A couple years ago, I was leading an intercultural communication and cultural adjustment workshop for a group of Korean business executives who were temporarily relocating to corporate offices in the United States. During our three day training, we reviewed American culture and values, discussed American business language and protocols, and explored American regional differences, among other topics. While they were keenly interested in all of the information provided, I noticed that their comments kept returning to the same question: Why do Americans talk so much?
One executive very humorously described what he called a “hellish” fishing trip with an American colleague, during which the American spoke loudly and without pause, as if his main goal was to make certain that all the fish were frightened away. Another mentioned a long car ride with an American office mate, during which the American attempted to make “small talk” the entire time, while the Korean executive struggled to think of appropriate responses that he could confidently express in English. All had stories about trying to figure out how to extricate themselves from a conversation with an American peer at a cocktail party or other business social event.
Their difficulties inspired me to share with them an analogy I discovered many years ago, to describe the difference between high and a low context cultures.
First, imagine an old married couple. Think of the kind of couple you might see sitting in a restaurant, drinking their morning coffee in companionable silence. One person might be reading the morning paper, the other might be doing the crossword puzzle, and yet both seem perfectly comfortable and at ease with each other. One pours more coffee from the carafe, and the other passes the sugar, without even looking up. You sense that there are years of shared history between them, with all the accumulated knowledge and tradition such history entails. They might speak when they have something to share, but no words are necessary to establish their easy rapport.
Now, imagine a couple on a first date. These days, it is likely that they met online, so they might know a little bit about each other from what they’ve read in the other’s dating profile, but those details are usually only superficial. Both partners understand that the only way to figure out if it is possible to build some kind of rapport is to talk about themselves to each other, establish a context, and discover what ideas and interests they might have in common. Long stretches of silence are uncomfortable and awkward, because silence is a sign that the “first date” is not going well, or that they are making a poor first impression, so both people usually work hard to keep the conversation moving.
As I explained to the Korean executives, when Koreans are introduced to each other, they tend to behave a bit like an old married couple. This is because Korea is a high-context culture, so when Koreans communicate with each other, even when meeting for the first time, they assume quite a bit of commonality of knowledge and views. Consequently, they tend to to be more implicit or indirect when communicating, and to use words only when necessary. On the other hand, the United States is a low-context culture, so Americans tend to behave a bit like they are on a first date whenever they interact with someone new. A great deal of importance and focus is placed on what is said, and people tend to share their thoughts and ideas in full detail, and to explain things explicitly.
When high and low context cultures–like Korea and the United States, respectively–encounter each other in the business world, some level of discomfort and misunderstanding is likely to arise. While the Korean executives might be wondering, “Why do Americans talk so much? Can’t we just sit here for a while in companionable silence?” their American counterparts are likely thinking, “Why do Koreans say so little? Can’t we just talk directly about exactly what it is we are both looking for from this partnership?”
Since most of the Korean executives in my workshop had, at some point in their lives, experienced the relatively “low-context” environment of a first date, they nodded sympathetically when they heard this analogy. Likewise, they said they could imagine that most of their American colleagues probably have a spouse or partner with whom they were able to sit quietly for hours, in the relatively “high-context” environment of a marriage or long term relationship.
When striving to improve intercultural communication, a little bit of mutual understanding can go a long way.
P.S.: Of course, I tried not to talk “too much” during the workshop!