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Working across Cultures – Issues in Managing a Teacher's Association

by Alan S. Mackenzie, Senior Training Consultant,
British Council India & Sri Lanka & Amol Padwad,
President ELTAI

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One useful way of viewing cultures is Edward T. Hall's categorisation of them as either high or low context. The basic characteristics of these types is listed in Table 1.

High Context Cultures Low Context Cultures
• Less verbally explicit communication, less written/formal information.

• More internalized understandings of what is communicated.

• Multiple cross-cutting ties and intersections with others.

• Long term relationships.

• Strong boundaries - who is accepted as belonging vs. who is considered an "outsider".

• Knowledge is situational, relational.

• Decisions and activities focus around personal face-to-face relationships, often around a central person who has authority.

• Dense, intersecting networks and long-term relationships, strong boundaries, relationship more important than task.

• Rule oriented. People play by external rules.

• More knowledge is codified, public, external, and accessible.

• Sequencing, separation of time, space, activities, relationships.

• More interpersonal connections of shorter duration.

• Knowledge is highly transferable.

• Task-centered.

• Decisions and activities focus around what needs to be done, division of responsibilities.

• Loose, wide networks, shorter term, compartmentalized relationships.

• Task is more important than the relationship.

Table 1: Characteristics of high and low context cultures

It's all relative…
There is nothing inherently good or bad about high/low context. All organisations tend to be internally relatively high context. There are unwritten rules of working that may differ from stated policies. Strong feelings of 'us' and 'them' may exist between branch-offices or even departments within the same office.
However, when two organisations come together in a common endeavour they are in a low context situation and need to adapt together. The context is low because they have never done this before together and must define roles and responsibilities, aims, priorities, targets and strategies. Treating a joint endeavour as a high-context situation quickly leads to cultural conflict.
The situation becomes more complex when you take into account the background effect of the parent culture of the organisation. Background cultures affect organisational operations in that they influence their day to day workings and their behavioural norms. Figure 2 illustrates the cultural milieu of the British Council/ELTAI relationship.


The British Council is internal high context, but comes from a low context culture. It expresses itself in a highly low context manner. Policies are highly codified, targets concrete and set, manuals and rules abound. Because of its organisational set-up with members changing country every 2-4 years, the nature of the personal relationships it develops are short-term, although it promotes deeper, long-term organisational relationships. The personal relationship our two authors have is considered less important than the organisational ties between their member organisations.

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