Today’s entrepreneurs, regardless of the size of their operation, have to become aware of international issues. One extremely important aspect of this body of knowledge is the concept of high- and low-context cultures. We can usually categorize most cultures as being either high context or low context. Think of the context as the social environment or surroundings in which a business transaction takes place. Context qualities include such factors as:
• The physical location of a meeting
• The way participants are dressed
• The general mood or ambiance of a meeting
• The status of the individuals presenting information.
In a high-context culture, the social context or social environment is more important than the words being spoken. This means that in a high context culture, nonverbal communication is even more important than in low-context cultures. It may take time to build a relationship before your international business partner feels comfortable in talking about business dealings. If you have come to the meeting with an introduction from someone who knows you and the other business representative, this could take a few hours. But if you have come without with a formal introduction, and without a “go-between” to explain who you are, it might take months or years before you are trusted enough to be able to close a deal.
In a high-context culture, a contract is just a starting point for negotiations in closing a deal. Signing the contract does not represent a closing of the business deal. Examples of high-context cultures include Japan, most other Asian countries, most Arab countries, Latin America, most African countries, and Italy. In reality, most cultures fall somewhere along a continuum, or sliding scale, in their perception of the importance of context (with high and low being the end points of the continuum).
But for our purposes of illustration, we will use just these two categories of high and low context.
In a low-context culture, the words themselves are more important than the surrounding social context. This means that nonverbal communication, while still very important in understanding others is less important than it is in high-context cultures. A written agreement can be taken at face value in a low-context culture. A contract, for example, means exactly what it says, no more and no less than that. A contract is considered the final product of negotiations, not the starting point. Examples of low-context cultures include Germany, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Canada, and the United States.
Since North American business practices tend to follow low-context norms, most of us are more familiar with this system than we are with high-context cultures. In a low-context culture, you would not expect to give or receive gifts in order to seal the deal–it would seem unethical. In a high context culture, gifts may be expected.
Intercultural Communication expert Ray Ruiz, tells us, “Countries in Latin American and Asia value the building of relationships, but each in their own unique way. Before traveling to another country, I would recommend reading appropriate materials and speaking with foreign nationals residing in the U.S. in regards to the customs and business practices in their country of origin. I would also suggest that, once in a foreign country, it is important to observe your host’s mannerisms and responses and respectfully respond in a like manner. Be well versed on acceptable and unacceptable behaviors. For example, when in Asia, DO compliment and share your impressions of their country. DO NOT decline any food or drink because this is viewed as an insult. In Latin America, DO begin all meetings with friendly conversation regarding family or other social topics. DO NOT begin a meeting delving directly into the business objective. The lesson many American business people fail to learn is that “it is all in the relationships.”
Leslie Minor, Ph.D. is the newly appointed chair of the Social Science Department at COCC. Her background is in sociology and psychology. She can be contacted at email@example.com. Lowell Lamberton, Professor of Business, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Lamberton and Minor have co-authored three college textbooks.