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Nuances between Low-Context and High-Context Communication Thesis

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Abstract

Language and meaning often go hand in hand. Interestingly, however, in deciphering meaning, one often has to consider the culture in which the said language is used. It is common to find that similar words, or gestures, used in different cultures, have different meanings. For example, a thumbs up in American culture means ‘good’ while the same gesture in the Middle East refers to filth and is used as an abusive gesture (Wang 153).

Intercultural communication competency allows people from different cultures to live within other cultures comfortably by accepting the differences in meaning. However, and more importantly, the concepts of high and low context in intercultural communication allow one to know when they need to learn the communication culture of a community, and when they do not. It is important to note that countries that fall in the category of ‘low context cultures’, usually have little if any hidden meaning in their common language. On the other hand, countries that fall under the category of ‘high context cultures’ have a lot of hidden meaning in their words and gestures. All these go to show the complex nature of communication.

Introduction

Communication is an integral part of culture. Whether its traditional culture or pop culture, the various elements that form a language are critical in meaning. Allen et al. (76) and Vander-Wege (7) explain that semantics in intercultural communication relies heavily on the unspoken words. However, whereas some cultures have a lot of unspoken words, some do not. Commonly referred to as non-verbal cues, unspoken words are highly cultural and are used to not only understand language, but to also understand culture. In intercultural communication, the presence of non-verbal cues, and the use of ‘unspoken words’ is divided into two concepts. The said concepts are high context and low context communication.

Kim et al. (508) argue that communities can be defined as either high context or low context. High context communication, in turn, refers to language that is riddled with hidden meanings. On the other hand, low context communication refers to languages that are plain and direct to the point. It is important to mention that whereas much of the high context communication is affected by non-verbal cues, it can also refer to the use of common language in an uncommon way. The said uncommon way is usually understood within the boundaries of the culture that it is being used (Barkai 48).

The essay looks into the two concepts mentioned, high and low contexts, in light of two countries. The countries that will be used are the United States of America and Turkey. The US was specifically chosen due to the fact that it ranks well among countries that have low context communication, while Turkey is rated highly among countries that have high context communication. A comprehensive literature review will be presented in line with the said two concepts and countries.

Literature Review

The section will discuss how the US has low context communication, while Turkey has high context communication through some of the key elements in intercultural communication.

Context in Culture

In order to fully understand the high and low context ideologies that have been mentioned, it is important to first understand the idea of context in culture. Toomey et al. (112) argue that context in culture is complex. Whereas with a culture there might be smaller languages that rank either highly or lower amongst themselves, in intercultural relations, context is specifically used when two languages, in two countries, are compared. For example, there are two main languages in Canada; English and French. Within the culture (country), it can be argued that the French, as used in Canada is of higher context than English. Looking at Canada and France as countries, however, one will find that Canada is of low context than France.

In the two countries that have been mentioned, the same is applicable. In the US, some states are of higher context that others. For example, New York is of very low context compared to Texas. Isik-Ercan (232) and Kaftanoglu and Timothy (277) argue that the main reason behind such a difference, in the US, is racial diversity. Whereas New York has many races, and has embraced racial inclusivity, a big part of Texas has not. Therefore, the lack of tolerance with other cultures has affected the ranking of the context levels of the two states (Ghua and Gudykunst 73; Sesen and Mark Pruett 242). The issue of race can also be applied in Turkey, which has low racial diversity compared to the US. It can, therefore, be stated that Turkey has high context due to lack of cultural diversity.

The Work Place

Due to globalization, many people find themselves working in different countries and cultures (Yoneoka 93; Mintu-Wimsatt 731; Oztemel 401). The work place is, thus, very diverse in regards to cultures. However, as Putnam (327) notes, depending on the country in question, the work place can be very diverse or less so. In the given two countries, the US, as stated, is in low context, while Turkey is in high context. One of the reasons that can be given for such is that the US has fully embraced globalization compared to Turkey. Majority of people from other countries move to the US in an attempt to get greener pastures. Therefore, they introduce new cultures, and make it more difficult for people in America to speak with ‘hidden meanings” as communication becomes distorted.

The premise brings about the issue of culture, where cultures that have accepted and embraced other cultures, are defined as low context. It is important to point out that such cultures, in order to survive, have to adapt. The language, therefore, also changes to become more inclusive. The organizational culture also changes. Looking at specific examples, in the US, it is very common to find employers asking employees who their weekend was, and some of the places they visited.

Employers also ask employees about their families and their personal lives. Angouri and Miglbauer (157) explain that such actions are common in working places that are in a low context. In Turkey, which is in high context, however, employers and employees have a very rigid communication system. For instance, all employees must call their superiors ‘respectfully’ by stating their names with their appropriate titles. In the same breath, culture also defines masculinity and femininity with the low context cultures having less defined societal roles compared to the high context cultures (Lease et al. 97) and negotiations (Mintu-Wimsatt and Gassenheimer 9).

