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West vs East: Low-context vs high-context cultures.
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West vs East: Low-context vs high-context cultures.

Jan 05, 2016

Edward T. Hall presented in his 1976 book Beyond Culture, the terms high-context culture and low-context culture. The key difference between the two is the tendency to use high-context or high-conceptual messages with fewer words, among in-groups who shares similar experiences and backgrounds compared to the low-context societies.

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A simple example would be China/Japan/Korea compared to United States. Things are much more implicit, conceptual, intuitive, and are relationships-focused than the idea, discussions, and explicit expressions in the listed Asian countries.

This affects not only how emails are written, how negotiations take place, but to the extent of how companies and brands evolve into greater scale.

For example, an email in Korea would start with a warm greetings, then you would get to the main purpose of the email in an indirect way, usually starting with something like “and oh by the way,” and explain the background and so forth until you reach the conclusion and the main ask. Perhaps there won’t even be an explicit ‘ask’ which is probably buried somewhere between the words that you, the reader, has to extract. The email can get pretty long, whereas in US, such email lasting five paragraphs or more usually ends up in a trash.

During meetings, people who remain silent may be perceived as ‘thoughtful’ and may need to be contacted individually to learn deeply about their thoughts in high-context cultures. But in US, you need to speak up, present your thoughts clearly and in a logical and concise manner, otherwise you may be perceived as someone without views, less confident, or even to the extent of being ignorant or indifferent.

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These examples are on a micro-level, but the effect can go to the scale of brands and conglomerates. For instance, in US, we will not expect and feel comfortable drinking water produced entirely by Twitter. They are not focused on creating the best water possible, and their expertise is just not there (at least for now.) But in high-context countries, large companies are perceived to have greater expertise all around, because most of things are considered implicitly and on a holistic level. So you have more companies doing wider range of things, such as Xiaomimaking everything from phones, air purifiers, and even weight scales. You also have companies like Samsung making not only electronics, but building apartments, art museums, stock corps, insurances, security guards, and so forth. How is this even possible? Precisely because the customers ‘assume’ these companies are great on a holistic level, and buys from them, which acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy for the businesses.

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Of course, all this is not binary. There are 50 shades of grey to the level of contexts among different cultures. We see global brands like Virgin continuously expanding their business areas,Apple going into wearables and speculated to be moving into automotive, Abc.xyz (Google) doing wide range of research across different fields. But I don’t expect western customers to believe these companies can nail everything right, just because they are Google or Apple. The customers need to be bought through explicit results, whether it’d be actual products or financial results.

The key takeaway is learning the stark differences among the context-level of cultures and incorporating these into emails, meetings, marketing copies, company culture and hiring, building brands, and even growing the company.

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