In 1976, Edward T Hall introduced us to the idea of high and low context cultures. Almost 40 years later, these differences can cause a simple conversation between me and my Chinese family to end in the most confusing misunderstandings; often funny, but sometimes a little worrying.
According to Hall, on the spectrum of communication styles, high context context communication, which is especially common throughout Asia, is not to be taken literal. Rather, while a person might be saying something, their meaning is actually entirely different and one needs a certain cultural and context understanding to decipher the message.
For example, a Chinese person would never say that they cannot be bothered to meet you, instead they might come up with an excuse such as “I am sick” in order to not hurt your feelings.
My former flat mate once complained that our electricity bill was very high one month and it was Mr Li who has to enlighten me that what my flat mate actually meant with her complaints was that she wanted me to pay a larger part of the bill.
Low context culture on the other hand is very direct. People will tell you what they are thinking, even it might be hurtful to your feelings. Some people appreciate this communication type, because it is simpler and one need not guess the opposite person’s meaning. However, to a person from a high context culture, this type of communication can often seem downright rude.
On the spectrum of different communication styles, Germany would be placed very far on the low context end, while China is on the opposite side, the high context end. As you can imagine, this can lead to strings of misunderstanding when two people of opposing styles are involved in a relationship.
Most of the time I have no clue what I’m saying
When I was preparing my trip back home to Gremany for Christmas, my Chinese mother-in-law (or MIL) gave me a list of items to bring back to. China as long as my arm. As mentioned previously my parents live in a small town, where the availability of luxury items and high-end fashion is rather limited.
While I did promise her I would try my best, I explained to her that but there might be a number of difficulties and detailed what they were exactly (such as the non availability of Louis Vuitton in a small German town of 2000 inhabitants).
Suddenly I got a dispirited message from her saying it was fine and she would just go to Hong Kong to get the items. That was when it hit me; she thought I didn’t want to help her. Coming from a high context culture she interpreted my telling her about possible problems relating to helping her as excuses I was thinking of because in truth I didn’t want to help her at all.
To make matters worse, it is unthinkable in China to refuse a request from your elders, especially parents or parents-in-law. When you are told to do something, you do it, no questions asked.
“Oh no, she thinks I’m a horrible monster!!!!” Was my instant, panicked reaction.
While I quickly sent a message telling her about all the solutions I had for the problems, I began to wonder how this whole misunderstanding had come into existence.
Especially, since when it comes to favours, I often noticed that Mr. Li seemed to think I didn’t want to help him, so why was it exactly that my Chinese family seemed to think I am such a terrible villain?
Overpromising vs managing expectations
While it will often happen in China that someone enthusiastically promises to do something for you and then never pulls through, in Germany this is less so. All over the world, the people I meat tell me their major impression of Germans is reliability, and I would agree that many of us (of course not everyone) makes it a point to keep our promises.
A Chinese saying ironically describes this very well:
说话算数 To put into action what you say (or promise).
So, how did we Germans get to be known for our reliability? By not overpromising and by managing expectations.
Whenever anyone asks me for a favour the first thing I will consider is whether or not the request is realistically achievable. If I feel that there might be issues on the way I will tell my opposite, in order to make clear that I will try my best but the venture might still fail, so they do not get their hopes up and are disappointed in the end.
Hence, when I tell you that these are the difficulties I might encounter, I am doing it because I do not want to disappoint you, and in general I don’t want to disappoint you if you mean something to me. Therefore in my own cultural context, my hesitant reaction is just an expression that someone is important to me, because it matters to me that they see me as reliable and someone who is true to their word.
However, in the Chinese cultural context, my reaction means I am a rude, selfish monster.
Luckily, my C-MIL (Chinese mother-in-law) is a super cool unicorn who didn’t seem to harbour any grudges. But just in case I have sent Mr. Li for a little cultural intervention, to explain to her that she should forgive me for being a German bratwurst.