Cultural Differences in Business Communication
Tepper School of Business
Carnegie Mellon University
There is no better arena for observing a culture in action than business. Cultures tend to
reveal themselves in situations where much is as stake, because it is here that their
resources are most needed. Marriage, family obligations, and such stressful experiences
as illness and the death of a loved one bring out much of what is distinctive and
fundamental in a culture. The same is true of business, because economic survival is at
stake. Business practices are shaped by deeply-held cultural attitudes toward work,
power, trust, wealth—and communication.
Communication is fundamental in business, because business is a collaborative activity.
Goods and services are created and exchanged through the close coordination of many
persons, sometimes within a single village, and sometimes across global distances.
Coordination of this kind requires intense communication. Complex product
specifications and production schedules must be mutually understood, and intricate deals
between trading partners must be negotiated. Communication styles vary enormously
around the world, and these contribute to a staggering variety of business styles.
Probably the single most useful concept for understanding cultural differences in business
communication is Edward T. Hall’s (1976) distinction of low-context and high-context
cultures. It explains much about how negotiation proceeds, how agreements are
specified, and how workers are managed. Yet this distinction, insightful as it is, is
derivative. It is best understood as reflecting a more fundamental distinction between
rule-based and relationship-based cultures, which is in turn grounded in different
conceptions of human nature. The discussion here begins by showing how business
practices reflect low-context and high-context characteristics, but it subsequently moves
to the deeper levels to explore how communication styles are integrally related to other
characteristics of the culture.
High and Low Context Communication
In high-context communication, the message cannot be understood without a great deal
of background information. Low-context communication spells out more of the
information explicitly in the message. Let’s suppose I would like to drink some
Löwenbräu Original beer with 5.2% alcohol content by volume. If I order it online, I
specify all these details. This is low-context communication. If I am sitting in a Munich
biergarten, it may be enough to say, “Noch eins, bitte” (“Another one, please”). The
waiter knows that I just drank a stein of Löwenbräu Original, or that customers who
speak with a foreign accent nearly always want the city’s most famous beer. Because my
remark is meaningful only in context, it is an example of high-context communication.
As a rule, cultures with western European roots rely more heavily on low-context
communication. These include Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States,
as well as much of Europe. The rest of the world tends toward high-context
communication. Naturally, high-context communication can occur in a low-context
culture, as the German biergarten illustrates. Communication within a family or closeknit group is high context in almost any part of the world. Conversely, low-context
communication is becoming more common in high-context cultures, due to Western
influences and a desire to accommodate travelers and expatriates.
One of the more obvious markers of a low-context culture is the proliferation of signs and
written instructions. If I step off the train in Munich, there are signs everywhere to direct
me to the taxi stand, public transportation, ticket offices, tourist information, and
lavatories. Detailed street maps of the area are mounted on the walls, and bus and tram
schedules are posted. In much of the high-context world, there is little such information.
Nonetheless everyone seems already to know where to go and what to do. Much of what
one must know to operate is absorbed from the culture, as if by osmosis. In these parts of
the world, my hosts normally send someone to meet me on the platform, partly as a
gesture of hospitality, but also because they are accustomed to providing information
through a social context rather than impersonal signs. I am much less likely to be greeted
in a German airport or station, not because Germans are inhospitable, but because they
transmit information in a different way.
It may appear that low-context communication is simply an outgrowth of urbanization
and international travel, rather than a cultural trait. These are certainly factors, but there
is an irreducible cultural element as well. The smallest town in the United States
carefully labels every street with a street sign and numbers the buildings consecutively,
even though practically everyone in sight has lived there a lifetime and can name the
occupants of every house. Yet very few streets in the huge city of Tokyo are labeled or
even have names, and building numbers are nonexistent or arranged in random order.
The United States and Japan are perhaps the world’s most extreme cases of low-context
and high-context cultures, respectively.
International travel and migration likewise fail to explain low-context and high-context
behavior, even if they are factors. It is true that international airports are now well signed
in most of the world. Yet there are few areas with a more transient and multicultural
population than some of the Arab Gulf states, in which perhaps less than twenty percent
of the population is indigenous. Communication nonetheless remains largely high
context. Local authorities may post directional signs at roundabouts, in an effort to
accommodate Western tourists and expatriates, but these are remarkably useless—no
doubt because the local people never rely on signs and therefore do not really know what
it means to navigate by them.
Low- and high-context communication styles are, at root, contrasting approaches to
regulating behavior. One way to identify a low-context culture is that behavior norms are
often communicated by putting them in writing them rather than through personal
enforcement. If I am not supposed to enter a particular area or smoke there, posted signs
will let me know. In a high-context culture, there may be no signs, but a guard or
employee may accost me if I break any of the rules. I may take offense at this, because in
a Western country, being called down for bad behavior implies that I should have known
better, and I normally cannot know better unless someone writes down the rules. But in
high-context cultures, being corrected by other persons is a normal procedure for
Whereas Westerners live in a world of rules and instructions and are lost without them,
many others live in a social context. A Western or international airport is full of signs
and display screens that direct passengers to the correct check-in counter and gate, update
departure times, and so forth. However, if I enter a crowded departure lounge in a
regional, non-Western airport, I may find no signs or displays to indicate which gate
corresponds to which destination, or if the displays exist, they may be blank or incorrect.
