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What is High Context and Low Context culture?

When considering ways that communication styles vary across cultures, most scholars and practitioners look to the work of Edward T. Hall

The communicative style variance among cultures is often due to historic patterns or value expressions in situated social contexts. Here we explore Hall’s High-Low Context dimension and how this is reflected in communication.

When considering ways that communication styles vary across cultures, most scholars and practitioners look to the work of Edward T. Hall, a founder of the field, for inspiration.

Hall believed that “Culture is communication and communication is culture”. By this, he means that these two things overlap in almost every way imaginable.

To help others understand this overlap, he proposed a broad contrast between what he termed High Context (HC) and Low Context (LC) cultures.

High Context (HC) cultures

These cultures typically:

  • Rely more on non-verbal aspects to communicate meaning (like facial expressions or gestures)
  • Prefer implicit, indirect communication
  • Usually consider situational factors more important than what is actually being said
  • Value relational trust as more important than specified contents (words are treated flexibly, contracts are changeable as long as a relationship is in place)
  • Consider in-group membership and “we-talk” towards building relational closeness (subjectively).

Low Context (LC) cultures

These cultures typically:

  • Rely on the spoken or written word to communicate meaning (say what you mean, mean what you say)
  • Prefer explicit formulations and rules, direct, sometimes frank speech
  • Usually aim at efficiency, concise use of words, and elaboration of unclear meanings
  • Value being articulate and clear
  • Consider detailed writing helpful and often necessary, bilaterally negotiated to the satisfaction of both sides
  • Value documents and contracts, to be signed as legal and binding for each partner equally (objectively).

Distinction between the two

While no culture is entirely one or the other, the HC-LC distinction can broadly illustrate communication style preferences within and across cultures, from how we greet each other to how we negotiate business partnerships.

They affect the performance of students and expectations of teachers, and a variety of contrastive preferences in political, legal, business, and social communication.

Without knowing it, we may be carrying HC expectations into LC situations (or vice versa) and not be aware of the cultural misunderstandings this may cause.

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Intercultural Communication: Dynamics of cultural identities in global interaction

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