High and Low Context Culture

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“Suggest some of the particular cautions that an individual from a high context culture should bear in mind when dealing with someone from a low context culture. Do the same for a low to high context culture situation.”

Culture is a shared, learned, symbolic system of values, beliefs and attitudes that shapes and influences perception and behaviour — an abstract “mental blueprint” or “mental code.” Culture is the human made part in the human environment and is everything that people have think and do as members of a society. It is defined as ‘inherited moral habit’, consisting ideas and values (Ghauri & Cateora, 2005).

Many organizations want a strong corporate culture, but don’t know why or don’t have any proof that a strong culture has any quantifiable impact on their overall mission, vision values or objectives. Sandy Gluck man, author of who’s in the Driver’s Seat: Using spirit to lead successfully (2007) puts it more simply: “its how thing are done around here”. Cultures differ on the importance and the place of words in communication. In some cultures words are central and the main means of communication. This is low context communication. In other cultures things, apart from words, are very important in communication. Implied meanings arising from the physical setting, relational cues, or shared understandings form an important part of communication. This is high context communication.

The concept of high context culture and low context culture was proposed by Edward T. Hall and they are a way of understanding different types of cultural orientation. All of us engage in both high-context and low-context communication. There are times we “say what we mean, and mean what we say,” leaving little to be “read in” to the explicit message. This is low-context communication. At other times, we may infer, imply, insinuate, or deliver with nonverbal cues messages that we want to have conveyed but do not speak. This is high-context communication. Individualistic oriented cultures tend to prefer low context communication and communal oriented cultures tend to prefer high context communication. Low context culture includes countries like United States, United Kingdom, Germany and Switzerland etc where as high context cultures are that of China, Japan, France, and India etc. It is important to recognise that people from different culture are different in variety of ways including different way of looking at things, dressing and expressing personality/goodness.

Variation in Cultures:-

There are variations among the rule based cultures like those of England, North America and Germany. Business communications differ between America and Germany and their style of presentation can also vary. The American’s slides can be flashy with all catchy phrases which the Germans find childish and they would prefer graphs and chart to reassure them that proper market research has been done. There are several differences in European cultures they can be ruled as logic based culture. Most French and Italian business meetings are much more emotional and animated than the British (Hooper, 2008).

Cultures tend to separate an individual or a group from one another and it is a source of history that each one is proud to carry on to the future generations. Intercultural communication is important for business, networking and friendship so when we experience a cultural shock (something different from our experience) we must understand that “what they are doing makes sense to them” and we have to respect that.

Low context communication

Low context refers to societies where people tend to have many connections but of shorter duration or for some specific reason. In these societies, cultural behaviour and beliefs may need to be spelled out explicitly so that those coming into the cultural environment know how to behave. E.g. Low context cultures include Anglos, Germanics and Scandinavians. In so-called “low-context” communication systems, people translate a large part of the meaning into explicit code (Hall 1979, p. 91). As a result, “the spoken word carries most of the meaning” (Storti 1999, p. 92). People explicitly say what they want to convey without beating around the bush. Their goal is to get and give information when communicating with other people. But, with less consideration to context, low-context systems are inclined to be more complex as the spoken word has to make up for what is missing in the context. As a result, low context communication styles show less intuitive understanding, which makes them slow and less efficient (Hall 1979, p. 101). Cultures like the United States and Germany are considered low-context cultures, for instance. However, these are just tendencies. No culture uses low-context communication styles exclusively. There are certain properties to low context culture communication which are quiet peculiar about them. Using pure information transferring, just saying what they really mean, no double meaning is some examples. It is believed using low context communication styles are very clear means no misunderstanding, they only use language as a communication tool and they avoid slangs & dialects.

High context communication:-

High context refers to societies or groups where people have close connections over a long period of time. Deutsch, M and Coleman, P (2000) explained that high-context cultures rely on the context to convey most of the information, with relatively little information conveyed by the actual message. Low-context cultures convey most of the information within the message, with very little significance given to the context. Low-context listeners often miss the full content of high-context communication, while high-context listeners may read in more content than a low-context speaker intended. Generally in high context cultures the business dealings are carried out with less paper work than that of low context cultures. In this culture business loans are most likely to be based on who you are than being recognised with the financial documents. Many aspects of cultural behaviour are not made explicit because most members know what to do and what to think from years of interaction with each other. Your family is probably an example of a high context environment. E.g. High context cultures include Japanese, Arabs and French. Same as low context communication high context do have its own peculiarities like they talk in hidden meanings and often double meanings or coded information. They tend to use more slangs, idioms and are generally high pace speakers. Their way of presenting the information is generally different and is mostly “Pun Intended”.

