High-context and low-context cultures
High-context culture and low-context culture are terms used to describe cultures based on how explicit the messages exchanged are, and how important the context is in communication. These concepts were first introduced by the anthropologist Edward T. Hall in his 1976 book Beyond Culture. According to Hall, in a low-context culture, the message will be interpreted through just the words (whether written or spoken) and their explicit meaning. The responsibility to be understood is with the sender of the message, who must work to be clear and comprehensive. In a high-context culture, messages are also interpreted using tone of voice, gesture, silence or implied meaning, as well as context or situation. There, the receiver is expected to use the situation, messages and cultural norms to understand the message.
"High" and "low" context cultures are typically defined by language group, nationality, or regional community. However, they have also been applied to corporations, professions and other cultural groups, as well as settings such as online vs. offline communication.
- 1 Examples of Higher and Lower Context Cultures
- 2 See also
- 3 References
- 4 Further reading
- 5 External links
Examples of Higher and Lower Context Cultures
Cultural contexts are not absolutely "high" or "low". Instead, a comparison between cultures may find communication differences to a greater or lesser degree. 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. Typically a low-context culture will be less close-knit, and so individuals communicating will have fewer relational cues when interpreting messages. Therefore, it is necessary for more explicit information to be included in the message so it is not misinterpreted. Not all individuals in a culture can be defined by cultural stereotypes, and there will be variations within a national culture in different settings. For example, Hall describes how Japanese culture has both low- and high- context situations. However, understanding the broad tendencies of predominant cultures can help inform and educate individuals on how to better facilitate communication between individuals of differing cultures.
Although the concept of high- and low-context cultures is usually applied in the field of analyzing national cultures, it can also be used to describe scientific or corporate cultures, or specific settings such as airports or law courts. A simplified example mentioned by Hall is that scientists working in "hard science" fields (like chemistry and physics) tend to have lower-context cultures: because their knowledge that has fewer variables, they will typically include less context for each event they describe. In contrast, scientists working with living systems need to include more context because there can be significant variables which impact the research outcomes.
Cultures and languages are defined as higher or lower context on a spectrum. For example, it could be argued that French Canadian language is higher context than English Canadian, but lower context than Spanish or French. An individual from Texas (a higher-context culture) may communicate with a few words or use of a prolonged silence, where a New Yorker would be very explicit, although both speak the same language (English) and are part of a nation (United States) which is lower-context relative to other nations. Hall notes a similar difference between Navajo speakers and English speakers in a United States school.
- Higher-context culture: Afghans, African, Arabic, Brazilian, Chinese, Filipinos, French Canadian, French, Greek, Hawaiian, Hungarian, Indian, Indonesian, Italian, Irish, Japanese, Korean, Latin Americans, Nepali, Pakistani, Persian, Portuguese, Russian, Southern United States, Spanish, Thai, Turkish, Vietnamese, South Slavic, West Slavic.
- Lower-context culture: Australian, Dutch, English Canadian, English, Finnish, German, Israeli, New Zealand, Scandinavia, Switzerland, United States.
Cultural context can also shift and evolve. For instance, a study has argued that both Japan and Finland (high-context cultures) are becoming lower-context with the increased influence of Western European and US culture.
How higher context relates to other cultural metrics
Families, subcultures and in-groups typically favour higher-context communication. Groups who are able to rely on their common background, may not need to use explicit words to understand each other. Settings and cultures where people come together from a wider diversity of backgrounds such as international airports, large cities, or multi-national firms, tend user lower-context communication forms.
Hall links language to culture through the work of Sapir-Worfe. A trade language will typically need to explicitly explain more of the context than a dialect which can assume a high level of shared context. Because a low-context setting cannot rely on shared understanding of potentially ambiguous messages, low-context cultures tend to give more information, or to be precise in their language. In contrast, a high-context language like Japanese can use a high number of homophones but still be understood by a listener who knows the context.
Elaborated and restricted codes
The concept of elaborated and restricted codes is introduced by sociologist Basil Bernstein in his book Class, Codes and Control. An elaborated code indicates that the speaker is expressing his/her idea by phrasing from an abundant selection of alternatives without assuming the listener shares lots of common knowledge, which allows the speaker to explain their idea explicitly. While restricted codes are phrased from more limited alternatives, usually with collapsed and shortened sentences, therefore it requires the listeners to share a great deal of common perspectives to understand the implicit meaning of the conversation.
Restricted codes are commonly used in high-context culture groups, where people share same cultural background and can easily understand the implicit meanings between lines without further elaboration. Conversely, in cultural groups with low context, where people share little common knowledge or ‘value individuality above group identification’, detailed elaboration becomes essential to avoid misunderstanding.
Collectivism and individualism
The concepts of collectivism and individualism have been applied to high- and low-context cultures by Hofstede in his Cultural Dimensions Theory. Collectivist societies prioritise the group over the individual, and vice versa. In high-context cultures, language may be used to assist and maintain relationship building and to focus on process. India and Japan are typically high-context, highly collectivistic cultures, where business is done by building relationships and maintaining respectful communication.
Individualistic cultures promote the development of individual values and independent social groups. Individualism may lead to communicating to all people in a group in the same way, rather than offering hierarchical respect to certain members. Because individualistic cultures may value cultural difference, a more explicit way of communicating is required to avoid misunderstanding. Language may be used to achieve goals or exchange information. The USA and Australia are typically low-context, highly individualistic cultures, where transparency and competition in business are prized.
Individualism and collectivism have been criticised for being too unidimensional.
Stability and durability of tradition
High-context cultures tend to be more stable, as their communication is more economical, fast, efficient and satisfying, but it is gained at a price of devoting time into preprogramming cultural background, and its high stability might come with a price of a high barrier for development. Whereas low-context cultures tend to change rapidly and drastically, they allow extension to happen at an incredibly fast rate. But it also means that low-context communication may fail due to the overload of information, which makes culture lose its screening function.
Therefore, 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, Native Americans in the United States have higher-context cultures with a strong sense of tradition and history. The focus on tradition creates opportunities for higher context messages between individuals of each new generation, and the high- context culture feeds back to the stability hence allows the tradition to be maintained. 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.
Facial expression and gesture
Culture also affects how individuals interpret other people’s facial expression. Experiment done by the University of Glasgow shows that different cultures have different understanding of the facial expression signals of the six basic emotions, which are the so-called “universal language of emotion”—happy, surprise, fear, disgust, anger and sadness.  In high-context cultures, facial expression and gesture take on greater importance in understanding the message, and the receiver may require more cultural context to understand "basic" displays of emotions.
Marketing and advertising perspective
Cultural differences in advertising and marketing may also be explained through high- and low-context cultures. One study on McDonald's online advertising compared Japan, China, Korea, Hong Kong, Pakistan, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, and the United States, and found that in high-context countries, the advertising used more colors, movements, and sounds to give context, while in low-context cultures the advertising focused more on verbal information and linear processes.
- Hofstede's Cultural Dimensions Theory
- Edward T. Hall
- Intercultural Communication
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