Learn about reading nonverbals, such as eye contact, posture, space, facial expressions, gestures, and listening to intonation, using pausing strategically, reading silence and language rhythm, and reading the environment.
- Have you ever tried to communicate the word no without speaking? Universal, right? Well, not really. How about asking someone to stop? What's the difference between these gestures? And what would work if you were trying to communicate non-verbally in a different culture? One way of being attuned to others is by identifying what type of cultural context they operate in. Let me break down the difference between high and low-context cultures.
In low-context cultures, messages are spelled out. Conversation is verbatim. And there's a lot of talking, verses silence. You'll see many visual signs and directions, and there are pamphlets with lots of instructions. Information seems to be over explained. In business settings, manuals are long. Agendas are detailed and documents are extensive. Low-context culture countries include Germany, Sweden, Norway, The Netherlands, the United States, Australia, and Canada.
In high-context cultures, messages are not as explicit. You have to be able to read between the lines. Conversations seem to have more silence, and often the meaning of a message is carried by body language, facial expressions and intonation. In high-context cultures, people use more metaphors, and they reference history and the past. You'll find high-context cultures in the Southern Mediterranean, most of South America, the Middle East, and Asia.
Being attuned to the rhythm of communication in the new, or different culture is key to communication success. American cross-cultural researcher, and anthropologist Edward Hall sat on benches of busy parks and just watched people. He watched how they made or didn't make eye contact, as they walked past one another. He watched to see what the comfortable personal space was in a particular environment. And how much or how little people gestured when they communicated.
If you're visiting a country, just started working in a new one, or you want to be an effective communicator in a new setting, be attuned. The only way to figure out the context of a culture is to collect data, just like Edward Hall did. So here are a few things to look for as you observe people to determine context. Personal space. Do strangers speak standing close to one another? Do they maintain a four foot, typical in the U.S. for strangers distance, or are they closer? When people who seem to be acquainted are having a conversation, do they stand or sit close? Space is a hint for context.
In high-context cultures, space is more intimate. When I traveled to Cypress, a high-context culture, for my academic class, students were commenting on the public display of affection that couples demonstrated, which is not typical of a low-context culture, like the U.S. Physical touch. Are couples, friends, families walking and holding hands? Do people reach for one another's shoulder when they talk? Are they embracing with a hug and a kiss on the cheek when they greet? Just like personal space, the higher the level of personal touch you observe, the more that means that the culture you're in values relationships and face-time.
Physical animation. Even when people don't know one another, do they make eye contact as they pass? Is there any personal acknowledgment between people? Is there any smiling? When people hold a conversation, are faces animated, and gestures demonstrative? This is a highly personal trait. You'll see a person parking a plane as they speak, even in an explicit, high-context culture, like Italy. What you are observing is how people act as a group.
What's the norm? In a business meeting in Finland, a colleague may be silently and intensely looking at you without any facial expression, to express her respect. If you were in England, that would be the fastest way for her to show her disinterest. Work environment. Hopefully, you'll have time to observe a workspace in your new culture. There are lots of cues for you to pick up and translate. We recently visited a Greek shipping company with a group of students. As we now know, Greece is a high-context culture.
And even though our host was low key and welcoming in his demeanor, his office was stocked with photographs of him with various famous politicians, business moguls and celebrities. Outside of his office, the environment was professional. Name plates decorated each desk, and company awards hung on the walls. This was a perfect example of how high-context cultures typically communicate formality. Our business contact suddenly communicated that he was a pretty high power player by the pictures of him with notable figures on his walls.
So, if you have the time to collect information on your new setting, and the people in it, do it. You'll be more attuned, and as a result, you'll customize your message so it's understood in the context of the culture that you're in.