Low context cultures subordinate history, personal honour and personal relationships for the purpose of agreement.
These cultural differences can lead to serious misunderstandings not only about the topic of negotiations, but about what it actually means to negotiate.
Raymond Cohen of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (Negotiating Across Cultures: International Communication in an Interdependent World, revised ed., Washington DC: USIP Press, 1997) offers a system for analysing national negotiating styles in terms of the importance which negotiators attach to the broad cultural context in which they operate.
Kishan Rana, former Indian ambassador to Germany, points out that categorising cultures offers both advantages and disadvantages.
Looking for categories is a useful tool for analysis and the training of diplomats, and can be used as initial device in preparing for cross cultural encounters.
Arab culture, for example, is high context as Arab negotiators attach great importance to context, for example history, and make a sharp distinction between the way matters of state should be conducted and matters of commerce.
The first is the realm of principle and morals, and the second, the realm of haggling.
Professor Paul Sharp, head of political science at the University of Minnesota, points out that although Cohen’s approach is useful as a point of departure, it has some weaknesses: …[the categorisation] misses the extent to which there exist variations within cultures which are themselves brought forth by different contexts…there are times and circumstances in which US negotiations are very high context, even on the proverbial second hand car lot.
In Minnesota alone books have been written (and, more importantly, money has been made) providing outsiders with the context they need to make sense of what is, or may be, being communicated in the sparse conversations and non-verbal exchanges which participants in the culture instantly recognise.The global nature of many widely diverse modern problems and issues such as the environment, governance of the Internet, poverty and international terrorism call for cooperation between nations.Intercultural communication is no longer an option, but a necessity.Syrians in their dealings with Americans and Israelis may take a high context approach, but Syrians in their dealings with the Lebanese or the Kurds, one suspects, may take a low context approach.The second problem with the high context-low context approach resides in its characterisation of what is meant by low context.Arab negotiators attach high importance to creating bonds of friendship and trust between negotiators, and respect for the honour and dignity of negotiating partners.