High Context Culture

Edward T. Hall

High context culture and the contrasting ‘low context culture’ are terms presented by the anthropologist Edward T. Hall in his 1976 book ‘Beyond Culture.’ It refers to a culture’s tendency to use high context messages over low context messages in routine communication. This choice of communication styles translates into a culture that will cater to in-groups, an in-group being a group that has similar experiences and expectations, from which inferences are drawn.

In a high context culture, many things are left unsaid, letting the culture explain. Words and word choice become very important in higher context communication, since a few words can communicate a complex message very effectively to an in-group (but less effectively outside that group), while in a lower context culture, the communicator needs to be much more explicit and the value of a single word is less important.

A (cultural) context does not rank as ‘high’ or ‘low’ in an absolute sense because each message can be presented on a continuum from high to low. Likewise, a culture (French Canadian) may be of a higher context than one (English Canadian) but lower context than another (Spanish or French). Likewise, a stereotypical individual from Texas (a higher context culture) may communicate more with a few words or use of a prolonged silence, than a stereotypical New Yorker who is being very explicit, although both being part of a culture which is lower-context overall. Typically a high context culture will be relational, collectivist, intuitive, and contemplative. They place a high value on interpersonal relationships and group members are a very close knit community.

While the milieu of individuals in a culture can be diverse, and not all individuals can be described by strict stereotypes, understanding the broad tendencies of predominant cultures of this world can help us inform and educate ourselves on how to better facilitate communication between individuals of differing cultures.

Higher context cultures tends to be more common in the Asian cultures than in European, and in countries with low racial diversity. Cultures where the group/community is valued over the individual promote the in-groups and group reliance/support that favor higher context cultures. Co-existing subcultures are also conducive to higher context situations, where the small group relies on their common background to explain the situation, rather than words. A lower context culture tends to explain things further, and it is thought that this may be related to the need to accommodate individuals with a wide variety of backgrounds.

Higher context cultures tend to correlate with cultures that also have a strong sense of tradition and history, and change little over time. For example, the Native Americans is a higher context culture with a strong sense of tradition and history. The focus on tradition creates opportunities for higher context messages between individuals of each new generation. This is in contrast to lower context cultures in which the shared experiences upon which communication is built can change drastically from one generation to the next, creating communication gaps between parents and children, as in the United States.

A high-context joke from a high context culture will not translate well to someone of a different culture, even another high-context culture. Humor is very contextual, as a joke may not be considered very funny if it seems like it is over-explained using only low-context messages.

An individual moving to a higher or lower context culture may need to adapt and/or be accommodated in ways different than moving within cultures of similar context. An individual from a higher context culture may need to adapt and/or be accommodated when shifting to a low context culture. A lower context culture demands more independence, and expects many relationships, but fewer intimate ones. A high context individual is more likely to ask questions rather than attempt to work out a solution independently, and the questions are likely to be asked from the same few people. The high context person may be frustrated by people appearing to not want to develop a relationship or continue to help them on an ongoing basis. The term ‘Hand-holding’ might be used to describe high context individuals in an unintentionally derogatory sense.

An individual from a low context culture needs to adapt and/or be accommodated when shifting to a higher context culture. Higher context cultures expect small close-knit groups, and reliance on that group. Groups can actually be relied upon to support each other, and it may be difficult to get support outside of your group. Professional and personal lives often intertwine. A lower context individual may be more likely to try to work things out on their own and feel there is a lack of self-service support or information, rather than ask questions and take time to develop the relationships needed to accomplish the things that need to be done.

An individual from a high context culture is going to be more sensitive to nuances and advertising. When advertising to a high context culture like Japan companies use local and cultural images and verbiage to appeal to their consumers. Marketers also keep in mind that in a high context culture fewer words are better than many. A high context culture is going to respond better to a more direct and formal style of marketing. Tone of voice, facial expressions, gestures, and posture are all non-verbal cues that can be utilized when reaching out to high context consumers.

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