Recently, I attended a training on cross cultural communication presented by Jason Harper as part of the Los Angeles County Bar Association training for mediators.

During the presentation, Mr. Harper discussed “low-context” and “high -context” communications in terms of relationships vs rights.

But first, some definitions:

The concepts of high context and low context refer to how people communicate in different cultures.  Differences can be derived from the extent to which meaning is transmitted through actual words used or implied by the context.

High context implies that a lot of unspoken information is implicitly transferred during communication.  People in a high context culture such as Saudi Arabia tend to place a larger importance on long-term relationships and loyalty and have fewer rules and structure implemented.

Low context implies that a lot of information is exchanged explicitly through the message itself and rarely is anything implicit or hidden.  People in low context cultures such as the UK tend to have short-term relationships, follow rules and standards closely and are generally very task-oriented.

 Thus, at the start of any dispute, one of the first and most important things to determine is how the other party communicates; high context or low context. Does the other person  place more emphasis on the relationship and its durability or on her rights and remedies under the law?  Which is more important: continuing the relationship or having a right vindicated?

Answering these questions will assist in determining how specific your communications must be. If the dispute is relationship based, then much can be left unsaid with a lot being read “in between the lines.” An example would be a dispute with a family member or a business with which you have been conducting business for decades. Because of your familiarity with each other, a lot can be left unsaid; your relationship is built on trust and it is important to each of you to continue the relationship. Thus, when you settle the dispute, a short-written contract or even an oral contract will suffice.

But, if the dispute is based on rights and remedies, then the communications  must be explicit, with all the terms put into writing.  An example would be a dispute with a company you have never done business with. There is no trust, no relationship and so everything must be explicitly stated, and any settlement must be written out in detail.

In sum, in resolving a dispute, the style of communication is important: is it based upon a relationship or a right? If the former, little will need to be said to resolve it; if the latter, be prepared to speak quite a lot and explicitly.

…. Just something to think about.


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