Airline employees standing at the doorways may announce the flights, but they are
inaudible in the din. Somehow, everyone knows where to go. They pick up cues from
the people around them. For example, they may have unconsciously noticed who was in
the queue with them when they checked in, and gravitated toward these same people
when they reached the departure lounge.
There are clear implications for business communication. A manager in New York City
transmits behavior norms through employee manuals and official memos. Employees
who want a week off, for example, are expected to consult these sources, or perhaps their
employment contracts, for whether they are entitled to a holiday. They follow prescribed
procedures for filing a request, which is granted according to company policy. How
employees make use of their holiday is of no consequence. In fact, managers typically
want as little discretion as possible to evaluate the merits of the case, because they feel
more comfortable applying rules than exercising personal judgment that they may have to
defend. Employees in Bogotá, by contrast, will more likely approach the boss, or a friend
of the boss who can plead their case. They will explain how important it is to attend a
niece’s wedding in Miami or grandfather’s funeral in Buenos Aires. The boss is willing
to make such decisions, because this is what it means to be a boss. Ironically, it may also
be necessary to follow bureaucratic procedure that is even more tedious than in New
York City, but the request is ultimately granted on the basis of personal decision. The
role of bureaucracy in high-context cultures is an interesting issue and will be taken up
Because company norms in a high-context culture must be communicated personally,
close personal supervision is essential. Rules that are not personally enforced may be
seen as non-binding. The company may not want employees to use company cars for
personal business, but a failure to monitor vehicle use may be interpreted as granting
them permission. A similar principle applies in education. The instructor may tell
students not to copy homework solutions from their classmates and state this policy
clearly in the course syllabus. Yet if it is easy to copy solutions without getting caught,
the students may feel free to do so. They reason that if the instructor really cared about
copying, he or she would not allow it to occur.
The difference between low- and high-context communication is particularly evident in
the area of contracts. Western contracts are marvels of thoroughness. So simple a
transaction as renting a bicycle for a day may require three pages of fine print to spell out
how to deal with every possible contingency. Once a contract is signed, there is no
flexibility in the terms unless both partiers agree to renegotiate. If a party fails to deliver,
the legal system is expected to enforce compliance.
Contracts in high-context societies have a different character, for two reasons. One
reason traces directly to the high-context nature of communication. It is not necessary to
write everything (or perhaps anything) down, because mutual understanding and a
handshake suffice. When there is a written contract, it may be more a memorandum of
understanding than a binding legal document. Because the terms are vague, there is room
for adjustment as the situation develops. As for compliance, the parties are more likely to
rely on a pre-existing trust relationship than a legal system.
A second reason for the lack of detailed contracts is that the very idea of a contract is
central only in certain cultures, primarily those historically influenced by the Middle
East. A Westerner, for example, sees doing business as synonymous with making deals.
The idea of a covenant is fundamental to the culture and even governs the relationship
between God and humankind in the Christian Old Testament. In a Confucian culture, by
contrast, doing business is primarily about developing personal relationships. These can
be based on family or clan connections, or on relationships of mutual obligation
popularly known as guānxì (a Mandarin Chinese word for “connection”). Business plans
develop along with the relationship rather than through formal communication in written
contracts. Managers may draw up contracts to please their Western business partners, but
one should not be surprised if they want to alter the terms the day after the document is
signed. Why enslave oneself to a piece of paper, when the world constantly changes?
Negotiation and Decision Making
Every cross-cultural business manual cautions Western negotiators that, in much of the
world, “yes” does not necessarily mean yes, and “maybe” can mean no. “Yes” can be a
way of indicating that one understands or acknowledges a proposal. If the proposal is
unsatisfactory, the response is likely to be indirect, perhaps consisting of such statements
as, “we will think about it,” a period of silence (as in a Japanese setting, where silence
can have other meanings as well), or simply a failure to pursue the matter in subsequent
This kind of indirect speech relies on high-context communication to get the message
across, but there is more involved than simply a tendency to engage in high-context
communication. There is a desire to save face or otherwise avoid giving offense.
Indirect speech occurs generally in situations where parties may disagree, not only in
negotiation, but also when a decision is being discussed or conflicts must be resolved.
Westerners tend to be frank in such settings. Parties who disagree state their views
openly, because their differences are resolved by what are regarded as objective
standards. The winning view is the one backed by the stronger argument, spreadsheet
calculations, or the logic of market forces. The losers may find their predicament
unpleasant, but they are expected to subjugate their personal feelings to objective criteria.
