High- Low-Context Communication: Part 2

In High-Low Context Part 1, we defined Low-Context communication as:

  • Word based

  • Explicit

  • Linear


And we defined High-Context Communication as:

  • Highly dependent on non-verbal code

  • Implicit

  • Non-linear


The High- Low-Context Continuum

The purpose of learning dimensions of culture like the High-Low Context Continuum, is to understand behavior, both your own and the behavior of others.


In the diagram below (and in this infographic), you will see where select cultures fall, according to Erin Meyer in her book, The Culture Map (1)


It’s all Relative

Knowing where your culture is on the continuum is less about the precise, absolute position and more about your position relative to other cultures, especially cultures of people you interact with. Knowing if you are a High- or Low-Context communicator (based on your home culture and mother-tongue) is partially a self-awareness exercise. What is your default communication style? Once you’ve determined that, and identified where your interlocutor is on the scale, you can figure out what modifications you may need to make when speaking or making a presentation to people from other cultures.


The Caveat of Individual Difference

It’s important to say that each of us has a personal communication style that is influenced by our personality. An individual who comes from a High-Context communication culture may personally communicate more directly than is the norm in their home culture. Likewise, a person from a Low-Context culture might be more indirect than is the norm is their culture. The goal is not to put people in boxes based on where they are from, but to use the dimensions as “as a first best guess.”


The Link Between Language and Culture

Because language reflects a culture, the language you speak impacts the degree of context that is required in the communication. Let me give you an example from my own experience. American English is my mother tongue and I am fluent in Italian. As we have seen, American English is a very Low-Context language. Italian is somewhat higher on the continuum. When I speak Italian, it is much easier for me to be vague and indirect than when I am speaking English.


For example, the statement “Lui e cosi…” means “He’s like that…”. If I say, “Lui e cosi…”, my Italian interlocutor will finish the phrase in their head with the appropriate descriptor (He’s silly, stupid, smart, handsome, etc.). If I say, “He’s like that…”, it’s more likely that my American interlocutor would ask the question “He’s like what?” In English we are less comfortable with vague, open-ended phrases and non-specific words that need to be interpreted by the listener.


For a more in-depth explanation of all these concepts, I highly recommend Erin Meyer’s book, listed below.


(1) E.Meyer. The Culture Map: Decoding How People Think, Lead and Get Things Done. PublicAffairs, 2016.

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