Manners and Context

I would say that perhaps one of the most distinctive differences between the people of France and those of America is the set of cultural expectations surrounding communication. When I first arrived in France, I realized that while I may know the technical words and phrases needed to communicate, those alone were not always sufficient. Before this program, I was never completely sure what was meant by ‘high context’ and ‘low context’ cultures, or what differentiated them. However, after living here for a few weeks, I am beginning to notice the nuances between the two general groups. I found myself a bit more at ease in terms of communication while visiting the Netherlands this weekend on a trip, partly because Dutch culture is ‘low context,’ like that in America.

Communication between the French is high-context compared to communication in the US. Where Americans rely on explicit statements and clear explanations, the French will more often make use of nuances and knowledge that is shared within the culture. For example, like all cultures, the French have a set of expectations regarding politeness and basic manners. Unlike some cultures, however, they tend to expect their definition of ‘polite’ behavior from everyone, as their high context relies on the shared knowledge of these conventions. One such convention is the expectation that people greet each other with a spoken ‘bonjour’ or ‘bonsoir’ whenever they enter a space with other people there. This, of course, is not the case with all cultures, so it is natural for foreigners to not do the same thing, especially those who have never been to France before. Some clients from the Americas, Australia, and Asia tend to not say ‘bonjour’ when entering the hotel, usually not with malicious intent, but simply because it is not an expectation in their cultures. However, one of my coworkers once remarked to me that he thought it was rude when people do not say ‘bonjour,’ likely because of the high-context nature of French culture.

I also had a personal experience with the high-contextuality of French language and culture when one of my coworkers gave me advice on how to better communicate, or rather, how to be regarded as more polite. In America, I am used to responding to ‘thank you’ or ‘thanks’ with a quick ‘yep’ or ‘mhm,’ unless a large or significant action/situation is being discussed. At home, it is seen as perfectly acceptable to respond that way, and I carried this over to my internship, where I often respond with ‘mhm’ when one of my coworkers says ‘merci’ to me. What I did not know, however, was that in France, people are expected to verbally respond to ‘merci’ nearly every time with something like ‘de rien’ or ‘je vous en prie,’ which are essentially forms of ‘you’re welcome’ with different levels of formality/politeness. My coworker pointed this out to me, and let me know that I could be seen as rude if I replied to ‘merci’ with my usual short, more casual response. Like the expectation of saying ‘bonjour,’ I imagine that the French tend to see this as rude as their high-context culture assumes that everyone has knowledge of these social expectations.

Ultimately, learning the difference between high and low context cultures has helped me understand that while I may not have any ill intent in communicating, it is still very possible to make unintentional mistakes. One of the best ways to prevent these mistakes, I have found, is simply to immerse oneself in the culture and learn to mimic the ways that people communicate, as I have done with this program.

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