High-context and low-context cultures

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In anthropology, High-context culture and low-context culture is a measure of how explicit the messages exchanged in a culture 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. High and low context cultures creates a scale to describe a cultures communication with others through their range of communication abilities; utilizing gestures, relations, body language, and verbal or non verbal messages are ways in which a culture can be categorized.[1] Categorizing cultures in this manner helps to comprehend a culture's communication skills and applying this knowledge also influences how cultures respond through global communication.[2] In a high-context culture, messages are also interpreted using tone of voice, gesture, silence or implied meaning, as well as context or situation.[3] There, the receiver is expected to use the situation, messages and cultural norms to understand the message.

High context cultures often stem from less direct verbal and nonverbal communication, utilizing small communication gestures and reading into these less direct messages with more meaning.[1] Low context cultures are the opposite, direct verbal communication is needed to properly understand a message being said and doing so relies heavily on explicit verbal skills.[4]

"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.[5]

Examples of Higher and Lower Context Cultures[edit]

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.[6] 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.[7] 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.[8] 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.[9] 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.[10]

Hall and Hall proposed a "spectrum" of national cultures from "High-Context cultures" to "Low-Context Cultures.[11] This has been expanded to further countries by Copeland & Griggs (1985).[12][13]

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.[14]

The overlap between context cultures[edit]

Within both categories of context cultures, they are not totally separate and often take many aspects of each other's cultural communication abilities into account.[15] These terms are not classified with strict individual characteristics or boundaries, instead, many cultures tend to have a mixture or at least some concepts that are shared between them, hence overlapping the two context cultures.[15] On the other hand, certain intercultural communication skills are unique for each culture and it is significant to note that these overlaps in communication techniques are represented subgroups within social interactions or family settings.[16] Many singular cultures that are large have subcultures inside of them, making communication and defining them more complicated than the low context and high context culture scale.[16] The diversity within a main culture shows how the high and low scale defers depending on social settings such as school, work, home, and in other countries; variation is what allows the scale to fluctuate even if a large culture is categorized as primarily one or the other.[16]

Miscommunication within culture contexts[edit]

Between each type of culture context, there will be forms of miscommunication because of the difference in gestures, social cues, and intercultural adjustments; however, it is important to recognize these differences and learn how to avoid miscommunication to benefit certain situations.[17] Since all sets of cultures differ, especially from a global standpoint where language also creates a barrier for communication, social interactions specific to a culture normally require a range of appropriate communication abilities that an opposing culture may not understand or know about.[18] This significance follows into many situations such as the workplace, which can be prone to diversified cultures and opportunities for collaboration and working together.[17] Awareness of miscommunication between high and low context cultures within the workplace or intercultural communication settings advocates for collected unification within a group through the flexibility and ability to understand one another.[16][17]

How higher context relates to other cultural metrics[edit]


Families, subcultures and in-groups typically favour higher-context communication.[8] 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.[16]


Hall links language to culture through the work of Sapir-Whorf.[10] 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.[14]

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.[19]

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.[18] 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.[20]

Collectivism and individualism[edit]

The concepts of collectivism and individualism have been applied to high- and low-context cultures by Hofstede in his Cultural Dimensions Theory.[5] 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.[21]

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.[22] 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.[21]

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.[23] 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.[10]

Therefore, higher-context cultures tend to correlate with cultures that also have a strong sense of tradition and history, and change little over time.[24] 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.[10]

Facial expression and gesture[edit]

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.[25][26] 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[edit]

