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Low-context vs. high-context culture: Checking your communication blind spots

By Jenna Shackelford, posted Jun 22, 2022 on

People can express their needs in the workplace in two different ways – using low context or high context. VOLODYMYR HRYSHCENKO/UNSPLASH

Businesspeople understand the importance of good communication, from lengthy email threads, quick texts to keep the team in the loop, to office meetings around the conference room table.
Recently, I stumbled across some insight into effective communication with a team when accomplishing tasks.
Say you’re needing help with a task. Do you hint or suggest that you could use help, or do you ask outright for assistance?

The first sort of communication is called a high context culture, meaning that you rely on the context of the situation at hand to signal to your coworker that you need help.

The second sort of communication is called low context culture, which is when you use a direct message to communicate your need.

A 2021 article from Glassdoor entitled “High Context Culture: What Does It Mean and How to Adapt” identifies several characteristics of the two kinds of cultures.
- “Work-related messages tend to be clear and direct.”
- “Communication and work styles tend to follow a monochronic schedule.”
- “Nonverbal communication can be considered noncommittal.”
- “Most forms of communication are verified or concluded in a written format.”

- “Team members are more likely to turn to statistics or data to make decisions.”
- “Employees place a high priority on schedules.”
- “Work relationships tend to be open, short-term, and vary among teams and departments.”
- “Projects tend to be structured by goals.”
- “Knowledge is available to the public or all team members present.”
- “Communication tends to be shorter and more to the point.”

- “Work styles tend to be task-oriented.”

- “Being aware of nonverbal behaviors is important when developing relationships in the workplace.”

- “Words are often taken at face value.”
- “Questions may be more direct or personal in nature in order to deepen the relationship.”
- “Communication and work styles tend to follow a polychronic schedule.”
- “Conversations are usually in-person versus written.”
- “An employee’s feelings may be used when making decisions.”
- “Employees place a high priority on relationships in the workplace, sometimes over their schedules.”

- “Work relationships tend to be categorized as either in-group or out-group, referring to the level of information that is shared with others.”
- “There is a strong awareness in the group of who is considered in or out of the group.”
- “Workplace decisions are often made in-person, usually under the direction of an authority figure or leader.”
- “Relationships take longer to build, but tend to last long-term.”
- “The completion of projects requires building and maintaining relationships.”
Neither style is the right or wrong way to communicate. Rather, the two different styles can stem from cultural diversity, upbringing, or personal preference.

For someone who normally communicates more directly, they may view hinting as vague or unhelpful because they want a clear understanding of the needs of a team. For someone who communicates through hints and suggestions, they may not want to communicate more directly out of concern for inconveniencing someone else.
When I first came into my position at GFBJ in 2020, I was more of a high context communicator. Marty, our publisher, is a low context communicator. For the first few months of the job, we learned to over communicate with each other so as to avoid missing each other’s points.
Everyone has blind spots – and communication styles vary so vastly that it can be easy to misunderstand the people you work and live alongside. Understanding this key difference in communicating needs in the workplace can be helpful in recognizing ways that you can communicate more effectively and in understanding people who are communicating with you.

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