Communication may seem to be very black and white – you either know a language and can communicate with someone, or you do not – but the truth is that the manner and style in which ideas are communicated are entirely different in other cultures, and go far beyond a simple language barrier.
In America, the style of communication typically used is classified as low-context communication. In this style, one focuses more on the literal meanings of actual words used rather than relying on non-verbal cues to fully interpret meaning. This type of culture and communication style does well with written words, in which the entirety of the meaning is dependent upon the words themselves to convey a message.68
Conversely, Cambodia is classified as using a high-context communication style. In this style, groups use spoken words and non-verbal cues to comprehend what is being communicated. To fully understand what the speaker intends, a listener must employ their ability to “read between the lines.” In this style, it is important to listen and observe concurrently, but even someone from a low-context culture who is highly skilled in both may still find it difficult to fully grasp a high-context communicator’s meaning.69
In general terms, “high-context” refers to societies or settings that have long-established, deep connections. Because of the depth of connection between the members of the group, much of the communication is understood by implication and less is stated explicitly.70 Your family would most likely be a good example of a high-context group. Other examples of high-context situations might be a party of close friends, a small church congregation, or a formal restaurant where the rules of behavior and underlying cues are understood without having to be spelled out.
To most people from low-context communication societies, high-context communication seems to be very indirect. For example, a friend says that he is hungry but cannot leave his work to buy food. For a low-context person, this means that the friend will be hungry until he finishes work, but a high-context person may get the signal that his friend would like for him to pick up food for him. Saying this directly would appear to be overly demanding to a high-context individual, but by telling his friend that he is hungry, another high-context individual will be able to detect the cues and will be placed in a position of offering to pick up food.71 While it may seem that the high-context individual is talking around what he wants, he is actually giving significant signals that he expects the listener to understand.
Learning to understand high-context communication cultures is very difficult and takes years. In the above example, what is going on reflects communication style, but also other cultural preferences. By hinting that he would like for someone to pick up food, the high-context communicator saves face if the friend were to refuse, and the friend has the power to offer or not. Because there are so many cultural influences at work, give yourself grace as you try to listen and connect with people in Cambodia.
If you are a low-context and direct communicator, you must be careful in how you communicate with and perceive things from a high-context and indirect communicator. You may think that they are being evasive, dishonest, can’t take a stand, have no opinion, or that they are increasing tension by not dealing with issues directly. Before this becomes your mindset, however, remember the things you have learned about their culture and ask yourself questions such as, “What is the context behind what they are saying?” and, “What is the point they are trying to convey?”
You must also be careful of what you might be communicating unintentionally. For example, if you are sharing at a church in Cambodia with parents of children who are unable to go to school and you say, “It would be great if someone built a school for all these children,” a Cambodian listener might think you are stating that you want to finance the building of a school.
Read Acts 2. There, years after God chose to muddle the languages at the Tower of Babel, He made it possible for everyone in Jerusalem to understand what the apostles were saying, each in their own native language. Though some remained incredulous, God, through the Holy Spirit, spoke to the hearts of many in the crowd that day, “and there were added that day about three thousand souls.”72
Even as much as God made the disciples’ words bear fruit, God can use your words to bring glory to His name and serve others in Cambodia. As you are getting ready for your trip to Cambodia, know that you will probably make mistakes and interpret something incorrectly in your conversations with Cambodians. This kind of cultural communication adjustment doesn’t happen overnight and in fact takes years. Spend time in prayer today and ask God to give you wisdom and grace as you communicate His love to the AIM staff and all of those you will be ministering to on your trip.
68 Dr. Sangeeta Gupta, “Communication Styles,” A Quick Guide to Cultural Competency, http://www.guptaconsulting.com/docs/CrossCulturalSamplePage.pdf (accessed October 8, 2012.
70 Julie Eshbaugh, “High Context vs Low Context: The Communication Style of Your Story.” http://letthewordsflow.wordpress.com/2011/06/22/high-context-versus-low-context-%E2%80%93-the-communication-style-of-your-story/.
71 Lailawati Mohd Salleh, “High/Low Context Communication: The Malaysian Malay Style,” Association for Business Communication, 2005, http://businesscommunication.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/09ABC05.pdf (accessed October 9, 2012).
72 Acts 2:41, ESV