Sunday, October 31, 2010

High and Low Context: Cultures and Situations

     Anthropologist Edward T. Hall presented two general concepts, high context (HC) and low context (LC), which describe broad-brush communication differences between societies.

     HC refers to societies or groups where people have close connections over a long period of time. Many aspects of cultural behaviors are not made explicit because most members know what to do and what to think from years of interaction with each other. Your family is likely a high context environment.

     LC refers to societies where people tend to have many connections but of shorter duration or for some specific reason. In these societies, cultural behaviors and beliefs often need to be spelled out explicitly so that those coming into the cultural environment know how to behave.

     While these terms are useful in classifying cultures we need to recognize that all societies contain both modes within them, again in an asymmetrical relation.  HC and LC can also describe situations and established social environments.

     For example, in the US small religious congregations, a party with friends, family gatherings, neighborhood restaurants with regular clientele, undergraduate on-campus friendships, and hosting a friend in your home overnight can be understood as HC situations and environments.  Likewise, large US airports, a large supermarket, a cafeteria, a convenience store, and staying in a motel are all LC environments [1].  Table 1 provides a list of contrasts.

Table 1:  Basic characteristics of High and Low Context Cultures

High Context
Low Context
  • Relationships depend on trust, build up slowly, and are stable.
  • One distinguishes between people inside and people outside one's circle.
  • How things get done depends on relationships with people and attention to group process.
  • One's identity is rooted in groups (family, work, culture
  • Social structure and authority are centralized; responsibility is at the top. Person at top works for the good of the group
  • Relationships begin and end quickly.
  • Many people can be inside one's circle; circle's boundary is not clear.
  • Things get done by following procedures and paying attention to the goal.
  • One's identity is rooted in oneself and one's accomplishments.
  • Social structure is decentralized; responsibility goes further down (is not concentrated at the top).
  • High use of nonverbal elements; voice tone, facial expression, gestures, and eye movement carry significant parts of conversation.         
  • Verbal message is implicit; context (situation, people, nonverbal elements) is more important than words.               
  • Verbal message is indirect; one talks around the point and embellishes it.                  
  • Communication is seen as an art form—a way of engaging someone.
  • Disagreement is personalized. One is sensitive to conflict expressed in another's nonverbal communication.
  • Conflict either must be solved before work can progress or must be avoided because it is personally threatening.
  • Low use of nonverbal elements. Message is carried more by words than by nonverbal means.
  • Verbal message is explicit. Context is less important than words.
  • Verbal message is direct; one spells things out exactly.
  • Communication is seen as a way of exchanging information, ideas, and opinions.
  • Disagreement is depersonalized. One withdraws from conflict with another and gets on with the task.
  • Focus is on rational solutions, not personal ones. One can be explicit about another's bothersome behavior.
  • Space is communal; people stand close to each other, share the same space. 
  • Space is compartmentalized and privately owned; privacy is important, so people are farther apart.
  • Polychronic
  • Everything has its own time. Time is not easily scheduled; needs of people may interfere with keeping to a set time. What is important is that activity gets done.
  • Change is slow. Things are rooted in the past; slow to change, and stable.
  • Time is a process; it belongs to others and to nature.    
  • Monochronic
  • Things are scheduled to be done at particular times, one thing at a time. What is important is that activity is done efficiently.
  • Change is fast. One can make change and see immediate results.
  • Time is a commodity to be spent or saved. One’s time is one’s own.
  • Knowledge is embedded in the situation; things are connected, synthesized, and global. Multiple sources of information are used. Thinking is deductive, proceeds from general to specific.       
  • Learning occurs by first observing others as they model or demonstrate and then practicing. 
  • Groups are preferred for learning and problem solving.
  • Accuracy is valued. How well something is learned is important.
  • Reality is fragmented and compartmentalized. One source of information is used to develop knowledge. Thinking is inductive, proceeds from specific to general. Focus is on detail.
  • Learning occurs by following explicit directions and explanations of others.
  • An individual orientation is preferred for learning and problem solving.
  • Speed is valued. How efficiently something is learned is important.
Thought Patterns
  • Truth will manifest itself through non-linear discovery processes and without having to employ rationality. 
  • Emphasis on logic and rationality, based on the belief that there is always an objective truth that can be reached through linear processes of discovery
Social perspective
  •  Collectivism emphasized
  • Individualism emphasized

In Beyond Culture Hall made it clear that HC cultures were Dionysian and that LC cultures are Apollonian [2].
     The HC-LC concept is viewed as a spectrum and cultures have been placed along it such that their relative positions can be seen.  From HC to LC is the following list:  Brazilian, Indian, Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Arab cultures, Greek, Latin Americans, Spanish, Italian, Russian, Finnish, French, French Canadian, Australian, English Canadian, Irish, English, American, Scandinavian, and German [3].

     Japan usually represents HC cultures as it was the primary example that Hall used, and most business communication studies have also focused on Japan.  Likewise, the US has been the typical LC culture.  The list above actually divides HC and LC at the French Canadian and Australian transition. 

   The main point of this blog is to convince you that American culture has shifted along the spectrum to a “higher context” position.  We have not become like the Japanese or Native Americans; but in HC-LC terms, American culture in 2010 is more like the 1860s than the 1960s.  In fact, all the cultures on the list are in flux.  The Greeks of today may be HC but they are well known for their LC Apollonian past.  And never forget German Romanticism, a time when German order was less important.

1. I have paraphrased from  The author of this web site is Jennifer Beer, a consulting Anthropologist.  Beer states that “one can never say a culture is ‘high’ or ‘low’ because societies all contain both modes,” which clearly marks her as being well into the postmodern romantic mind set (Modernists classify everything).  To her, it is best to focus on whether or not the situation is high or low context.  What she is missing is the fractal nature of contexts and the scale of analysis.  Something can be LC within HC within LC such as a men’s latrine (LC) within a small community church (HC) within a commuter based suburb (LC).  A thorough fractal discussion will come later.

2. The Table is compiled from:  E. T. Hall Beyond Culture, New York: Doubleday, 1976; see pp. 124-125 for the Dionysian-Apollonian discussion; E. T. Hall, “Context and meaning” in L. A. Samovar & R. E. Porter (Eds.), Intercultural Communication: A Reader, 9th ed., pp. 34-43, Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Co., 2000; E. T. Hall & M. R. Hall, Understanding Cultural Differences, Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press Inc., 2000; and, Elizabeth Würtz, “A cross-cultural analysis of websites from high-context cultures and low-context cultures,” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 11(1), article 13, 2005; essay found at

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