultures can read each other’s minds.
    These cultures have well defined concepts to describe this ability. The Korean “nunchi” or Japanese “kuuki wo yomu”, both describe the concept of situational communication that can be compared to the Western phrase ‘reading between the lines” or “reading the room”. People who have nunchi and kuuki wo yomu can read non-verbal and situational cues like you can read alphabet. They are aware and attentive to the thoughts, feelings, and needs of the people around them and they can respond to them with astonishing precision. The reason for having such social and communication concepts is to maintain harmony – one of the most praised social values in collectivist cultures. 
  • They are homogenous: For a culture to be high-context, there needs to be a great degree of homogeneity among its population. For instance, in Japan, more than ninety-eight percent of the population is Japanese. This leads to a shared language, shared upbringing, and other significant commonalities. This results in an implicit code in communication because of the high level of shared context and understanding. 

  • Implicit: High-context cultures rely on shared cultural dimensions, social rituals, protocols and more intimate personal relationships to communicate far more subtly than low-context cultures. This is especially visible in giving negative feedback which is rarely expressed clearly. Instead, to save everybody’s face, negative feedback is either expressed indirectly to a third party (and then it’s expected that this person will pass the feedback on) or it is wrapped up in so much politeness that to us it looks useless, but the high-context team members will receive it loud and clear (because they can unpack and remove the politeness filter).

  • They rely on nonverbal cues: Things like eye movement, body language and facial expressions carry a lot of coded information, as they subtly convey what one individual wants to get across to another. The members of high-context cultures are well trained in paying close attention to all these non-verbal signals.
    For example, the degree of a bow suggests the degree of respect or the feelings you have towards the individual you are greeting or addressing, and while to us it’s “just a bow”, the high-context people can decode this degree of respect with incredible precision. Executing a proper bow is extremely important to Japanese people and it might make or break your business deal in Japan. The deeper the bow, the longer it is held, the more respect is shown.

Tip: For business interactions, do a 30 degrees bow, hold it for about 2,5 second and look at your feet at all times. 

These are the bare essentials to know about the high-context cultures where communication is sophisticated, nuanced, and layered, and messages are often communicated between the lines and received with the help of contextual knowledge, situational anticipation and informed intuition.

It’s really like speaking in a code, and this code can be only decoded if you have the right knowledge and tools.

At New Global Elite we teach cross-cultural skills so if you are interested, get in touch and let’s discuss the perfect program for you and your team.


With leadership greetings,

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