Communication breakdowns can easily occur when people from low and high context communication styles interact. Low context speakers may fail to notice the subtle and indirect messages which high context speakers send to them non-verbally or misinterpret their silences or ambiguous speech. International Business Communication (1992) quotes DeMente (1988) about Korean business attitudes: “In Korea, as in many other Asian countries, business is a personal affair. The product, the profit, and everything else take a backseat to personal relations” (Jane, 1998). In Japan and Saudi Arabia a great deal of importance is given on a person’s worth or values and position or place in a society. Japanese business world is highly organized and involves human resource involved and there is mutual dependence between employers and employees compared to America where it is dependent on machinery for most of the work and not much mutuality between the people (Shimizu, 1995). In high context culture more information is conveyed by body language and people are expected to understand without much explanation. In some cultures, looking people in the eye is assumed to indicate honesty and straight forwardness; in others it is seen as challenging and rude. In USA, the cheapest most effective way to connect with people is to look them into the eye. Most people in Arab culture share a great deal of eye contact and may regard too little as disrespectful. In English culture, a certain amount of eye contact is required, but too much makes many people uncomfortable. In South Asian and many other cultures direct eye contact is generally regarded as aggressive and rude.

For example:-

French can feel that Germans insult their intelligence by explaining the obvious, while Germans can feel that French managers provide no direction.

Japanese can find Westerners to be offensively blunt. Westerners can find Japanese to be secretive, devious and bafflingly unforthcoming with information.

When people who prefer low context communication interact with people who prefer high-context communication, it may be helpful to remember that:

Non-verbal gestures, social settings, numbers of people present, dress codes, time keeping, silences and food may all be part of a verbal message or be taken into account when interpreting the verbal message. The “messages” sent this way may be as important as the verbal message.

Status and identity may be communicated indirectly in a non-verbal manner and it must be acknowledged and respected for good communication.

Face-saving and tact are important aspects of communication and should in most cases not be considered as deliberate attempts to avoid issues or to speak the truth. Frank and open discussions should always take place in a context where people feel save and experience respect.

Building good relations with communication partners and important people to them will enhance the ability to interpret the verbal and non-verbal messages of the high context communication partners.

When people who prefer high context communication interact with people who prefer low-context communications, they should remember that:

They must focus upon what is actually said and not look for hidden messages behind the words or in non-verbal ways. Non-verbal messages may be unintentional and must be interpreted with caution.

The speakers will concentrate on the matter under discussion and that the status and identity of the people involved are of lesser importance. There is no intention to ignore people or be rude.

Direct questions, observations or proposals are not necessarily meant to intimidate or to offend, but to clarify and promote the task or mutual goals.

Indirect or non-verbal messages may not be detected or wrongly interpreted by the communication partners. More direct messages are needed to keep the communication process going.


Ghauri, P and Cateora, R.P (2005). International marketing. 2nd ed. London: Mcgraw Hill.

Shimizu, N. (1995). Today’s Taboos may be gone tomorrow. Tokyo Business. 32, p51.

Deutsch, M and Coleman, P (2000). The Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers. P453-474.

Jane, T. (1998). Contexting Koreans: Does the High/Low Model Work?. Business Communication Quarterly. 61 (4), p9-22.

Hall, E.T. and Hall, M.R. (1989), Understanding Cultural Difference, Intercultural Press, Yarmouth, ME.

Hooper, J. (2008). Cultural Differences in Business Communication. Available: http://web.tepper.cmu.edu/jnh/businessCommunication.pdf. Last accessed 03 Dec 2009.

LeBaron, M. (2003). Cross-Cultural Communication. Available: http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/cross-cultural_communication/?nid=1188. Last accessed 03 Dec 2009.

Ferraro, G (2005). The Cultural Dimension of International Business. 5th ed. Englewood Cliffs: NJ: Prentice-Hall.




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