If you are like me, a people watcher (I think more accurately — a people observer), you are the type that goes to a museum in the U.S. or abroad, and views the works of art as much as you watch people viewing the works of art. You love to sit in an outdoor café looking at the people walking back and forth on the sidewalk, but you also like to peek over the top of your coffee cup in order to observe the people sitting around you.

You are fascinated by how people eat, how they sit, how they interact with one another. If you speak the local language, don’t you love to eaves drop even a little bit? If you are a true people observer you love to go beyond just merely watching and try to engage locals in conversation. You want to peer into their hearts and mind and find out what makes them tick.

But are you merely a people observer aficionado, or do you take your leisure pursuit to a higher level?

Allow me to give you a cultural concept I use that takes the observation of people to a whole new level. Bear with me while I tell you how I started using this technique.

In high school, math to me was the equivalent of garlic to Dracula. I used to get grossed out dissecting frogs and the smell of formaldehyde turned my stomach. In college I had a tough time figuring out what I wanted to do with my life. Certainly anything to do with math or science was not in my radar screen. I thought about psychology, but decided that I really did not want to have to listen to someone else’s problems, since I had plenty of my own. Sociology did not really excite me and anthropology was fun but I did not see how I could make a living in that field.

My choices eventually dwindled down to business. I just could not see myself as a suit commuting for an hour and half to the Big Apple every day. However, I had a “eureka” moment when I took a class in international business. This was the answer to my problems. I could make decent money and get someone else to pay for my international travel.

Some years ago after going back to school to retool myself, I ended up teaching various courses in international business at a University outside of the U.S. By far my favorite course was International Marketing. The reason for this is that so much about international business and certainly international market development has to do with cultures which for me were always the fun part of international travel.

Cultures are made up of people. If you understand the culture, you understand the people that represent that particular culture. Once you gain this understanding, a whole new world opens up. You can now begin to look at situations and every day occurrences and make sense of what is going on.

Let’s take this a little further.

Culture is the reflection of our humanity, pointing to not just social interactions, but also to art, music, language, dance, religion, food, clothing, mythologies, philosophy, literature, jewelry, and much more.

Sir Edward Burnett Tylor, founder of cultural anthropology said that culture was “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.”

Naturally many textbooks, books, articles and academic papers have been dedicated to the study of culture, and I can assure you that’s not my purpose in writing this post. What I would like to do instead is to turn you on to one of the many aspects of culture that has made it fun for me to use when I am people watching. It is a little known cultural dimension known as “High-Context / Low-Context”.

By the way, Geert Hofstede the father of cultural dimensions originally created four dimensions as a framework for cross cultural communications. Cultural dimensions allow us to compare other cultures to ours so that we can all interact more efficiently and avoid miscommunication. Cultural dimensions give us a way to measure cultures such that we can have a deeper understanding of them.

Hofstede original four dimensions were: Power Distance, Individualism vs. Collectivism, Uncertainty Avoidance, and Masculinity vs. Femininity. Since then, others have identified additional cultural dimensions, such as Long Term vs. Short Term Orientation, Indulgence vs. Restrain, Universalism vs. Particularism, Specific vs. Diffuse, Neutral vs. Affective, Past vs. Future, and Internal vs. External.

In 1976 anthropologist Edward T. Hall identified High and Low Context cultures.

High Context versus Low Context

The following is how Brian G. Wilson of College of Marin, describes high and low context cultures:

High-context cultures (including much of the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and South America) are relational, collectivist, intuitive, and contemplative. This means that people in these cultures emphasize interpersonal relationships. Developing trust is an important first step to any business transaction. According to Hall, these cultures are collectivist, preferring group harmony and consensus to individual achievement. And people in these cultures are less governed by reason than by intuition or feelings. Words are not so important as context, which might include the speaker’s tone of voice, facial expression, gestures, posture — and even the person’s family history and status. A Japanese manager explained his culture’s communication style to an American: “We are a homogeneous people and don’t have to speak as much as you do here. When we say one word, we understand ten, but here you have to say ten to understand one.” High-context communication tends to be more indirect and more formal. Flowery language, humility, and elaborate apologies are typical.

Low-context cultures (including North America and much of Western Europe) are logical, linear, individualistic, and action-oriented. People from low-context cultures value logic, facts, and directness. Solving a problem means lining up the facts and evaluating one after another. Decisions are based on fact rather than intuition. Discussions end with actions. And communicators are expected to be straightforward, concise, and efficient in telling what action is expected. To be absolutely clear, they strive to use precise words and intend them to be taken literally. Explicit contracts conclude negotiations. This is very different from communicators in high-context cultures who depend less on language precision and legal documents. High-context business people may even distrust contracts and be offended by the lack of trust they suggest.

The following images will help you understand the differences of low context and high context cultures. Next time you travel, or you are in a neighborhood in which the local culture is different from yours, perhaps you can look a little deeper into what people are doing and recognize whether they are behaving in a low or high context way.


Other articles by J. C. Scull