Cultural differences in advertising and marketing may also be explained through high- and low-context cultures.[27] 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.[5]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Ramos, Carolina (2014). "High Context". Encyclopedia of Diversity and Social Justice (1st ed.).
  2. ^ Neese, Brian. "Intercultural Communication: High- and Low-Context Cultures". Southeastern University. Southeastern University. Retrieved December 9, 2018.
  3. ^ "1.4.6 - Context of Cultures: High and Low". www2.pacific.edu. Retrieved 2017-04-25.
  4. ^ Ramos, Carolina (2014). "Low Context". Encyclopedia of Diversity and Social Justice (1st ed.).
  5. ^ a b c Wurtz, Elizabeth (2005). "Intercultural Communication on Web sites: A Cross-Cultural Analysis of Web sites from High-Context Cultures and Low-Context Cultures". Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication. 11 (1): 274–299. doi:10.1111/j.1083-6101.2006.tb00313.x. ISSN 1083-6101.
  6. ^ Guffey, Mary Ellen (2009). Essentials of Business Communication. South-Western/ Cengage Learning.
  7. ^ "High and Low Context". www.culture-at-work.com. Retrieved 2018-10-18.
  8. ^ a b Hall, Edward T. (1976). Beyond culture. New York: Doubleday. pp. 68–69. ISBN 9780385124744.
  9. ^ Hall, Edward T. (1989). Beyond culture. New York: Doubleday. pp. 87–88. ISBN 0385124740. OCLC 20595709.
  10. ^ a b c d Hall, Edward T. (1989). Beyond culture. New York: Doubleday. pp. 15–16. ISBN 9780385124744.
  11. ^ Hall, Edward T.; Hall, Mildred Reed (1990). Understanding cultural differences. Yarmouth, Me.: Intercultural Press. ISBN 093366284X. OCLC 20259415.
  12. ^ Deborah Barrett (2006). Leadership Communication. McGraw-Hill. p. 197. ISBN 978-0-07-291849-6.
  13. ^ Copeland, Lennie; Griggs, Lewis (1985). Going international : how to make friends and deal effectively in the global marketplace. New York: New American Library. ISBN 0452258642. OCLC 13560290.
  14. ^ a b 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.
  15. ^ a b Yarn, Douglas, ed. (2002). "low-context and high-context communication". Dictionary of Conflict Resolution. Retrieved December 9, 2018.
  16. ^ a b c d e Watson, James; Hill, Anne (2015). "Communication: intercultural communication". Dictionary of Media and Communication Studies (9th ed.). Bloomsbury Academic. ISBN 978-1-8496-6528-5. Retrieved September 23, 2018.
  17. ^ a b c Curry, Curtis. "Managing conflict in global teams: 4 keys to leveraging cultural differences in diverse teams". Business Collection. Retrieved September 22, 2018.
  18. ^ a b Barron, Jacob (April 2013). "International communication 101: staying on the right side of culture". Business Credit (Business Collection): 36+. Retrieved September 22, 2018.
  19. ^ Bernstein, Basil (2003). Theoretical studies towards a sociology of language (Digital printing. ed.). London [u.a.]: Routledge. p. 58. ISBN 0-415-30287-0.
  20. ^ Foss, Stephen W. Littlejohn, Karen A. (2011). Theories of human communication (10th ed.). Long Grove, Ill.: Waveland Press. pp. 375–376. ISBN 9781577667063.
  21. ^ a b Lewis, Richard D. (2006). When cultures collide : leading across cultures : a major new edition of the global guide (3rd ed.). Boston: Nicholas Brealey International. pp. 436–437. ISBN 1423774582. OCLC 69872214.
  22. ^ "Individualism, Collectivism, High And Low Context". SlideShare. University of Montana, Undergraduate Advising Center. 12 January 2010. Retrieved 31 March 2017.
  23. ^ Pirosca, Grigore (October 4, 2016). "Communicational Features in High/Low Context Organizational Culture: A Case Study of Romania and Russia". Valahian Journal of Economic Studies. 7: 7–12.
  24. ^ Kim, Donghoon (September 6, 1998). "High- Versus Low-Context Culture: A Comparison of Chinese, Korean, and American Cultures". Psychology & Marketing. 15: 507-521.
  25. ^ Chen, Chaona; Jack, Rachael E. (2017-10-01). "Discovering cultural differences (and similarities) in facial expressions of emotion". Current Opinion in Psychology. 17: 61–66. doi:10.1016/j.copsyc.2017.06.010. ISSN 2352-250X.
  26. ^ Jack, Rachael E.; Schyns, Philippe G. (2015). "The Human Face as a Dynamic Tool for Social Communication". Current Biology. 25 (14): R621–R634. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2015.05.052. ISSN 0960-9822.
  27. ^ Solomon, Michael; Russell-Bennett, Rebekah; Previte, Josephine (2012-10-24). Consumer Behaviour. Pearson Higher Education AU. ISBN 9781442564992.

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]