Cultural context was a concept that blew my mind last year – it answered so many of my burning questions! A term coined by the American Anthropologist, Edward T. Hall, he categorised the cultures of countries into high context and low context groups. In his book ‘Beyond Culture’ (not bedtime reading material) he reflected on both communication systems taking four aspects into consideration – symbols, values, language and norms.
High context cultures place greater importance on context and lasting relationships. You can gage the verbal intent, without it being explicitly stated. Conversations are ‘fluffier’ and ‘reading between the lines’ is required. A high level of emotional intelligence allows you to read non verbal gestures. For example, in my personal experience, Italians are very expressive with their hands. I had a date with a very expressive Italian during the summer. His hand movements were so energetic that our glasses went flying off the table. Lebanese are very expressive with facial expressions. My Lebanese friend had two non verbal ways to communicate yes and no. It’s compatible to a secret language in itself and when you become aware, there’s a deep sense of connection and understanding. There is less confrontation because relationships are so highly valued and the importance of society is viewed as a collective. High context cultures live according to polychronic time – time is insignificant and malleable. Multiple activities can take place concurrently without exertion. People willingly accommodate last minute changes or plans without great interference to their overall life.
For example, an Irish friend was unexpectedly in my neighbourhood. She rang the door bell on the slight chance I was home. Although I was doing something, without question, I welcomed her in for a coffee. I regularly experienced polychronic time structures living and working in Dubai and throughout my travels in the Middle East. During ramadan my meetings scheduled at 11AM, often arrived at 2PM. In low content cultures this would be considered the height of disrespect, but time is trivial in high context cultures. Upon my gentle interrogation, my now 2PM appointment simply looked at me with a chuckle and no apology “Ahh, Mashallah! You know, it’s ramadan..!” He was received with open arms and his tardiness wasn’t even addressed by my colleagues. Khallas!
Low context cultures are direct. Communication is to the point – as few words as verbally possible are expressed. People view themselves as individuals, therefore long lasting relationships are less significant, allowing more space for confrontation. The verbally blunt approach eliminates any requirement for non verbal gestures – no beating around the bush! Moving to The Netherlands was my greatest culture shock to date and this often shocks people because it’s so close to home. The genuine ‘family’ collective approach at my office was non existent. Your identity is defined as an individual. Feedback is very blunt and at times I felt personally attacked and upset. Nothing to hide means to be verbally honest and open with your feelings – a double edged sword in my opinion. The switch is abruptly flicked. It’s 5PM and suddenly you are having afterwork drinks (Borrel) with someone you just had a negative verbal encounter with. Meetings are only scheduled with absolute intent to achieve a task – coffee and catch ups are simply a time waster.
Low content cultures live by Monochronic time – one task at a time is preferred. These tasks are defined and measurable with strict adherence to deadlines. The window for change is more confined. One little bump in the road could potentially derail the whole train. Planning is essential. Arranging a quick coffee with a Dutch friend is next to impossible. You will often be pencilled into their diary one month in advance. I honestly believe this kills the spontaneity of life. I recently went over to my old building to collect my mail. I was in the neighbourhood and in the spur of the moment, contacted my previous Dutch neighbour. “Are you home? I just want to pop in and grab my mail.” I was surprised to see he replied immediately. He wasn’t totally freaked out by my spontaneous arrival and welcomed me over. After opening the door, he was quick to inform me that he was just going out the door. His cosy Netflix set up didn’t translate to his impending departure. Then it hit me, I just showed up, no appointment and it probably slightly tickled him. I was now the one chuckling inside. We are critical of stereotyping people, but culture is so intrinsically engrained into each of us. The moment you become aware of the importance of cultural context, everything becomes a little brighter. You see the world through a lens of compassion and understanding.
As previously mentioned, I really struggled and I continue to struggle with the method of communication in The Netherlands. I have spent the majority of my life living in high context cultures. I stumbled across ‘The Culture Map’ by Erin Meyer in my local book store. It’s the perfect book that explains cultural context in the business dimension. I have given it to many friends and they too have found it as a beneficial tool. I also read this book with my book club in November. It was incredibly interesting as we are from many different countries – Ireland, Turkey, Belgium, The Netherlands, Poland, and Germany. My previous office was a melting pot of different nationalities – both high context and low context. I felt so lost and confused – one moment I had a very direct Dutch encounter followed by a subtle Spanish exchange.
In the job descriptions of many international companies, there often appears to be a repetitive outline of perks stated – a free Apple laptop, modern office, great lunches, afterwork drinks, social events, and a great company culture of diverse nationalities. I won’t lie, these ‘perks’ once previously allured me into the manufactured sales pitch. However, the truth is that all these ‘things’ translate to a void emptiness – a distraction of reality. I love working in an international team, but the reoccurring topic of conversation, even amongst my peers in other companies is the breakdown of communication between these differing cultures. It all becomes lost in translation. We become isolated, resentful and overall productivity levels suffer. Forget the free Apple laptop – create workshops, creative events or a support sector of Human Resources that can address our differences, but connect our similarities.
I attended a Christmas party in December and the theme was that each person brought a dish that represented their culture. There were so many nationalities – both high context and low context cultures, but that soon became obsolete. Food is without a doubt the key to our hearts. Each person in attendance was proud to share something from their culture and it created a genuine sense of connection. We asked questions about each other’s cultures and even managed to bring humour to our stereotypes. One man dryly introduced himself – “Hi, I’m Gijs. I’m Dutch and I’m boring.” There was no deceptive PR campaign for the Instagram – people standing around awkwardly, stiff smiles that read ‘Get me out of here!’ By the end of the night, we were all teaching each other our national dances. It was a shame to have to run and catch the last train back to Amsterdam!
What are your thoughts on cultural context? Let me know your experiences!
These are two photographs from July 2019. Myself and my aunt were out exploring Amsterdam Noord on the bikes. We randomly bumped into a Romanian photographer called Sorin. After a few photos we had a spontaneous drink in a local bar, which was really enjoyable. I love these images because they captured a very genuine moment between myself and my Godmother.