High Context and Low Context Culture: Understanding the Differences

High Context and Low Context Culture: Understanding the Differences.

High Context and Low Context Culture: The general terms of high context and low context (popularized by Edward Hall) are used to describe broad-brush cultural differences between societies. In 1976, Hall proposed that cultures can be divided into two categories—high context and low context.

High Context and Low Context Culture

The concept has been a popular frame of reference since its introduction 40 years ago and is used as a training tool to this day. How people communicate with one another varies wildly from culture to culture. In our fully globalized times, it is more important than ever to understand these differences and where they come from. Here is the difference between the high context and low context culture

High Context Cultures

A high context culture relies on implicit communication and nonverbal cues. In high-context communication, a message cannot be understood without a great deal of background information. Asian, African, Arab, central European, and Latin American cultures are generally considered to be high-context cultures.

  • Association: Relationships build slowly and depend on trust. Productivity depends on relationships and the group process. An individual’s identity is rooted in groups (family, culture, work). Social structure and authority are centralized.
  • Interaction: Nonverbal elements such as voice tone, gestures, facial expression, and eye movement are significant. Verbal messages are indirect, and communication is seen as an art form or way of engaging someone. Disagreement is personalized, and a person is sensitive to conflict expressed in someone else’s nonverbal communication.
  • Territoriality: Space is communal. People stand close to each other and share the same space.
  • Temporality: Everything has its own time, and time is not easily scheduled. Change is slow, and time is a process that belongs to others and nature.
  • Learning: Multiple sources of information are used. Thinking proceeds from general to specific. Learning occurs by observing others as they model or demonstrate and then practicing. Groups are preferred, and accuracy is valued.

Low Context Cultures

A low context culture relies on explicit communication. In low-context communication, more of the information in a message is spelled out and defined. Cultures with western European roots, such as the United States and Australia, are generally considered to be low-context cultures.

Low context cultures often display the following tendencies, according to Halverson.

  • Association: Relationships begin and end quickly. Productivity depends on procedures and paying attention to the goal. The identity of individuals is rooted in themselves and their accomplishments. Social structure is decentralized.
  • Interaction: Nonverbal elements are not significant. Verbal messages are explicit, and communication is seen as a way of exchanging information, ideas, and opinions. Disagreement is depersonalized; the focus is on rational (not personal) solutions. An individual can be explicit about another person’s bothersome behavior.
  • Territoriality: Space is compartmentalized. Privacy is important, so people stand farther apart.
  • Temporality: Events and tasks are scheduled and to be done at particular times. Change is fast, and time is a commodity to be spent or saved. One’s time is one’s own.
  • Learning: One source of information is used. Thinking proceeds from specific to general. Learning occurs by following the explicit directions and explanations of others. Individual orientation is preferred, and speed is valued.

The table below shows some general preferences of people from high context and low context cultures.

High Context Low Context
Indirect and implicit messages Direct, simple, and clear messages
Polychronic Monochronic
High use of non-verbal communication Low use of non-verbal communication
Low reliance on written communication High reliance on written communication
Use intuition and feelings to make decisions Rely on facts and evidence for decisions
Long-term relationships Short-term relationships
Relationships are more important than schedules Schedules are more important than relationships
Strong distinction between in-group and out-group Flexible and open

High Context Communication

High Context Communication

Hall: “Most of the information is either in the physical context or initialized in the person.”

  • Knowledge is situational, relational
  • Less is verbally explicit or written or formally expressed
  • More internalized understandings of what is communicated (ex: “in-jokes”)
  • Often used in long term, well-established relationships
  • Decisions and activities focus around personal face-to-face communication, often around a central, authoritative figure
  • Strong awareness of who is accepted/belongs vs. “outsiders”

Association

  • Relationships depend on trust, build up slowly, and are stable.
  • How things get done depends on relationships with people and attention to the group process.
  • One’s identity is rooted in groups (family, culture, work).

Interaction

  • High use of nonverbal elements; voice tone, facial expression, gestures, and eye movement carry significant parts of the conversation.
  • The verbal message is indirect; one talks around the point and embellishes it.
  • Communication is seen as an art form-a a way of engaging someone.
  • Disagreement is personalized. One is sensitive to conflict expressed in another’s nonverbal communication. Conflict either must be solved before work can progress or must be avoided.

Learning

  • Multiple sources of information are used. Thinking is deductive, proceeds from general to specific.
  • Learning occurs by first observing others as they model or demonstrate and then practicing.
  • Groups are preferred for learning and problem-solving.
  • Accuracy is valued. How well something is learned is important.

High context cultures are more common in the eastern nations than in western and in countries with low racial diversity. Cultures where the group is valued over the individual promote group reliance. High context cultures have a strong sense of tradition and history, and change little over time, such as tribal and native societies.

For instance, the French assume that the listener knows everything. Therefore, they may think that Americans think they are stupid because Americans will habitually explain everything to their counterparts.

Low Context Communication

Hall: “The mass of information is vested in the explicit code [message].”

Rule oriented

  • More knowledge is public, external, and accessible.
  • Shorter duration of communications
  • Knowledge is transferable
  • Task-centered. Decisions and activities focus on what needs to be done and the division of responsibilities.

Association

  • Relationships begin and end quickly. Many people can be inside one’s circle; the circle’s boundary is not clear.
  • Things get done by following procedures and paying attention to the goal.
  • One’s identity is rooted in oneself and one’s accomplishments.
  • Social structure is decentralized; responsibility goes further down (is not concentrated at the top).

Interaction

  • The message is carried more by words than by nonverbal means.
  • A verbal message is direct; one spells things out exactly.
  • Communication is seen as a way of exchanging information, ideas, and opinions.
  • Disagreement is depersonalized. One withdraws from conflict with another and gets on with the task. Focus is on rational solutions, not personal ones.

Learning

  • One source of information is used to develop knowledge.
  • Thinking is inductive, proceeds from specific to general. The focus is on detail.
  • Learning occurs by following explicit directions and explanations of others.
  • An individual orientation is preferred for learning and problem-solving.
  • Speed is valued. How efficiently something is learned is important.

An individual from a high context culture has to adapt, and/or be accommodated when shifting to a low context culture. High context cultures expect small close-knit groups, where professional and personal life is interrelated. Therefore, a high context individual is more likely to ask questions than an attempt to work out a solution independently.

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