I recently travelled to Latin America where I watched a difficult business transaction unravel during a late night dinner.
The American, Mr. Low, whom I accompanied, was negotiating business contract language with a Latin American, Mr. High. The relationship began to disintegrate as Mr. Low (representing a low context culture) insisted that the proposed contract re-structuring include specific financial goals. Mr. High (representing the high context culture) was quite insulted by the demand for the specific language.
"You don't understand my culture," he said. "My word is my bond. If I say I will do it, I will. This is bad. We don't do things this way in my country. You should have studied my culture before you came here."
"You should have studied mine," Mr. Low replied. "I have a boss and he wants to see the language in the contract. What if you or I die before the end of next year. Who will remember our agreement? I trust you, but I am being asked for this contract language. If you had studied my culture, you would know this is how we do business."
The situation was worsened by the fact that Mr. High had a colleague with him and didn't want to lose face. Mr. Low wasn't worried about that, to him this was just business.
I had studied the difference between low context cultures and high context cultures but this was the first time I had witnessed them in action. And it was uncomfortable. The Latin American man seemed genuinely hurt by the American's approach and the American seemed genuinely puzzled and perplexed by the whole thing. As for me, true to my Libra nature, I saw the points both of them were making.
These two intelligent and otherwise friendly businessmen were simply struggling inside their own high and low context cultures and neither understood the other's culture enough to step out of their ways to find a third path. The evening ended with Mr. Low repeatedly telling Mr. High as we walked back to our hotel that he trusted and respected him while Mr. High tried to understand what was happening. It was rough. And, as far as I know, they still have not resolved the issue.