Learning a foreign language is not easy. Not only do you need to learn a whole new set of sounds, vocabulary, and grammar, but you also need to understand the context in which communication takes place. The context is basically the background or framework surrounding the act of communication. In this sense, culture, as much as grammar and vocabulary, has a powerful effect on communication.
The famous anthropologist, Edward T. Hall, studied the effect of context and culture on communication. And he identified two basic types of cultures: high context and low context cultures:
High context cultures are those that tend to emphasize interpersonal relationships. They value group harmony and their communication tends to be ruled more by intuition and feelings than by logic. Words are not as important as context, which might include a speaker’s facial expressions, tone of voice, body language, and even age and status. High context communication tends to be more indirect and formal. Hall described many Asian, Middle Eastern, South American, and African cultures as high context cultures.
Low context cultures, on the other hand, tend to emphasize the individual. They value logic, facts, and being direct. Decisions are often based on facts and information, rather than feeling and intuition. Discussions end with actions. People are expected to be very clear and precise when they speak. Words and legal documents become more important than relationships during communication. Hall labeled much of Western Europe and North America as low context cultures. This includes most English speaking cultures as well.
The difference between low and high context communication can perhaps be illustrated in the following example. Let’s say you meet someone for the very first time. You know nothing about each other, so you have to spend many hours talking and asking questions in order get to know each other. That’s pretty low context communication. But let’s say you’ve been married for 30 years. You don’t even need to talk in order to communicate. One look from across the room and you know exactly what your wife or husband is thinking, and nobody else can understand. That’s high context communication.
Do you think Dr. Hall is correct in his theories? How might miscommunication occur between high and low context cultures? And what does this mean for becoming a better communicator in English? If you are from a high context culture, can you comfortably switch into a low context way of communicating? How can you become a better international communicator with this knowledge?
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