When Tourists Struggle to Read Between the Lines

Visitors to the Moroccan city of Fez find its streets lined with sidewalk cafes. Throughout the day and evening hours, small groups of men sit at outdoor tables, drinking coffee, mint tea, and Fanta.

Sidewalk Cafe in Fez, Morocco

Source: Adam Jones/CC BY-SA 2.0

If a woman sits at an outdoor table, she’ll probably sit a long time before a waiter comes to take her order. Or a waiter may never come. If the woman is a tourist and is unfamiliar with Morocco’s cultural norms, she may become irritated by the waiter’s tepid response to her desire to simply order a beverage. Meanwhile, the cafe’s waiters and male patrons will be irritated by the foreign woman’s flagrant violation of a “rule” known by all Moroccans: Single women are not supposed to sit outside at a cafe; they should sit inside if they wish to be served.

Do cafes in Fez post signs that explicitly tell women to sit inside?  No, because there’s no need.  Moroccans already know where women are expected to sit.

This aspect of daily life in Fez may disturb some readers, but it illustrates an intriguing cultural dimension that was first introduced by anthropologist Edward T. Hall in 1959. The dimension is often referred to as “low-context vs. high-context communication,” and it’s especially useful when learning how to communicate with people who are culturally different.

According to Hall, a low-context culture is one in which communication is explicit and unambiguous. The intended message is conveyed largely by the words spoken. In a low-context culture, a restaurant owner who doesn’t want patrons to smoke in her restaurant will post a sign that says “No Smoking.” If a shopper doesn’t want to taste a free sample in a grocery store, he’ll simply say, “No, thanks.”

In contrast, a high-context culture is one in which a good deal of the message is implicit and potentially ambiguous. The words spoken convey only a part of the message; the remainder must be inferred from the setting and other contextual cues.

A detailed example will be helpful. Some years ago, I had a fascinating conversation about high-context communication with one of my Japanese students. He explained that, in Japan, saying “yes” can mean several things in addition to an actual “yes.” To correctly interpret the meaning of “yes,” one needs to know at least two cultural rules.

First, when having a conversation in Japan, the listener should be an active, engaged listener. Saying yes can be a way to show your conversational partner that you’re listening. It doesn’t necessarily mean you agree with what the person is saying.

Second, Japanese rarely say “no” directly because they don’t wish to hurt someone’s feelings. This means people sometimes say “yes” when they actually mean “maybe.” Or perhaps even “no.” If a person in Japan truly intends to accept your invitation or offer, they will provide some details and elaborate on their “yes.” That’s how Japanese can tell the difference between a genuine “yes” and a merely polite “yes.”

Native Japanese can easily decode the meaning of an ambiguous communication, but visitors to Japan who don’t know how to “read between the lines” are likely to misunderstand and be misunderstood.

Arabs and East Asians are said to be high-context communicators. Germans, Scandinavians, and North Americans are said to be low-context communicators. Unfortunately, when it comes to categorizing countries as low-context or high-context, “empirical research that goes beyond anecdotal evidence remains scarce” (Kittler, Rygl, & Mackinnon, 2011, p. 74).

Experienced travelers know that it’s much easier to navigate and communicate in a low-context society because information about rules and permissible behaviors is likely to be stated explicitly. Electronic displays at intersections tell you when to “Walk” or “Don’t Walk,” for example. Or a restaurant bill says, in small print at the bottom, “A 20% gratuity will be added to the check for parties of 8 or more.”

This fact—that it’s easier to navigate and communicate in low-context societies—may explain, in part, why Japanese tourists are much more likely to visit the United States than American tourists are to visit Japan.

Other cultural dimensions include individualism-collectivism, tightness-looseness, and emotional expressiveness.

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