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Low-Context and High-Context at the Oscars

By Mari D. González

The Oscars’ controversial comment by Sean Penn when presenting Alejandro González Iñárritu is a great example on how communication between members of Low-context and High-context groups causes misinterpretation.

According to anthropologist and intercultural communication pioneer, Edward T. Hall, North European and North American macro-cultures would be defined as “Low-context” because their communication preference is characterized by explicit verbal messages. Hall further explains that in Low-context, “Effective verbal communication is expected to be direct and unambiguous.” On the other hand, societies from the rest of the world including Latin America, Asia, and Arab countries utilize “High-context” communication in which, “most of the information is part of the context or internalized in the person; very little is made explicit (Hall, as cited by de Mooij, 2014). In these countries, people are programmed to read context and meaning between words.

Low-context communication is related to an individualistic identity in which people are “I” conscious and express private opinions publicly. Conversely, in High-context or collectivist societies expressing personal opinions and disregarding group of reference’s perceptions is not recommended. There is a risk of making them feel humiliated or what Asians call “losing face.”

In collectivist cultures, personal identity is related to and not separate from that of the group of reference as in “we.” An offense to a person of that group is an offense to all members who identify with that in-group. Hence, a perceived offense to Iñárritu could be perceived as an offense to those who identify as Mexicans because their individual identity is not separate from that of the group of reference as it is for members of individualistic cultures.

Millennials’ High Context is Influencing American Values

By Mari D. González

I’m pleased to see how millennials are influencing our current society. They have acquired a broader awareness of their social and global environments than previous generations.

Millennials are more “contextual” or high context and have influenced the workplace and our current societal values. They are more in tune with their immediate social environment and with global happenings and expect people to have a sense of a global community. They care about world affairs and social causes.

These facts are relevant to cross-cultural communication because millennials are changing the emerging fabric of the American culture.  I’d attribute these changes to two factors. One is the circularity and interconnectedness that online communication offers. Secondly, a great majority of millennials come from cultures that are collectivists such as Latino and Asian.

More on this topic at Hiring Millennial: You’re Likely Missing the Point.