Low-Context and High-Context Cultures
All cultures incorporate both verbal and nonverbal elements into their communication. Ho wever, some cultures depend more on words, while other cultures rely more on nonverbal elements such as body language, factors in the environment, or the communication situatio n itself. One way to understand these communication differences, introduced by Edward Ha ll in his 1976 book Beyond Culture, is to determine a culture’s context. Context, according to Hall (1976), is a function of culture that “designates what we pay attention to and what we i gnore” (p. 85). Context, in relation to communication, is a cultural factor that determines th e degree to which the intention or meaning of communication is explicit or implicit. A parti cular culture, as it relates to Hall’s conceptualization, can thus be placed along the continuu m ranging from low context to high context. The meaning of messages in a low- context culture tends to be clear, direct, and is typically derived from words. The United Sta tes, for example, is a low- context culture. A great deal of emphasis is placed on the words someone uses when they s peak, and, in U.S. culture, phrases such as “I give you my word” and “My word is my bond” r eflect the value placed on people’s words. A great deal of significance is also placed on expli cit, written messages, including formal contracts, meeting agendas, and even course syllabi, to provide necessary information and details. Nonverbal messages such as silence, eye con tact, or gestures are generally used to reinforce words. A high- context culture, however, emphasizes the implicit and indirect meaning of messages, and th us communicators rely more on nonverbal elements. For example, in some high- context cultures a raised eyebrow might mean “yes,” as in France and Polynesia, or it might mean “no,” as in Greece (Novinger, 2001). Words are not as important as the way they are s aid or the context in which the communication takes place, so members of high- context cultures are better at “reading between the lines.” Much of the important informati on in a high- context message is contained in the nonverbal elements, in a ritualized response, or in the c ontext of the communication. To help illustrate differences between high- and low- context cultures, consider how individuals might engage in conflict with one another. Steph en Croucher and his colleagues (2012) found that members of the high- context cultures of India and Thailand would either avoid conflict or give in during conflict, whereas members of the low- context cultures of the U.S. and Ireland would be direct and dominating during a conflict. B ut it is important to remember that cultures do not rank as “low” or “high” in an absolute se nse. Instead, such distinctions occur on a continuum, or scale, from lower to higher (see Fig ure 3.1). It is also important to remember that people within a particular culture may be ex tremely diverse and that various co- cultures exist within each dominant culture. For example, even though someone may be fro m a low-context culture such as the United States, that person’s central co- culture could be higher context than the dominant U.S. culture.
Figure 3.1: A continuum of low- to high-context cultures
The different explicit and implicit meanings of communication are affected by certain cultu ral factors. Messages tend to be more direct in low- context cultures and more indirect in high-context cultures.
Source: Going International: How to Make Friends and Deal Effectively in the Global Marketplace, by Lennie Copeland and Le
wis Griggs. Copyright © 1985 Lennie Copeland and Lewis Griggs. Used by permission of Griggs Productions. For more informa