Cultural context was a concept that blew my mind last year – it answered so many of my burning questions! The American Anthropologist Edward T. Hall coined a term categorised countries’ cultures 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 gauge 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 flew 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 with 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 significant interference to their overall life.
For example, an Irish friend was unexpectedly in my neighbourhood. She rang the doorbell on the slight chance I was home. Although I was doing something, I welcomed her in for a coffee without question. I regularly experienced polychronic time structures living and working in Dubai and throughout my travels in the Middle East.My meetings scheduled at 11AM during Ramadan often arrived at 2PM. This would be considered the height of disrespect in low content cultures, 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 my colleagues didn’t address his tardiness. 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, 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 most tremendous 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 after-work 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 contacted my previous Dutch neighbour in the spur of the moment. “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 quickly informed 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 ingrained 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 work 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 lent 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 fascinating 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, after-work 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 2019, 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.” Like Instagram, there was no alternative reality – 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 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. My aunt and I 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 genuine moment between myself and my Godmother.