High Context and Low Context Culture
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High-Context and Low-Context Cultures: Understanding the Differences

– High-Context and Low-Context Cultures –

It’s wrong not to know that there are differences between high-context and low-context cultures. The general terms of high-context and low-context (popularized by Edward Hall) are used to describe broad-brush cultural differences between societies.

High-Context and Low-Context Cultures

In 1976, Hall proposed cultures can be divided into two categories. High context and low context. The concept has been a popular frame of reference since its introduction 40 years ago.

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 are the differences between the high-context and low-context cultures.

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High-Context Cultures

A high context culture relies on implicit communication and nonverbal cues. In high-context communication, we cannot understand a message without a great deal of background information.

Asian, African, Arab, central European, and Latin we consider American cultures 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.
  • 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 set up. Change is slow, and time is a process that belongs to others and nature.
  • Learning:  Thinking proceeds from general to specific. Learning occurs by observing others as they model or show and then practicing.

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.

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. They root the identity of individuals in themselves and their accomplishments.
  • Interaction: Nonverbal elements are not significant. Verbal messages are explicit. We see communication as a way of exchanging information, ideas, and opinions. 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 decide 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 and Low-Context Cultures

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

  • Knowledge is situational, relational
  • Less is verbally explicit or written or formally expressed
  • Often used in long term, well-established relationships
  • Decisions and activities focus on personal face-to-face communication. Often around a central, authoritative figure.

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. Eye movement carries significant parts of the conversation.
  • The verbal message is indirect; one talks around the point and embellishes it.
  • One is sensitive to conflict expressed in another’s nonverbal communication.
  • We must solve the conflict.

Learning

  • Thinking is deductive. Proceeds from general to specific.
  • Learning occurs by first observing others as they model or show and then practicing.

Furthermore, high-context cultures are more common in the eastern nations. More so than in western and in countries with low racial diversity.

High-context cultures have a strong sense of tradition and history. Likewise, change little over time, such as tribal and native societies.

For instance, the French assume 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

High-Context and Low-Context Cultures

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. Plus 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 by following procedures and paying attention to the goal.

Interaction

  • Words carry the message more than by nonverbal means.
  • A verbal message is direct; one spells things out exactly.
  • We see communication as a way of exchanging information, ideas, and opinions.
  • One withdraws from conflict with another and gets on with the task.
  • Focus is on rational solutions, not personal ones.

Learning

  • Thinking is inductive, proceeds from specific to general. The focus is on detail.
  • Learning occurs by following explicit directions and explanations of others.
  • They prefer an individual orientation for learning and problem-solving.

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In conclusion, an individual from a high-context culture has to adapt, and/or be accommodated when shifting to a low-context culture.

Therefore, high-context cultures expect small close-knit groups. Therefore, a high context individual is more likely to ask questions. Then an attempt to work out a solution independently.

This post was very helpful for sure. High-context and low-context cultures are important to always talk about. And considering the differences, gives you a better understanding.

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