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Degree of explicitness in comments: high-context and low-context

It is not only what is said that matters, but also how it is said. The “how” is treated in linguistic literature on intercultural (business) communication, for example, as a conversation style with certain aspects, such as degrees of (in)directness and (in)formality (Kotthoff 2007:177). This is particularly relevant for the conventions of agreement and disagreement. The comparative analysis of disagreement in German and American office-hour conversation at universities showed “that to a much greater extent than the Germans, the American participants framed their dissent as proposals or suggestions, thereby mitigating the level of directness” (Kotthoff 2007: 178).

The concept of high and low context was first introduced by American anthropologist and cross-cultural researcher Edward T. Hall and has been described for many cultures. It is identified by Hooker as “probably the single most useful concept for understanding cultural differences in business communication” (2012: 389). Although Hall is regarded as the founder of intercultural communication as an anthropological science, his concept is closer to linguistics than the approaches described in Section 2 since the extent of appropriate explicitness is a linguistic category which shapes all statements. The essential concern is what portion of the intended content is not expressed explicitly, instead being left to the surrounding circumstances of communication.

In high-context cultures a lot is implicitly assumed and mentioning numerous details can be taken negatively. A high degree of explicitness is perceived as impolite and will result in a negative opinion of the speaker. The facial expressions of the conversational partners, allusions, the circumstances of the encounter and many other contextual factors are independent conveyors of information which shouldn’t be underestimated. High-context cultures can be found in Southern Europe (Spain, France), in Asia (China, Japan and many other countries) and Africa, as well as in Latin America.

In comparison, in low-context cultures it is not expected that the majority of information is already known or is discernible without explicit linguistic expression. Here everything is called by its name; people communicate directly and feel obligated to give the most precise information possible to their counterpart. A high degree of explicitness - direct disagreement, clear and negative opinions - is considered “normal” in low-context countries. As a rule, cultures with Western European roots rely more heavily on low-context communication. These include Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the USA, as well as much of Europe, for instance Germany, the Benelux countries and Switzerland. One of the more obvious markers of a low- context culture is the proliferation of signs and written instructions, whereas in high-context cultures, verbal correction by others is a normal procedure for regulating behaviour (Hooker 2012: 390-391).

High-context cultures are therefore relation-based, low-context cultures rule- based. This difference has strong effects on business life, which lead to the following recommendation: “Because company norms in a high-context culture must be communicated personally, close personal supervision is essential. Rules that are not personally enforced may be seen as non-binding” (Hooker 2012: 392).

 
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