High-Context versus Low-Context

Whenever I’m upset or in a bad mood, I can always count on my best friend or family to know when something is wrong. Like it or not, I am communicating through my body language. Maybe my arms are crossed or I have a troubled look on my face. I personally am not sure what gives it away because I usually try to hide my anger or frustration. I can also read people that I am close to. As much as they say nothing is wrong, I know deep down there is. Think of someone you have this kind of relationship. Maybe it’s your parents, spouse, boyfriend, girlfriend or best friend. You use your knowledge of this person to look deeper into their body language and the words they use. You may know that saying, “I’m fine” really means they are so far from being fine. Maybe your best friend is always late so when she tells you to meet her at 6 you know she won’t get there till 6:30. These are all context clues we use to decide the real meaning of verbal and nonverbal communication.

High-context cultures are those that use the context of the situation, and what they know about the person they are communicating with, to understand the message. These cultures are typically very relationship oriented so they are able to read the other person and understand the implicit message. More emphasis is placed on what is not said or how how something is said, rather than what is actually said.  Some examples of high-context cultures are, Japanese, Latin American, Italian, African American and Latin American.

Low-context cultures on the other hand use explicit messages. What someone says is what they mean. If someone asks to meet you for lunch at 1pm, you will be there by 1pm. If you are late for lunch, you will have an excuse as to why you are late. Maybe there was traffic or there was a crisis at work. Low-context cultures always need a reason for not doing something they explicitly said they would do, such as being somewhere on time or having something done on time. Examples of low-context cultures are Swiss, German, Scandinavian and North American.

Understanding if a culture is high or low context is important. If you come from a high-context culture, you should keep that in mind and make your message more explicit so there is less confusion. If you come from a low-context culture, realize that the message might be implicit. Have you ever done business or traveled somewhere  that the context of the conversation was misunderstood due to cultural differences?

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One thought on “High-Context versus Low-Context

  1. Pingback: 8 Conversational Styles | Cultural Connections

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