High- and low-context cultures

  (Redirected from Low context culture)

High-context culture and the contrasting low-context culture relate to a culture's tendency to use high-context messages over low-context messages in routine communication. They are concepts presented by the anthropologist Edward T. Hall in his 1976 book Beyond Culture. According to Hall, a high context message indicates a rather implicit meaning, which is ‘either in the physical context or internalized in the person’, and little information is included in the ‘coded, explicit, transmitted part’, and vice versa for a low context message.[1]

This choice between speaking styles indicates whether a culture will cater to in-groups, an in-group being a group that has similar experiences and expectations, from which inferences are drawn.

In a higher-context culture, many things are left unsaid, letting the culture explain. Words and word choice become very important in higher-context communication, since a few words can communicate a complex message very effectively to an in-group (but less effectively outside that group), while in a low-context culture, the communicator needs to be much more explicit and the value of a single word is less important.


Context as a relativistic metric of cultureEdit

A cultural context does not rank as "high" or "low" in an absolute sense because each message can be presented on a continuum from high to low. Likewise, a culture (French Canadian) may be of a higher context than one (English Canadian) but lower context than another (Spanish or French). Likewise, a stereotypical individual from Texas (a higher-context culture) may communicate more with a few words or use of a prolonged silence, than a stereotypical New Yorker who is being very explicit, although both being part of a culture which is lower context overall. 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.[2]

In one article, one sociologist from Japan and two from Finland argued that Japan and Finland are high-context cultures, although both, especially Finland, are becoming lower-context with the increased cultural influence of Western nations. The authors also described India as a relatively low-context culture, arguing that Indians' communication style, while observant of hierarchical differences as is standard for higher-context societies, is much more explicit and verbose than those of East Asians.[3]

While the milieu of individuals in a culture can be diverse, and not all individuals can be described by strict stereotypes, understanding the broad tendencies of predominant cultures can help inform and educate individuals on how to better facilitate communication between individuals of differing cultures. The following spectrum of levels of context in various cultures was determined in 1986 by Copeland & L. Griggs:[4][verification needed]

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.

How higher context relates to other cultural metricsEdit


Higher-context cultures tend to be more common in the Asian cultures than in European, and in countries with low racial diversity. Cultures where the group/community is valued over the individual promote the in-groups and group reliance/support that favour higher-context cultures. Coexisting subcultures are also conducive to higher context situations, where the small group relies on their common background to explain the situation, rather than words. A lower-context culture tends to explain things further, and it is thought that this may be related to the need to accommodate individuals with a wide variety of backgrounds.


Elaborated and Restricted CodesEdit

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.[5]

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. 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. [6]

Stability and Durability of TraditionEdit

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. 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 loses its screening function.[7]

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


A high-context joke from a high-context culture will not translate well to someone of a different culture, even another high-context culture. Humor is very contextual, as a joke may not be considered very funny if it seems like it is over-explained using only low-context messages.


An individual moving to a higher or lower-context culture may need to adapt and/or be accommodated in ways different from moving within cultures of similar context.

High to lowEdit

An individual from a higher-context culture may need to adapt and/or be accommodated when shifting to a low-context culture. A lower-context culture expects many relationships, but fewer intimate ones. A high context individual is more likely to ask for assistance rather than attempt to work out a solution for problems independently, and assistance is likely to be asked from the same few people. The high context person may be frustrated by people appearing to not want to develop a relationship or continue to help them on an ongoing basis. The term "hand-holding" might be used to describe high context individuals in an unintentionally derogatory sense.

Low to highEdit

An individual from a low-context culture needs to adapt and/or be accommodated when shifting to a higher-context culture. Higher-context cultures expect small, close-knit groups, and reliance on that group. Groups can actually be relied upon to support each other, and it may be difficult to get support outside of your group. Professional and personal lives often intertwine. A lower context individual may be more likely to try to work things out on their own and feel there is a lack of self-service support or information, rather than ask questions and take time to develop the relationships needed to accomplish the things that need to be done.

Marketing perspectiveEdit

An individual from a high-context culture is going to be more sensitive to nuances and advertising. When advertising to a high-context culture like Japan, companies consider using more local and cultural images and verbiage to appeal more to their consumers. Marketers should also keep in mind that in a high-context culture fewer words are better than many. A high-context culture is going to respond better to a more direct and formal style of marketing. Tone of voice, facial expressions, gestures, and posture are all non-verbal cues that can be utilized when reaching out to high-context consumers.[8]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Hall, Edward T. (1989). Beyond culture (Anchor Books ed. ed.). New York: Anchor Books. p. 91. ISBN 9780385124744. 
  2. ^ Guffey, Mary Ellen (2009). Essentials of Business Communication. South-Western/ Cengage Learning. 
  3. ^ 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. 
  4. ^ Deborah Barrett (2006). Leadership Communication. McGraw-Hill. p. 197. ISBN 978-0-07-291849-6. 
  5. ^ Bernstein, Basil (2003). Theoretical studies towards a sociology of language (Digital printing. ed.). London [u.a.]: Routledge. p. 58. ISBN 0-415-30287-0. 
  6. ^ Foss, Stephen W. Littlejohn, Karen A. (2011). Theories of human communication (10th ed. ed.). Long Grove, Ill.: Waveland Press. p. 375-376. ISBN 9781577667063. 
  7. ^ Hall, Edward T. (1989). Beyond culture (Anchor Books ed. ed.). New York: Anchor Books. p. 101-102. ISBN 9780385124744. 
  8. ^ Solomon, Michael (2011). Consumer Behavior: Buying and Being. Pearson/ Prentice Hall. 

Further readingEdit

  • 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 linksEdit