In much of the world, however, there is no such faith in objectivity. Life revolves around
human relationships rather than what are seen as universal rules of logic. Because there
is no independent standard by which to resolve conflicts, it is important not to give
offense in the first place. Such scruples may not apply during transient interactions with
strangers, as when bargaining in a street bazaar. But when dealing with business
associates with whom one must maintain working relationships, it is necessary to
preserve harmony through deference, courtesy, and indirection.
One result of this dynamic is that business meetings tend to serve different purposes in
different parts of the world. In low-context cultures, meetings provide an occasion for
the company to consider pros and cons and perhaps even arrive at a decision on the spot.
Participants in the meeting are expected to express their opinions openly, provided they
back up their views with facts and arguments. In high-context cultures, deliberation and
decision-making tend to take place behind the scenes and at upper levels. A meeting
might be an occasion to announce and explain the decision.
As for negotiation, the very concept, at least as it is understood in the West, may be
problematic in a relationship-based culture. It may be seen as a form of confrontation that
undermines harmony. Westerners view negotiation as a poker game in which players can
lose without hard feelings, as long as everyone plays by rules that are somehow writ in
the sky. Yet when no such rules are acknowledged, and only human relationships are
recognized as real, it is best to foster these relationships and build trust. If there is
common ground for business, it will develop along with the relationship.
Confrontational bargaining can be appropriate in high-context cultures, but again, only in
such settings as a street market, and not between colleagues. High-context
communication remains part of the picture, but it has a different purpose. The object is
not to avoid giving offense but to arrive at a price with as little information exchange as
possible. As a Westerner, I may regard “haggling” as a waste of time, because I believe
the price should be dictated by the logic of the market. However, if there is no welldefined market price, a price below my maximum and above the seller’s minimum must
somehow be arrived at. This is impossible if I reveal my maximum and the seller reveals
her minimum, because I will insist buying at her minimum, and she will insist on selling
at my maximum. Bargaining tends to be a ritualized activity that reveals just enough
information about the seller and me to allow us to identify a price in this range, or
discover that there is no mutually agreeable price. Hand and facial gestures, tone of
voice, and walking out of the shop can signal intentions that are not explicit in verbal
comments. Westerners often ask how they should bargain in a traditional market, but it is
impossible to say in general. The conventions are very specific to the culture and must
be learned over an extended period, perhaps by going to market with one’s parents.
One-on-one bargaining of this kind can actually be more efficient, in an economic sense,
than low-context Western commerce that explicitly reveals an equilibrated market price
on a price tag or web site. Negotiation may discover a price on the seller and I can agree,
allowing mutually beneficial trade to proceed, even when one of us is dissatisfied with
the market price and no trade would occur in a fixed-price system. In fact, some recent
online auctions and trading are beginning to resemble traditional practices more than
transparency-based Western commerce.
Relationship-based and Rule-based Cultures
This is a good point at which to examine the cultural mechanisms that underlie high- and
low-context communication styles. They may be roughly categorized as relationshipbased and rule-based. Each is associated with a suite of practices that regulate
interpersonal relations and deal with the stress and uncertainty of human existence. This
deeper perspective allows one to understand business communication patterns that are not
fully explained as deriving from high- and low-context communication styles.
Behavior in relationship-based cultures is regulated through close supervision by
authority figures. This requires that authority be respected, and it therefore resides in
persons with whom one has significant relationships, such as parents, elders, bosses, or
even departed ancestors. Improper behavior is deterred by shame, loss of face,
punishment, or ostracism. Because the authority figures are close at hand and form an
integral part of the social environment, behavioral norms are usually implicit in the
cultural situation and need not be spelled out explicitly. Relationship-based cultures
therefore tend to rely on high-context communication.
Behavior in rule-based cultures is based on respect for rules. This is not to say that rulebased cultures have rules and relationship-based cultures do not; both do. Rule-based
cultures are distinguished by two characteristics: (a) people respect the rules for their own
sake, while rules in relationship-based cultures derive their authority from the persons
who lay them down; and (b) compliance with rules is often encouraged by guilt feelings
and fear of punishment if one happens to be caught violating the rules, rather than shame
and constant supervision. Because personal relationships are relatively unimportant in
the enforcement of rules, the rules tend to be spelled out explicitly, and people are taught
to pay attention to them. The result is low-context communication. One can now begin
to see why high- and low-context communication styles are, at root, contrasting
approaches to regulating behavior.
The distinction of relationship-based and rule-based cultures also underlies differences in
negotiating styles. The frankness of rule-based cultures is possible because of an
underlying confidence that rules have objective validity and can therefore serve as a basis
for resolving disputes. The absence of such confidence in relationship-based cultures
requires that they fall back on courtesy and face saving.
Relationship- and rule-based mechanisms deal with the stress and uncertainty of life as
well as regulate behavior (Hooker 2003). Family and friendship ties provide a sense of
security in relationship-based societies. Loyalty obligations to family and cronies are
therefore strong and may take precedence over one’s own welfare, but it is loyalty well
Purchase answer to see full attachment