In anthropology, high-context culture and low-context culture is a measure of how explicit the messages exchanged in a culture are, and how important the context is in communication. High and low context cultures fall on a continuum that describes how a person communicates with others through their range of communication abilities: utilizing gestures, relations, body language, verbal messages, or non-verbal messages. These concepts were first introduced by the anthropologist Edward T. Hall in his 1976 book Beyond Culture. According to Hall, in a low-context culture, the message will be interpreted through just the words (whether written or spoken) and their explicit meaning. In a high-context culture, messages are also interpreted using tone of voice, gesture, silence or implied meaning, as well as context or situation. There, the receiver is expected to use the situation, messages and cultural norms to understand the message.
High-context cultures often stem from less direct verbal and nonverbal communication, utilizing small communication gestures and reading into these less direct messages with more meaning. Low-context cultures are the opposite; direct verbal communication is needed to properly understand a message being said and doing so relies heavily on explicit verbal skills.
"High" and "low" context cultures typically refer to language groups, nationalities, or regional communities. However, they have also been applied to corporations, professions and other cultural groups, as well as settings such as online and offline communication.
The model of high-context and low-context cultures is a popular framework in intercultural communication studies, but has been criticized as lacking empirical validation. A 2008 meta-analysis concluded that the model was "unsubstantiated and underdeveloped".
Cultural contexts are not absolutely "high" or "low". Instead, a comparison between cultures may find communication differences to a greater or lesser degree. 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. Typically a low-context culture will be less close-knit, and so individuals communicating will have fewer relational cues when interpreting messages. Therefore, it is necessary for more explicit information to be included in the message so it is not misinterpreted. Not all individuals in a culture can be defined by cultural stereotypes, and there will be variations within a national culture in different settings. For example, Hall describes how Japanese culture has both low- and high-context situations. However, understanding the broad tendencies of predominant cultures can help inform and educate individuals on how to better facilitate communication between individuals of differing cultural backgrounds.
Although the concept of high- and low-context cultures is usually applied in the field of analyzing national cultures, it can also be used to describe scientific or corporate cultures, or specific settings such as airports or law courts. A simplified example mentioned by Hall is that scientists working in "hard science" fields (like chemistry and physics) tend to have lower-context cultures: because their knowledge and models have fewer variables, they will typically include less context for each event they describe. In contrast, scientists working with living systems need to include more context because there can be significant variables which impact the research outcomes.
Croucher’s study examines the assertion that culture influences communication style (high/low context) preference. Data was gathered in India, Ireland, Thailand, and the United States where the results confirm that "high-context nations (India and Thailand) prefer the avoiding and obliging conflict styles more than low-context nations (Ireland and the United States), whereas low-context nations prefer the uncompromising and dominating communication style more than high-context nations."
In addition, Hall identified countries such as Japan, Arabic countries and some Latin American Countries to practice high-context culture; “High context communication carries most of its information within physical acts and features such as avoiding eye contact or even the shrug of a shoulder.” On the other hand, he identified countries such as Germany, the United States and Scandinavia as low context cultures. These countries are quite explicit and elaborate without having prior knowledge to each member’s history or background.
Cultures and languages are defined as higher or lower context on a spectrum. For example, it could be argued[by whom?] that the Canadian French language is higher context than Canadian English, but lower context than Spanish or French French. An individual from Texas (a higher-context culture) may communicate with a few words or use of a prolonged silence characteristic of Texan English, where a New Yorker would be very explicit (as typical of New York City English), although both speak the same language (American English) and are part of a nation (the United States of America) which is lower-context relative to other nations. Hall notes a similar difference between Navajo-speakers and English-speakers in a United States school.
Cultural context can also shift and evolve. For instance, a study has argued that both Japan and Finland (high-context cultures) are becoming lower-context with the increased influence of Western European and United States culture.
The categories of context cultures are not totally separate. Both often take many aspects of the other's cultural communication abilities and strengths into account. The terms high- and low-context cultures are not classified with strict individual characteristics or boundaries. Instead, many cultures tend to have a mixture or at least some concepts that are shared between them, overlapping the two context cultures.
Ramos suggests that "in low context culture, communication members’ communication must be more explicit. As such, what is said is what is meant, and further analysis of the message is usually unnecessary." This implies that communication is quite direct and detailed because members of the culture are not expected to have knowledge of each other's histories, past experience or background. Because low-context communication concerns more direct messages, the meaning of these messages is more dependent on the words being spoken rather than on the interpretation of more subtle or unspoken cues.
