High- and low-context cultures

Bowing-hatDear All,
In this post, I would like to discuss such concepts as “high-context culture” vs “low-context culture”. These concepts were first introduced by anthropologist Edward Twitchell Hall. According to Hall, “[h]igh context transactions feature pre-programmed information that is in the receiver and in the setting, with only minimal information in the transmitted message. Low context transactions are the reverse. Most of the information must be in the transmitted message in order to make up for what is missing in the context” (Hall, 1976, p.101). In other words, in high-context cultures, the explicit part of a message (its content) tends to be minimal, while the implicit part (the context of the situation including, for example, the place where the communication is taking place, the nonverbal cues, and the social status of the interlocutors) communicates the missing details. In contrast, in low-context cultures, it is the explicit part of the message that is responsible for the overall meaning of this message; the implicit part is of less importance.

Thus, a high-context culture can be defined as “a culture that emphasizes the context of the situation in which communication occurs”.

A low-context culture can be defined as “a culture that emphasizes the (verbal) content of messages while paying less attention to the context of the situation in which communication occurs”.

Below are some examples of high- and low-context cultures:
High-context cultures:               Low-context cultures:
Algerian                                         Australian
Bhutanese                                     Canadian
Belorussian                                    Danish
Chinese                                         Dutch
Filipino                                           English
French                                           Finnish
Greek                                            German
Indian                                            Irish
Indonesian                                     New Zealand
Italian                                            Norwegian
Japanese                                       Swedish
Korean                                          Swiss
Libyan                                           US

The examples above show that, overall, Asian cultures tend to be high-context and western cultures, on the contrary, low-context. However, it is necessary to point out that when we speak of high- vs low-context cultures, we speak of a continuum rather than two unrelated spots on a line or two separate baskets, if you want. To continue the “basket” analogy, all the cultures are in the same “basket”, but their place in this “basket” is different: some cultures are closer to the high-context “side”, while others are closer to the low-context “side”. One culture can be more high-context than another, but less high-context than still another. For instance, the Ukrainian culture is more high-context that the Canadian culture and less high-context than the Japanese culture.

In interpersonal communication, people in high-context cultures
– prefer to solve problems by collaborating with other people and/or consulting with the boss;
– are expected to fulfill the task even if the task is not clear;
– prioritize and rely on long-term relationships;
– tend to ask for help/collaboration the same people in different situations;
– modify their communicative style depending on the social rank of their interlocutor;
– are oriented towards face saving, preserving traditions, and maintaining politeness.

In interpersonal communication, people in low-context cultures
– prefer to solve problems on their own, without asking for help;
– are expected to ask for clarifications if the task is not clear;
– rely on short-term relationships for solving tasks;
– tend to ask different people for help/collaboration, depending on the situation;
– keep a similar communicative style regardless of the social rank of their interlocutor;
– are goal-oriented and rule-driven.

In conclusion, certain cultures (high-context) tend to pay more attention to the context of the situation in which communication occurs while other cultures (low-context) tend to pay less attention to the context of the situation focusing more on the content of the messages and the goal of the communicative process. It is important to note that this distinction

a) is not absolute and it is more legitimate to say that some cultures are more high-context than others while other cultures are more low-context than others and

b) may help us to understand patterns of interpersonal communication within a culture, but does not necessarily entail that all people from this culture communicate in the same way.

Hall, E. (1976). Beyond culture. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press.


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