Understanding High and Low Context Languages

Thunderbird Professor Robert Moran

By Robert Moran, Ph.D.

If a business development manager wants to know what German, Norwegian or U.S. counterparts really mean at the negotiation table, the best way is to listen their words. Native speakers from these countries and others with low-context languages learn from childhood to say what they mean. They are good at direct communication and comfortable expressing contrary views. Yes means yes, and no means no.

The same approach might not work as well with counterparts from Brazil, China, Japan, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and other countries with high-context languages. Native speakers from these countries use many words and phrases to convey subtle or indirect messages. “Yes” might indicate something different than a firm commitment to meet a deadline or deliver on a promise. A foreigner working in these countries must consider the full context of each message.

The distinction between low- and high-context languages is an important lesson covered in the eighth edition of my book, “Managing Global Differences” (Butterworth-Heinemann, Nov. 25, 2010). The concept, first described by U.S. anthropologist Edward T. Hall in 1959, is perhaps the most important contribution of social psychology to global business.

Every student or executive education client who comes to Thunderbird School of Global Management should leave with a basic understanding of this concept. Learning a foreign language is important, but managing cultural differences requires more than a grasp of vocabulary and grammar.

Global managers must be bilingual in a different way. They must learn to recognize and adjust to low- and high-context languages and situations. A direct, low-context approach might work best when finalizing an agreement, dealing with conflict, or establishing protocols. But an indirect, high-context approach might work better when building a team or learning about people.

Low context is more about speaking, and high context is more about listening and interpreting. Global managers need both skills to avoid communication breakdowns.

Robert Moran, Ph.D., is an organizational and management consultant with specialties in cross-cultural training, organizational development and international human resource management. He is an emeritus professor of international management and former interim chair of the International Studies Department at Thunderbird School of Global Management. Moran received his graduate degrees from the University of Minnesota. He was also a coach and adviser of the Japanese National Hockey Team and, as an adviser, attended the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble, France, and the 1972 Games in Sapporo, Japan. He also has participated in executive education programs at Thunderbird, Babson, Emory University, ESSEC (in Paris), Penn State, Stanford, MIT and Wharton. He is the co-author of “Managing Global Differences” and “Leading Global Projects.”