Beverly Hills Lingual Institute
Beverly Hills Lingual Institute
Beverly Hills Lingual Institute
Beverly Hills Lingual Institute

Blog   |   Language, Learning and Culture

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Cultural Context in Communication

If you've ever experienced a parent arguing with their teenager, or a long-married couple conversing primarily with grunts and nods, you might agree with the adage that most human communication is not about what is actually being said.

"Ninety percent of what you're saying isn't coming out of your mouth," says Will Smith's character Alex Hitchens in the movie Hitch (2005).

Many psychologists would suggest he's right. This belief, based on a book published in 1971, is that fifty-five percent of communication is body language, thirty-eight percent is the tone of voice, and seven percent is the actual words spoken.

Effectively, the idea is that people are more likely to trust the manner in which a message is delivered, over its specific content.

This statistic has been grossly misused over the years, to the point that some even conclude that movement and voice coaches are more valuable than speechwriters.

This, of course, cannot possibly be true for each and every communication. Is not a confused, disorganized thought generally presumed to be a poor thought, no matter how well it is delivered? Does not the written internet, where there is no body language and where tone is presumed rather than heard, contradict the "93/7" concept (as it is widely labeled)?

What has so often been missed is a cautionary note written by none other than the theory's author, psychology professor Albert Mehrabian. This ratio, he noted, was derived from experiments dealing with communications of feelings and attitudes. "Unless a communicator is talking about their feelings or attitudes, these equations are not applicable," Mehrabian underlined.

From our perspective, as language teachers, there's another aspect we must consider when looking at the tendency to favor the delivery over the message: culture.

It's safe to presume that values drive beliefs, attitudes, and actions. Those values are, in large part, culturally derived. You'll agree that a tourist, a negotiator, or a manager who understands others' cultural backgrounds is better able to understand why those people act, think, and speak the way they do, and is better able to predict how those people will react to his or her words and actions.

So it's important to understand culture as a force driving behavior.

In its most basic form, culture is simply the set of values, attitudes, and beliefs shared by a group, which sets the standards of behavior required for continued acceptance and successful participation in that group. Culture is passed on, learned by newcomers from more experienced predecessors. This process is helped along by the human desire to look for, and imitate, role models: people who seem to know how to get along in the group.

In effect, then, members of a culture share heritage and common experiences which, together, establish and reinforce common values, attitudes, and beliefs. These characteristics define the behaviors members should expect from one another. They not only establish the group's common identity and continuity over time, but set it apart from other cultures.

Cultural Context in Communication

We're now better able to understand how the "93/7" rule might play in cross-cultural communication. When considering culture's effects on communication, a more applicable model might be "high content or high context."

High-content communication is complete, straightforward, and direct. The entire message is contained in the words, in the content of the communication. A good, high-content communicator is precise and accurate in their use of language and takes pride in saying exactly what is meant.

Meanwhile, much of the message in high-context communication is unspoken; the spoken message is indirect, subtle, and incomplete. The words are complemented by, and perhaps even modified by, facial expression, tone, and posture. The receiver understands the message even though some of it is left unsaid or even contradicted by the spoken words. The ability to decode and understand a vague or incomplete transmission is a result of common bonds and experience, much like those of a long-married couple who can sometimes communicate a paragraph with only a nod or facial expression.

Which cultures are high-content, and which are high-context? Generally, the more homogenous the culture - the greater the commonality of experience and values - the easier it becomes to communicate in a high-context mode. In The Cultural Dimension of International Business (1997), author Gary P. Ferraro cites research which indicates that "high content" is most preferred in Germanic, Scandinavian, and Anglo cultures; whereas "high context" is preferred in southern Europe, China, Japan, and Arabic cultures.

While the milieu of individuals in a culture can be diverse, and not all individuals can be described by strict stereotypes, understanding the broad tendencies of predominant cultures can help facilitate communication between individuals of differing cultures. The following spectrum of levels of context in various cultures was determined in Going International (1986), written by Lennie Copeland & Lewis Griggs:

Higher-content culture

Australian Dutch English Canadian
English Finnish German
Israeli New Zealand Scandinavian
Switzerland United States

Higher-context culture

Afghans African Arabic
Brazilian Chinese Filipinos
French Canadian French Greek
Hawaiian Indian Indonesian
Italian Irish Japanese
Korean Latin Americans Nepali
Pakistani Persian Portuguese
Russian Southern United States Spanish
Thai Turkish Vietnamese
South Slavic West Slavic

It's easy to imagine the difficulties when people from high-content and high-context cultures try to communicate, writes Jack Scarborough in The Origins of Cultural Differences and Their Impact on Management (1998).

"Instead of being appreciated, directness may be seen by the high-context communicator as insulting, overbearing, or condescending overkill.
"The high-content communicator will miss or misinterpret the subtle cues and signals used by the high-context communicator and may well see indirectness as evasive or even deceptive.
"High-content people are comfortable with concisely written communications; high-context people prefer to communicate face-to-face so that the entire context can be observed, and they may see written communications as somewhat cold and impersonal."

And now you know why we employ only native-speaking teachers. We find that they're best placed to communicate not only language, but the subtleties of the cultures in which that language is spoken.

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