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Fons Trompenaars, GILD faculty member on “high versus low context communication”

September 29, 2011

Fons Trompenaars, leading consultant on cross-cultural communication and 2011 faculty member at the Global Institute for Leadership Development (GILD) discusses his first-hand take on leadership and communication. 

What are the potential problems of cross-cultural communication and what are your recommendations on how an individual, a team or an organization can overcome these?

Let me focus on what once was called by Edward Hall, high versus low context communication.  What is meant by that is that we in the west, especially northwest Europe, and America, are used to low context communication.

In other words, what we say is clear.  It doesn’t matter how much tone of voice you change, it doesn’t matter if you use email or phone or face-to-face speech, context really doesn’t matter and it should be clear.

Many cultures, if not the majority in the world, use high context communication.  High context communication is that the things I was just listing play an enormous role in trying to get your message across; tone of voice, who is speaking, is the boss there or isn’t he or she, etc.

Now, the big challenge, especially if we include social media, email, the internet is in fact a very low context medium because you don’t need to be there.  Nothing can be overt; it can all be hidden.  So that is very good for low context communication.

High context needs to be open on all communication channels if possible.  How can we face this problem where different communication styles meet while we all use modern media?  So, for example, if you write an email to a Japanese person, follow it up with a phone call so he can hear a bit of what tone of voice is behind it.  Also, if you are communicating in high context cultures, try to find ways of increasing context by first of all not doing everything in public, but have a lot of private chats.

Fons Trompenaars studied Economics at the Free University of Amsterdam and later earned a Ph.D. from Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, with a dissertation on differences in conceptions of organizational structure in various cultures. He experienced cultural differences firsthand at home, where he grew up speaking both French and Dutch, and then later at work with Shell in nine countries.

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