High-context and low-context cultures

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High-context culture and low-context culture are terms used to describe cultures based on how explicit the messages exchanged are and how much the context means in certain situations. These concepts were first introduced by the anthropologist Edward T. Hall in his 1976 book Beyond Culture. According to Hall, messages exchanged in a high-context culture carry implicit meanings with more information than the actually spoken parts, while in low-context cultures, the messages have a clear meaning, with nothing implied beyond the words used.[1]

In a higher-context culture, the way words are said is more important than the words themselves, so many things are left unsaid, relying on the context of the moment and the culture as a whole to impart meaning. In a lower-context culture, it is very important for the communicator to be explicit in order to be fully understood.

Context as a relativistic metric of culture[edit]

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, an individual from Texas (a higher-context culture) may communicate more with a few words or use of a prolonged silence, than a New Yorker who is being very explicit, although both are part of a culture (United States) which is lower context relative to other nations. 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.[2]

Cultural context can also shift and evolve. For instance, one sociologist from Japan and two from Finland argued that Japan and Finland are high-context cultures, although both, especially Finland, are becoming lower-context with the increased cultural influence of Western nations. The authors also described India as a relatively low-context culture, arguing that Indians' communication style, while observant of hierarchical differences as is standard for higher-context societies, is much more explicit and verbose than those of East Asians.[3]

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 can help inform and educate individuals on how to better facilitate communication between individuals of differing cultures. The following spectrum of levels of context in various cultures was determined in 1986 by Copeland & L. Griggs:[4][verification needed]

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.

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 other beyond national cultures) and they tend to display similar characteristics as national cultural groups. A simplified example mentioned by Hall is that scientists working in "hard science" fields e.g., chemistry and physics, tend to have lower-context cultures comparing with scientists working with living systems, as the former fields are dealing with knowledge that is closer to the reality than the latter ones, which means higher explicitness and clarity is required in the former's communication processes.

How higher context relates to other cultural metrics[edit]


Higher-context cultures tend 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 favour higher-context cultures. Coexisting 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.


Low-context cultures require more explicit expression and communication, and therefore tend to be more verbose. This correlates with an increased aversion for ambiguity.[citation needed]

Elaborated and restricted codes[edit]

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.[5]

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.[6]

Collectivism and individualism[edit]

There seems to be a positive correlation between collectivism and high-context cultures. To be more specific, more of the meaning of communication is hidden in the context in a high-context culture, thus other functions of language are amplified—to assist and maintain relationship building, create atmosphere, etc., which fits into the requirement of successful communication in a collectivistic society, where relationship among people is more important than other business. Typical examples here would be China and India (High-context and highly collectivistic).[citation needed]

Similarly, low-context cultural traits are usually found in individualistic cultures. An individualistic society promotes the development of individual values and independent social groups, which assumes poor representation of others’ values. Therefore, a more explicit and elaborated way of communication is required to avoid misunderstanding, which means a low-context message would serve a smoother conversation. Representative examples include the USA and Australia (Low-context and highly individualistic).[citation needed][7][not in citation given]

Stability and durability of tradition[edit]

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.[8]

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.[citation needed]

Facial expression[edit]

Culture also affects people’s facial expression. An experiment done by the University of Glasgow shows that Western Caucasians and East Asians 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. The results show that Western Caucasians tend to distribute their expressive features across the face, including eyebrows and mouth; while the East Asians tend to use their eyes to express most of the emotions, especially by changing the direction of gazing, which turns out to be more subtle than the Westerners.[9]

This phenomenon can also be explained by using the high- and low-context culture theory.[original research?] By mapping the performance on facial expression and the cultural backgrounds of the participants, we can tell that more exaggerated expressions of emotion tend to correlate with relatively lower-context culture (Western Caucasian culture), while subtler facial expressions belong to higher-context culture (East Asian culture).[original research?] This is because, in a low-context cultural environment, people tend to express themselves as explicitly as possible.[original research?] Thus exaggerating facial expression becomes a complementary tool for further elaboration of the speaker’s meaning, conveying the speaker’s emotion vividly and effectively avoiding misunderstanding.[original research?]

By contrast, a high-context culture usually assumes a significant pool of "taken for granted" shared knowledge.[original research?] High-context people believe that limited amount of information should be enough for successful communication, which means the "complementary tool" function of facial expression becomes less important here.[original research?] Hence people coming from high-context cultural background tend to express their emotion via facial expression more subtly; as exemplified by this study, in which East Asians convey most of their feeling via their eyes.[original research?]

Marketing perspective[edit]

Marketing makes it[clarification needed] clear when it comes to high- and low-context cultures. If we take Japan as an example, advertising is very colorful, full of images, gestures and sounds with powerful meaning behind them. Dialogue is only one part of the advertising; it is not central. Every vocal and non-vocal expression is explored when the consumers are part of a high-context culture, and they are very sensitive to it. McDonald's advertising is very different in places like Japan, when compared to the United States. It uses more colors, movements and sounds, while the American version is more straightforward.”[10]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "1.4.6 - Context of Cultures: High and Low". www2.pacific.edu. Retrieved 2017-04-25. 
  2. ^ Guffey, Mary Ellen (2009). Essentials of Business Communication. South-Western/ Cengage Learning. 
  3. ^ Nishimura, Shoji; Nevgi, Anne; Tella, Seppo. "Communication Style and Cultural Features in High/Low Context Communication Cultures: A Case Study of Finland, Japan and India" (PDF). Helsinki.fi. Retrieved December 23, 2014. 
  4. ^ Deborah Barrett (2006). Leadership Communication. McGraw-Hill. p. 197. ISBN 978-0-07-291849-6. 
  5. ^ Bernstein, Basil (2003). Theoretical studies towards a sociology of language (Digital printing. ed.). London [u.a.]: Routledge. p. 58. ISBN 0-415-30287-0. 
  6. ^ Foss, Stephen W. Littlejohn, Karen A. (2011). Theories of human communication (10th ed.). Long Grove, Ill.: Waveland Press. pp. 375–376. ISBN 9781577667063. 
  7. ^ "Individualism, Collectivism, High And Low Context". SlideShare. University of Montana, Undergraduate Advising Center. 12 January 2010. Retrieved 31 March 2017. 
  8. ^ Hall, Edward T. (1989). Beyond culture (Anchor Books ed.). New York: Anchor Books. pp. 101–102. ISBN 9780385124744. 
  9. ^ Jack, Rachael E.; Caldara, Roberto; Schyns, Philippe G. (2011). "Internal Representations Reveal Cultural Diversity in Expectations of Facial Expressions of Emotion". Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. 141: 19–25. doi:10.1037/a0023463. 
  10. ^ Solomon, Michael (2011). Consumer Behavior: Buying and Being. Pearson/ Prentice Hall. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Hall, Edward, T. Beyond Culture. Anchor Books (December 7, 1976). ISBN 978-0385124744
  • Samovar, Larry A. and Richard E. Porter. Communication Between Cultures. 5th Ed. Thompson and Wadsworth, 2004. ISBN 0-534-56929-3

External links[edit]