3 High and Low Cultural Contexts
After completing this chapter, you will be able to:
- Define cultural context (Guffey et al., 2013, p. 64)
- Contrast communicate styles for low-context and high-context cultures (Meyer, 2017, p. 59)
- Explain how cultural differences can affect workplace communication (Lavin Agency Speakers Bureau, 2014)
Now that we know, broadly, what culture is, let’s discuss some ways to categorize aspects of different cultures. As we discuss culture, we are making generalizations to create cultural prototypes. Remember that culture is dynamic, and that every individual within a culture is unique and may not conform exactly to the general characteristics of that culture. Also remember that although cultures are different from one another, no culture or cultural characteristic is better or worse than any other.
Watch this video from international business expert Erin Meyer .
Guffey et al. (2013) explain the concept of cultural context:
Cultural context is a concept developed by cultural anthropologist Edward T. Hall. In his model, context refers to the stimuli, environment, or ambiance surrounding an event.
Communicators in low-context cultures (such as those in North America, Scandinavia, and Germany) depend little on the context of a situation to convey their meaning. They assume that listeners know very little and must be told practically everything. Low-context cultures tend to be logical, analytical, action-oriented, and concerned with the individual.
In high-context cultures (such as those in Japan, China, and Arab countries), the listener is already “contexted” and does not need to be given much background information. High-context cultures are more likely to be intuitive, contemplative, and concerned with the collective. Communicators in high-context cultures pay attention to more than the words spoken – they also pay attention to interpersonal relationships, nonverbal expressions, physical settings, and social settings. In high-context cultures, communication cues are transmitted by posture, voice inflection, gestures, and facial expression. Establishing relationships is an important part of communicating and interacting. Unlike the linear communication style preferred in low-context cultures, high-context communicators may use spiral logic, circling around a topic indirectly and looking at it from many tangential or divergent viewpoints. A conclusion may be implied but not argued directly.
Communication Differences in Low-Context vs. High-Context Cultures
Carolyn Meyer (2017) discusses the prototypes for communication in low-context and high-context cultures:
Communicators in low-context cultures (such as those in Germany, Scandinavia, and North America) convey their meaning exclusive of the context of a situation. Meaning depends on what is said- the literal content of the message- rather than how it is said. Information has to be explicit and detailed for the message to be conveyed without distortion.
Low-context communicators don’t need to be provided with much background information, but they do expect messages to be professional, efficient, and linear in their logic. Conclusions are explicitly stated. Effectively communicating within this culture, therefore, requires messaging that is perceived as objective, professional, and efficient.
In high-context cultures (such as those in Japan, China, Korea, and Arab countries), communication relies heavily on non-verbal, contextual, and shared cultural meanings. In other words, high-context communicators attach great importance to everything that surrounds the explicit message, including interpersonal relationships, non-verbal cues, and physical and social settings. Information is transmitted not through words alone but also through non-verbal cues such as gestures, voice inflection, and facial expression, which can have different meanings in different cultures. Eye contact, for example, which is encouraged in North America, may have ambiguous meaning or be considered disrespectful in certain high-context cultures. Meaning is determined not by what is said but by how it is said and by how social implications such as the communicator’s status and position come into play.
For high-context cultures, language is a kind of social lubricant, easing and harmonizing relations that are defined according to a group or collectivist orientation where “we” rather than “I” is the key to identity. Because directness may be thought of as disrespectful, discussions in high-context cultures can be circuitous, circling key issues rather than addressing them head-on. Communicating with high-context cultures can require you to focus on politeness strategies that demonstrate your respect for readers and listeners.
Comparing Communication Styles in Low- and High-Context Cultures
Low Context High Context Tend to prefer direct verbal interaction Tend to prefer indirect verbal interaction Tend to understand meaning at one level only Tend to understand meanings embedded at many sociocultural levels Are generally less proficient in reading nonverbal cues Are generally more proficient in reading nonverbal cues Value individualism Value group membership Rely more on logic Rely more on context and feeling Employ linear logic Employ spiral logic Say ‘no’ directly Talk around point; avoid saying no Communication in highly structured messages, provide details, stress literal meaning Communication is simple, sometimes ambiguous, messages; understand visual messages readily
Note: Comparison of low- and high-context cultures reprinted from Business communication: Process & product (p. 64) by M.E. Guffey, D. Lowey, K. Rhodes, K., & P. Rogin. 
Listen to business speaker Erin Meyer explain how cultural differences can affect communication.  How does her experience in Japan demonstrate what you’ve learned so far about the different dimensions of culture?
Additional Resources for Determining Cultural Contexts
- Try the Hofstede Insights country comparison tool!
- Check out these world map models to see where different regions are positioned for each dimension.
- Read Chapter 2: The Cultural Context from a textbook called Intercultural Communication by James W. Neuliup .
The chapter is about 40 pages. It contains some fun self-assessments so you can gauge what kind of culture you come from.
- The Lavin Agency Speakers Bureau. (2014, May 9). Leadership speaker Erin Meyer: Low context vs. high context societies [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9oYfhTC9lIQ. ↵
- Guffey, M. E., Lowey, D., Rhodes, K., & Rogin, P. (2013). Intercultural communication. In Business communication: Process & product (4th brief Canadian ed., pp. 60-77). Nelson Education. ↵
- Hall, E. T. & Hall, M. R. (1990). Understanding cultural differences (pp. 183-184). Intercultural Press. ↵
- Meyer, C. (2017). Getting the message across. In Communicating for results: A Canadian student’s guide (4th ed., pp. 36-69). Oxford. ↵
- Guffey, M.E., Lowey, D., Rhodes, K., & Rogin, P. (2013). Business communication: Process & product (4th brief Canadian ed.). Nelson. ↵
- The Lavin Agency Speakers Bureau. (2014, December 10). Business speaker Erin Meyer: How cultural differences affect business [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zQvqDv4vbEg. ↵
- Neuliup, J. W. (2011). The cultural context. In Intercultural communication: A contextual approach (5th ed, pp. 45-91). Sagepub. https://www.sagepub.com/sites/default/files/upm-binaries/42958_2_The_Cultural_Context.pdf. ↵