Here we are at the third part of our series on workplace culture inspired by the Steelcase paper “Defining the Code”. We’re jumping ahead a little to talk about high context vs. low context cultures. An environment or culture where everyone kind of knows what’s expected of them based on subtle or even completely non-verbal social cues is considered high context. In other words, if you came into the situation without an understanding of the unspoken rules and social niceties, you would be like a bull in a china shop (this is why Americans seem to routinely embarrass themselves when they visit other countries). In contrast, in a low-context culture, everyone just comes out and says what they think. To someone from a high context culture, this can seem abrasive and tactless or just unnecessary.
See the Difference?
Communication in workplaces in the United States tends to be explicit rather than implicit. For example: A worker goes to his manager and proposes an idea. The manager seems to mull it over for a moment and then replies, “That would be difficult.” In an individualist explicit communication culture, the worker hears, “Tell me how to make this easier and I’ll consider it.” In an implicit communication culture, the worker would hear, “That’s never going to happen, so you might as well drop it.”
Fewer Interruptions in Low Context Environments
In a culture where a direct approach is seen as desirable and efficient, it’s normal for a coworker to drop by an employee’s cubicle and ask, “Do you have a minute?” Even if the worker doesn’t actually have the time to stop what they are doing, their train of thought has already been interrupted. Regaining that lost focus can take several minutes (some research suggests it can take a full 20 minutes to get ‘back in the zone’ after an interruption). So, it’s obvious how having privacy panels might help reduce the incidence of unwanted social interaction. When a coworker has to actually get up from their desk to walk over and ask for help instead of just calling across the room, they may be less likely to interrupt.
More Privacy in High Context Environments
In a high context culture, people tend to be much more aware of body language. So, an employee could simply assume a posture that tells coworkers, “I’m busy.” and expect to be left alone. Of course, the downside of this type of work environment is that high context communication requires a lot of scrutiny and awareness of everything going on around you. In these situations, a little added visual privacy could come as a welcome relief.