High context v. low context cultures: getting your message across is not simply a question of vocabulary and grammar

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For an American, communicating successfully with a French audience requires more than mastering la langue de Molière. As in many other language pairs, getting your message across orally or in writing requires putting the target audience’s culture at the forefront of your efforts to seduce, persuade and convince.

The major difference between high and low context cultures is the amount of information that a person can comfortably manage. In a high context culture, background information tends to be implicit. In a low context culture, much of the background information needs to be made explicit in the communication.

English, perhaps particularly American English, lobbies for direct, active voice expression, crystal clear explanations, and believes that it is the writer or speaker’s responsibility to insure the message is fully intelligible to the target audience about which very little, if anything, is assumed. The meaning of the message is in the words. Language is instrumental and words seek to transmit information in the form of facts and data.

French, on the other hand, is a high-context language. Expression tends to be indirect and suggestive, to create an ambiance and to rely on historical or cultural references. Here, the audience is expected to do most of the work involved in comprehending the full significance of a message. Language is expressive, often emotional. The meaning of the message is in the context, a context rooted in the person and the situation.

It is extremely easy to see the difference when viewing television commercials on cars, for example. Rather than the hard data on horsepower and gas consumption prevalent in an American ad, a French commercial will seduce through dreamy films of a horse running through a field or an exciting drive along mountain roads with hairpin curves. Sometimes, you may even have to guess the brand name of the vehicle….

Regardless of the media, however, it is critical to keep in mind the needs and expectations of high and low context cultures when striving to get your message across. Your professional performance and your company’s success depend on it.


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