Updated: Jun 13, 2022
“High/Low Context Communication” is the Dimension of Culture that describes how communication styles differ across cultures. The terms were introduced by American Anthropologist Edward T. Hall his 1976 book Beyond Culture. Hall coined these terms after his experience of accompanying a group of American diplomats to Japan in the 1950s as an observer.
Defining the Terms
Low-Context communication refers to a communication style in which most of the information that is transmitted is contained in the explicit code, i.e. words. For a message to be accessible to another person or people, it must be verbalized. In Low-Context communication style there is minimal dependence on non-verbal or symbolic communication when communicating the primary message. Non-verbal cues include body-language, gestures, facial expressions and expressive sounds that are not words. That doesn’t mean there is no use of non-verbal communication in Low-Context communication style, but the most important part of the message will generally not be communicated non-verbally.
Low-Context communicators assume a low level of common understanding between parties. This style is common in cultures that are immigrant based, like the United States. When the US was founded and settled, people from all different cultures needed to exchange information. They could not assume that their interlocutors would understand what they meant unless they explained themselves in explicit terms. Over time, Americans developed a concise, to-the-point, linear way of communicating, using precise and literal vocabulary.
High-Context communication refers to a communication style in which most of the information that is transmitted is either contained in the physical context or internalized within the communicator. Little information is contained in the explicit code or the words. In this communication style there is a high dependence on non-verbal and symbolic communication. The main points of a message will not necessarily be spoken, but will be inferred or implied, possibly by a look or another non-verbal cue. As explained above, non-verbal cues include body-language, gestures, facial expressions and expressive sounds that are not words.
In High-Context Communication cultures there is an assumption of a high level of common understanding between communicators. This style is more common in cultures that are historically homogeneous and that have a strong value for maintaining harmony in relationships. The best example of a High-Context communication culture is Japan. There is a tendency to use vague, subtle language in order to ensure that no one in an interaction risks losing face.
One of my favourite stories about High-Context communication is something I read many years ago that relates to Japanese culture:
A Japanese business- man leaves home in the morning to go to work. When he returns home that evening, he notices that the flowers in an arrangement located in the entrance hall of his home have been re-arranged. By the way the flowers have been carefully positioned, he understands that his wife has had a disagreement with his mother during the day.
What is the key point of differentiation between High- and Low-Context communication style?
The most significant difference between the two styles of communication is the amount of common understanding that is assumed between communicators. This assumption is what determines how explicit the verbal message needs to be.
Because Low-Context communicators assume a low level of common understanding, they are used to:
Stating everything the audience needs to understand in words.
Using (and listening for) precise, literal vocabulary.
Making sure the point they are making is clear and obvious
One of their key challenges when communicating with people from High-Context communication cultures is figuring out how to craft indirect messages, especially when having to give negative feedback or criticism.
Because High-Context communicators assume a high level of common understanding, they are used to:
Alluding to or implying certain things, especially when related to sensitive topics and specific people.
Using vague, non-specific vocabulary in order to preserve harmony and save the face of self and others.
Communicating a message that can be interpreted by the listener and picking up non-verbal cues and signals from the environment.
A key challenge for High-Context communicators when communicating in English (a Low-Context Language) is to figure out what they are not saying and become comfortable verbalizing it. It can feel like you are stating things that are obvious and that you are being redundant and possibly insulting to your audience.
This infographic summarizes the highlights of the two styles of communication.