The concept of high and low context was introduced by anthropologist Edward T. Hall in his 1976 book Beyond Culture, and it refers to the way cultures communicate. In high context cultures, communication is largely implicit, meaning that context and relationships are more important than the actual words, and therefore, very few words are necessary. In low context cultures, the message is communicated almost entirely by the words and therefore needs to be explicit. High and low context should be seen as a continuum, e.g. such that England would be higher context than Denmark, while being lower context than Japan.
To understand how this happens, one needs to understand how communication is processed. Hall explains how this works as follows (Sorrells, 1998):
There is information transferred in and out which I will call “A”. Plus there is information that is stored in the system that we will call “B”. It takes these two to make meaning. It takes both the information that is transferred in and out and the stored information, the information in the context, to make meaning.
So basically, the internal information that we use to interpret and make sense of things is called B, while the actual communication message is A. High context cultures rely on traditions, very deep personal relationships, and established hierarchies, and therefore have a lot more B. Low context cultures do not have the same depth of tradition and have shallower, short-term relationships, thereby requiring a lot more A. In other words, the main information in high context cultures is either in “the physical context or it is internalised by the person. A low-context communication is just the opposite; i.e., the mass of the information is vested in the explicit code.” (Hall, 1977: 91).
High context cultures:
- Value traditions.
- Foster long-lasting relationships.
- Rely on non-verbal signs such as tone of voice, facial expressions, body language, and so on.
- Tend to be non-confrontational and more in-direct. Rejection is to be interpreted from non-explicit communication.
- Require little explanation.
- Are more collectivistic. The identify lies with the group. Value group harmony.
- Have stronger boundaries, i.e. one belongs with a certain group.
- Are slow to change.
Low context cultures:
- Tend to make many shallower, short-term relationships.
- Require explicit communication since they lack additional context.
- Communication is more direct and confrontational.
- Are more individualistic. Identify lies with the individual. Value individual needs.
- Require all the information in the message.
- Can change quickly.
Another related aspect is the perception of time. High context cultures typically use a polychronic perception of time while low context cultures use a monochronic perception. Monochronic people see time as tangible and sequential – it can be saved, spent, and so on. They make and adhere to strict deadlines and focus on one task at a time. Polychronic people see time as fluid. Punctuality and structure are not as important and deadlines are something to aim for not to meet at all costs. Similarly, polychronic people work with multiple tasks at once, switching back and forth from one to the other.
The implications of the above are far-reaching. A person from a low-context culture could behave in a way that would be considered ignorant, rude, or incompetent in a high-context culture, e.g. by asking a lot of questions (hence implying that he does not understand the meaning without them), acting in a confrontational way, not knowing how to fit into the group dynamic, being unable to juggle many tasks simultaneously, etc. Similarly, a high-context individual could be considered vague, secretive, unpunctual, unable to adhere to plans, or incompetent due to a lack of ability to work on their own.
It is estimated that 70% of the world is high context (Tung, 1995). Examples of high context countries include: Japan, China, and the Arab countries. Examples of low context cultures include: Scandinavia; Germany, and the US. It should however be noted that not all the characteristics described above and below apply to all cultures described as either high or low context. For example Japan, which has a very high context culture, uses both polychronic and monochronic time.
Edward T. Hall, Beyond Culture, Anchor Books, 1977, p. 91-131
Sorrels, K., (1998) “On The Past and Future of Intercultural Relations Study Gifts of Wisdom:
An Interview with Dr. Edward T. Hall “, accessed 10 February 2013 from: http://people.umass.edu/~leda/comm494r/The%20Edge%20Interview%20Hall.htm
Tung, R. (1995), “International Organizational Behaviour”, Luthans Virtual OB McGraw-Hill, pp 487-518