Circulation of information in a society highly depends on the level of context in this society’s culture. Implicit cultures are high-context cultures while explicit cultures are low-context cultures. Therefore, the challenge for intercultural communication is defining the level of context for each situation. In the following article we will be making a differentiation between high-context and low-context cultures supporting the theory with a few examples from the Middle East and Europe. As a start, the Middle East tends to enjoy a high-context culture whereas Europe tends to enjoy different levels of lower context culture in comparison with the Middle East. This high vs. low context dichotomy is not an evaluation of different cultures but rather a structured categorisation that could help us understand different cultural perspectives.
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In high-context cultures, information is not transmitted through clear, direct and explicit messages. Information must be deducted from the context and interpreted by the receiver. Therefore, it is more likely for a person from a high-context culture to start an argument with an introduction or side information to send an implicit message before getting to the core topic. The language used to circulate and transmit information is more likely informal. People tend to rely on an elaborate system of symbols, body language, intonations of speech, figures of speech, metaphors and implicit meanings and gestures.
According to Edward Hall, an American anthropologist and intercultural researcher, individuals from a high-context culture tend to have wide information systems, extensive family, and friendship networks.
“They [people from a high-context culture] do not need, nor do they expect in their daily life, much in-depth background information,” said Hall in his article Understanding Cultural Differences. Moreover, a very important feature distinguishes the high-context culture and that is the importance of spoken words is greater than the written words.
In low-context cultures, information is transmitted through clear, direct and explicit messages. There is little or no space for interpretation by the receiver as the transmitter already segments the information. It is more likely for a person from a low-context culture to use formal, direct and specific language to circulate and transmit information. Direct and clear information transmission is appreciated while ambiguity is disliked.
Unlike high-context cultures, in which listeners necessitate no further proof because the transmitter is more valued as a source than the background information, listeners in low-context cultures expect detailed background information anytime they are asked for a decision.
Being a high or low-context culture affects not only how we transmit information, but also our communication and relation patterns. On the one hand, individuals from low-context cultures tend to adopt a direct and specific approach to transmit information, which leaves less space for emotions and more space for neutrality. On the other hand, individuals from high-context cultures tend to adopt an indirect and generic approach to transmit information, which leaves more space for emotions and less space for neutrality.
These two different approaches of communication are directly related to how people express their emotions, ideas and opinions. These two different approaches affect how people express their disagreement, insult or greet each other and how people show respect to each other. Therefore a verbatim translation, for example, between two individuals from two different cultural backgrounds with two different levels of context might not be enough. It would more likely lead to a misunderstanding if intercultural dimensions were not taken into account.
News stories and features in English or German newspapers are strictly ‘neutral’ (not rhetoric or emotional) and based on direct, simple and explicit approaches. Oratorical speeches are limited to politicians and motivators. Writing news stories and features in Arabic is more likely to be coloured with emotions. Writers follow a generic approach to advance an argument. Most features in Arabic tend to be oratorical and declamatory.
Guests and callers at TV debates on contemporary political issues in the Middle East are often drawn by emotions. Voices of the opponents soar and they sometimes speak at the same time moving a debate from a professional level to a more personal one.
At Al-Ittijah Al-Muaakes (The Opposite Direction) TV show hosted by Faisal Al-Qasem on Aljazeera Arabic; several wrangles between the interlocutors broke out on many different occasions. Similar quarrels frequently happen at TV debates on different issues in the Middle East such as inter alia: Ajra’a Kalam (The Most Daring Talk), a show hosted by Tony Khalifa, the sport Barnamej Al-Majles (The Council Program), a show hosted by Khaled Jassem and Na’asaf Liadam Al-Izaaj (Sorry for not bothering), a show hosted by May Al-Aidan. This phenomenon is not exclusive to the Middle East and it might occur in a European context but on a less scale. However, it must be noted that not all debate TV programs end up with a personal quarrel.
Since emotions constitute a present element in Middle Eastern private and public spheres, men and women tend to be more rhetoric, poetic and romantic. People tend to use more metaphors and figures of speech which give more space for imagination and free interpretation. Based on the indirect information systems, family ties and friendships tend to last longer and to rapidly grow stronger.
Emotions in a north and western European context could strongly or loosely interfere in the private sphere but almost disappear in the public one. There is less space for free interpretation and rhetoric. Family ties and friendships might not last long or rapidly grow strong.
Based on the cultural context, people choose different patterns to insult each other. While context in Germany or the UK is much less important than in the Middle East, insults and swear words tend to be precise, short and clear. In the Middle East, several words could be used to serve that purpose. Therefore, we will be rather talking about swear sentences. The length of sentences doesn’t owe to linguistic characteristics in the Arabic language but rather to the cultural pattern used to express insult.
As a final example, it is expected to see children kissing the hand of their parents. The information transmitted by this action is respect and love to the parents. Children and adults do this in private and public to tell the audience that they love and respect their parents. This might be very rare and not expected in a western culture. If an individual wanted to tell the audience that they love their parents, they would just spell it out. They don’t see the need to kiss their parents’ hands in public.
Low-context and high-context cultures enjoy specific characteristics that make them unique and interesting. Defining the context remains a challenge as contexts could be strongly influenced by personality, education and experience. Therefore, attempting to understand one’s culture shouldn’t function as reduction of someone’s personality, education or experience. The purpose is to understand different cultures and not to judge them.