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Intercultural communication: low-context cultures vs high-context cultures

Saskia Maarse | November 3, 2021

Imagine you are invited to a birthday party. Most Dutch visitors will be pretty straightforward in accepting or denying the invitation.  For example, they would say:

  • “Thank you for your invitation! I will be there.” or
  • “ No, I am sorry, I can’t make it. Maybe next time.” or
  • “ I have to check, but I will let you know as soon as possible. “

When preparing a party, the Dutch usually know how many people will join the party and how many groceries to buy.

In other countries
A Dutch woman called Jeannette had been living in Indonesia for six months when she decided to invite her 12 Indonesian friends for her birthday. While all of them accepted the invitation, none of them showed up.

 Dennis, a Dutch sales consultant had been working in India for a couple of months when he decided to celebrate his daughter’s birthday. In contrast to many of his colleagues, he lived in an area with locals instead of a compound with other Dutch people.

 Dennis and his wife didn’t know that many people yet and decided to keep the party small. They invited about 20 of their Indian friends. Beforehand they estimated the number of guests and based on that the amount of food and drinks. Everything seemed well prepared until the bell rang and suddenly 80 people had arrived. It turned out that every guest had brought their family.

In both cases the answer was the same: “Yes”. However, the meaning behind the word was different in both cases. Although we can speak the language, this does not mean we always understand each other.

This can already be seen in our neighboring countries …

Research: low-context cultures and high-context cultures.
The American anthropologist Edward Hall did several researches on communication. He divided the world in low-context cultures and high-context cultures.

Within a low-context culture, like the Netherlands, people believe that the best way to communicate is in a simple way, clear and explicit. They mean what they say: yes means yes, no means no. Other low-context countries are the United States, Australia, (The English part of) Canada and Scandinavia.

In high-context cultures, like the South of Europe, The Mediterranean area, the Middle East, Asia, Africa and Latin America the communication is much more indirect. The message is usually more between the lines.

The British culture can be seen as a middle-context culture: the communication is more indirect and almost diplomatic. The East European countries can also find themselves within this category.

Other characteristics of low-context cultures are:

  • Low-context cultures are often individual societies, where children are taught to stand up for themself and have their own opinions.
  • It’s common to use a lot of words.
  • Openness and transparency are important values.

Other characteristics of high-context cultures are:

  • High-context cultures are often collective societies, where group harmony and preventing loss of face are very important.
  • For these cultures it’s often considered rude to answer a question with just yes or no.
  • While communicating there is less focus on the words that are used, but more on the body language of the other person.
  • The underlying values are loyalty and diplomacy.

If you are not aware of the cultural differences, misunderstandings can rise. This can already be seen in Belgium, where the communication is much more indirect than here. When a Belgium answers yes to a business proposal, the Dutch believe they have made a deal. However, it very likely that with “yes” the Belgium simply means he understands the proposal.

Like most countries, the Netherlands also has many subcultures. While most cultures experience the Netherlands as a low-context culture, there are a significant number of people who switch communication styles daily. At home they might be used to a high-context communication style and at school or work they flip to low-context communication. Example of this are people with a background from Suriname, Turkey, Morocco, China, or southern-Europeans. Domestically in the Netherlands, Brabanders and Limburgers generally communicate less directly, and on top of that women tend to communicate with more context than men.

TIPS: How to deal with different communication styles

Are you from a (relatively) low-context culture, and do you work a lot with people from high-context employees?

  • Start you conversation with the context/background information, for example by mentioning the city where the people involved in the story are from.
  • Try to listen carefully to the person needs.
  • Bring some nuance in your language.
  • Pay attention to your body language.
  • Ask open questions instead of closed ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions.

Are you from a (relatively) high-context culture, and do you work a lot with people from low-context employees?

  • Make your point quickly and briefly.
  • Be clear, specific and transparent.
  • Don’t depend on body language, say it with words.
  • At the end of the conversation summarize everything one more time or do so by mail.
  • Ask for clarification or ask for extra information when something is not clear to you.

To conclude: Be aware of your way of communicating and that your way doesn’t work in every other culture.

About Saskia

Saskia Maarse is an intercultural speaker, trainer and author. She writes and speaks about Dutch culture in both business / professional and social life. In her blogs, books and professional talks and workshops she uncovers the origins of deep-rooted Dutch characteristics. Saskia also explains what we can learn from and about other cultures – in areas like communication, leadership and human behaviour.

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