A country may be classified as either a high-context culture or a low-context Culture. The context of a culture is either high or low in terms of in-depth background information. This classification provides an understanding of various cultural orientations and explains how Process of communication is conveyed and perceived.
North America and northern Europe (e.g. Germany, Switzerland and Scandinavian countries) are examples of low-context cultures. In these types of society, messages are explicit and clear in the sense that actual words are used to convey the main part of information in communication. The words and their meanings, being independent entities, can be separated from the context in which they occur. What are important, then, are what is said, not how it is said and not the environment within which it is said. Japan, France, Spain, Italy, Asia, Africa and the Middle Eastern Arab nations in contrast, are high-context culture. In such cultures, the communication may be indirect, and expressive manner in which the message is delivered becomes critical. Because the verbal part (i.e. words) does not carry most of the information, much of the information is contained in the non-verbal part of the message to be communicated. The context of communication is high because it includes a great deal of additional information, such as the message sender’s values, position, background, and associations in the society. As such, the message cannot be understood without its context. One’s individual environment (i.e. physical setting and social circumstances) determines what one says and how others interpret one. This type of communication emphasizes one’s character and words as determinants of one’s integrity, making it possible for businesspersons to come to terms without detailed legal paperwork.
Cultures also vary in the manner by which information processing occurs. Some cultures handle information in a direct, linear fashion and are thus monochromic in nature. Schedules, punctuality, and a sense that time forms a purposeful straight line are indicators of such cultures. Being monochromic, however, is a matter of degree. Although the Germans, Swiss and Americans are all monochromic cultures, the Americans are generally more monochromic than most other societies, and their fast tempo and demand for instant responses are often viewed as pushy and impatient. Other cultures are relatively polychronic in the sense that people work on several fronts simultaneously instead of pursuing a single task. Both Japanese and Hispanic cultures are good examples of a polychronic culture. The Japanese are often misunderstood and accused by Westerners of not volunteering detailed information. The truth of the matter is that the Japanese do not want to be too direct because by saying things directly they may be perceived as being insensitive and offensive. The Japanese are also not comfortable in getting right down to substantive business without first becoming familiar with the other business party. For them it is premature to discuss business matters seriously without first establishing a personal relationship. Furthermore, American businesspersons consider the failure of the Japanese to make eye contact as a sign of rudeness, whereas the Japanese do not want to look each other in the eye because eye contact is an act of confrontation and aggression.
The cultural context and the manner in which the processing of information occurs can be combined to develop a more precise description of how communication takes place in a particular country. Germany, for example, is a monochromic and low context culture. France, in comparison, is a polychronic and high context culture. A low context German may insult a high context French counterpart by giving too much information about what is already known. Or a low context German becomes upset when he feels that he does not get enough details from the high context Frenchman.
Process of Communication Across Cultures
Business customs are as much a cultural element of a society as is the language. Culture not only establishes the criteria for day-to-day business behavior but also forms general patterns of attitude and motivation. Executives are to some extent captives of their cultural heritages and cannot totally escape language, heritage, political and family ties, or religious backgrounds. One report notes that Japanese culture, permeated by Shinto precepts, is not something apart from business but determines its very essence. Although international business managers may take on the trappings and appearances of the business behavior of another country, their basic frame of references is most likely to be that of their own people.
In the United States, for example, the historical perspective of individualism and “winning the West” seems to be manifest in individual wealth or corporate profit being dominant measures of success. Japan’s lack of frontiers and natural resources and its dependence on trade have focused individual and corporate success criteria on uniformity, subordination to the group, and society’s ability to maintain high levels of employment. The feudal background of southern Europe tends to emphasize maintenance of both individual and corporate power and authority while blending those feudal traits with paternalistic ‘concern for minimal welfare for workers and other members of society.
Various studies identify North Americans as individualists, Japanese as consensus oriented and committed to the group, and central and southern Europeans as elitists and rank conscious. While these descriptions are stereotypical, they illustrate cultural differences that are often manifested in business behavior and practices. A lack of empathy for and knowledge of foreign business practices can create insurmountable barriers to successful business relations. Some businesses plot their strategies with the idea that counterparts of other business cultures are similar to their own and are moved by similar interests, motivations, and goals-that they are “just like us.” Even though they may be just like us in some respects, enough differences exist to cause frustration, miscommunication, and, ultimately, failed business opportunities if they are not understood and responded to properly.
Knowledge of the business culture, management attitudes, and business methods existing in a country and a willingness to accommodate the differences are important to success in an international market. Unless marketers remain flexible in their own attitudes by accepting differences in basic patterns of thinking, local business tempo, religious practices, political structure, and family loyalty, they are hampered, if not prevented, from reaching satisfactory conclusions to business transactions. In such situations, obstacles take many forms, but it is not unusual to have one negotiator’s business proposition accepted over another’s simply because “that one understands us.”