Education

The issue of context can also be linked to education and the ability to not only retain, but also retrieve information during the right time (Lee et al. 407; Erdem 23). Schwartz et al. (999) go further to note that during an experiment to measure the impact of context on education and learning, American and Turkish students were required to memorize some words. The experiment paired words categorically into 32 groups and presented the words to the students. It is important to note that the categories that were created were culture-specific to the students and were designed based on cultural norms.

The results of the experiment showed that Turkish students had a higher score in both remembering the related and the unrelated words. Additionally, the findings suggested that while Americans used categories to remember the word pairs, the Turks appeared to use a different form of tool to remember the said pairs (Schwartz et al. 1004).

It can be argued that semantics was used by the Turks as compared to the Americans in recalling the paired words. In fact, the suggested is one of the major flaws of the study. It can be argued that the Turks used their definition of the different paired up words to remember them. The said definition is, however, pegged on cultural elements, and not just translated corpus. On the other hand, Americans, who have low context, defined the pair of words based on their layman language, as they do not have much of hidden meaning. The relationship between teachers and students in high and low context cultures is also very different. As Aydin et al. (29) argue, students in low context have more freedom to interact closely with their teachers compared to students in high context areas.

Socialization

Socialization is also greatly affected by high and low context situations. Goodman (32) defines socialization as the process of learning about one’s environment. Needless to say, therefore, socialization is highly cultural. Turks will be socialized to communicate in the high context while Americans will be socialized to communicate in low context. Usunier and Roulin (200 – 202) argue that cultures that are considered to be high context are easily preserved, compared to those in high context. An argument that can be proposed due to the given premise is that the cultures are easily preserved due to the lack of inclusivity of other cultures.

In such systems, a stranger is expected to learn about the differences in communication culture and to adhere to those cultural traits in language. An example can be used to clarify further on the issue of socialization.

In America, the OK hand gesture is very common. In the said gesture, a person touches the tip of the thumb to that of the index finger, thereby, creating an O between the two fingers. The other three fingers usually point upwards. In the US, the gesture, as the name suggests means OK, based on the fact that the fingers create an O and a K. The meaning is derived from the shape of the finger, something that is obvious. However, in Turkey, due to the high context, the same gesture is considered disrespectful. In the high context, the gesture means ‘homosexual’ and is used in an abusive way. Therefore, visitors from low context cultures, who know that the gesture means OK, will have to be re-socialized on the meaning of the same when they visit Turkey.

Politics

Croucher et al. (73) and van Osch (336) also add that politics is affected by the high and low communication context. As Croucher et al. (18) observe, the low context cultures are more willing to participate in political activities than the high context cultures. The scholar conducts a survey on American and Turkish willingness to participate in politics, and some of the ideologies individuals from the two countries uphold in regard to politics.

Through the presented survey, it can be argued that Americans perceive politics as a mandatory obligation for all citizens. Having said so, it is also important to note that Americans are strong willed in their political ideologies and beliefs. On the other hand, the Turks were not as interested in politics.

It can be argued that the high and low contexts affected the perception of politics. First, in America, politics has to put citizens first. There is no hidden agenda behind a person’s motive to be a politician. It is due to the fact that some bad motives can be cultivated in the leaders that the Americans also feel strongly about their participation in politics. They tend to hold their leaders accountable.

On the other hand, in Turkey, the population is more relaxed with politics as they believe in a more communal political setup. Two things come up in the said premises. The first is that the low context allows for citizens to stand up for individual rights and benefits. On the other hand, the high context cultures allow for individuals to see themselves (in a political perspective) as a country, thereby, fight for communal rights as opposed to individual rights.

Stability of Language

Through the discussion, one thing that comes out clearly is the involvement of culture in communication. Americans will decipher meaning of different things based on their culture, as will the Turks. The main difference between the two countries, however, is that in America, the deciphering process is open while in Turkey, many messages have hidden meanings. Gudykunst and Ting-Toomey (84) argue that language is one of the core ways of preserving culture. Having said so, it can, thus, be argued that cultures in low context keep changing and adapting to different times, while cultures in low context remain largely the same.

Hall (925) goes further and explains that cultures that have low context, due to the changes they have to include, often get lost. When one mentions the term “American culture”, the first thing that comes to mind is the inclusivity of the nation. As stated, America is the epitome of globalization as it carries the bulk of it. Many people living in different parts of the world have moved to America either to do businesses, to work, or to live. On the same note, a significant percentage of Americans have lived in other countries as well. The integration of people has also led to integration of cultures. In turn new cultures have been bred, with majority of the population not having enjoyed the original American culture.

On the other hand, in Turkey, due to the high context nature of the culture, the communities have been able to easily preserve their original culture. It is crucial to point out that globalization is also experienced in Turkey. There are currently very many foreigners living and working in the region. In the same breath, Turks have embraced the same concept of globalization and have traveled to different countries, and experienced different cultures, yet when they go back home, they fall back into their traditional culture. By doing so, they preserve the culture.

Works Cited

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