The Encyclopedia of Diversity and Social Justice states that, "high context defines cultures that are relational and collectivist, and which most highlight interpersonal relationships. Cultures and communication in which context is of great importance to structuring actions is referred to as high context."In such cultures, people are highly perceptive of actions. Furthermore, cultural aspects such as tradition, ceremony, and history are also highly valued. Because of this, many features of cultural behavior in high-context cultures, such as individual roles and expectations, do not need much detailed or thought-out explanation.
According to Watson, "the influence of cultural variables interplays with other key factors – for example, social identities, those of age, gender, social class and ethnicity; this may include a stronger or weaker influence." A similarity that the two communication styles share is its influence on social characteristics such as age, gender, social class and ethnicity. For example, for someone who is older and more experienced within a society, the need for social cues may be higher or lower depending on the communication style. The same applies for the other characteristics in varied countries.
On the other hand, certain intercultural communication skills are unique for each culture and it is significant to note that these overlaps in communication techniques are represented subgroups within social interactions or family settings. Many singular cultures that are large have subcultures inside of them, making communication and defining them more complicated than the low context and high context culture scale. The diversity within a main culture shows how the high and low scale differs depending on social settings such as school, work, home, and in other countries; variation is what allows the scale to fluctuate even if a large culture is categorized as primarily one or the other.
Between each type of culture context, there will be forms of miscommunication because of the difference in gestures, social cues, and intercultural adjustments; however, it is important to recognize these differences and learn how to avoid miscommunication to benefit certain situations. Since all sets of cultures differ, especially from a global standpoint where language also creates a barrier for communication, social interactions specific to a culture normally require a range of appropriate communication abilities that an opposing culture may not understand or know about. This significance follows into many situations such as the workplace, which can be prone to diversified cultures and opportunities for collaboration and working together. Awareness of miscommunication between high and low context cultures within the workplace or intercultural communication settings advocates for collected unification within a group through the flexibility and ability to understand one another.
Families, subcultures and in-groups typically favour higher-context communication. Groups that are able to rely on a common background may not need to use words as explicitly to understand each other. Settings and cultures where people come together from a wider diversity of backgrounds such as international airports, large cities, or multi-national firms, tend to use lower-context communication forms.
Hall links language to culture through the work of Sapir-Whorf on linguistic relativity. A trade language will typically need to explicitly explain more of the context than a dialect which can assume a high level of shared context. Because a low-context setting cannot rely on shared understanding of potentially ambiguous messages, low-context cultures tend to give more information, or to be precise in their language. In contrast, a high-context language like Japanese or Chinese can use a high number of homophones but still be understood by a listener who knows the context.
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 significant amounts of common knowledge, which allows the speaker to explain their idea explicitly. In contrast, restricted codes are phrased from more limited alternatives, usually with collapsed and shortened sentences. Therefore, restricted codes require listeners to share a great deal of common perspective to understand the implicit meanings and nuances of a conversation.
Restricted codes are commonly used in high-context culture groups, where group members share the same cultural background and can easily understand the implicit meanings "between the lines" without further elaboration. Conversely, in cultural groups with low context, where people share less common knowledge or ‘value individuality above group identification’, detailed elaboration becomes more essential to avoid misunderstanding.
The concepts of collectivism and individualism have been applied to high- and low-context cultures by Dutch psychologist Geert Hofstede in his Cultural Dimensions Theory. Collectivist societies prioritize the group over the individual, and vice versa for individualist ones. In high-context cultures, language may be used to assist and maintain relationship-building and to focus on process. India and Japan are typically high-context, highly collectivistic cultures, where business is done by building relationships and maintaining respectful communication.
Individualistic cultures promote the development of individual values and independent social groups. Individualism may lead to communicating to all people in a group in the same way, rather than offering hierarchical respect to certain members. Because individualistic cultures may value cultural diversity, a more explicit way of communicating is often required to avoid misunderstanding. Language may be used to achieve goals or exchange information. The USA and Australia are typically low-context, highly individualistic cultures, where transparency and competition in business are prized.
High-context cultures tend to be more stable, as their communication is more economical, fast, efficient and satisfying; but these are gained at a price of devoting time into preprogramming cultural background, and their high stability might come with a price of a high barrier for development. By contrast, low-context cultures tend to change more rapidly and drastically, allowing extension[definition needed] to happen at faster rates. This also means that low-context communication may fail due to the overload of information, which makes culture lose its screening[definition needed] function.
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, compared to general American culture. Focusing 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.
Culture also affects how individuals interpret other people's facial expressions. An experiment performed by the University of Glasgow shows that different cultures have different understanding of the facial expression signals of the six basic emotions, which are the so-called "universal language of emotion"—happiness, surprise, fear, disgust, anger and sadness. In high-context cultures, facial expressions and gestures take on greater importance in conveying and understanding a message, and the receiver may require more cultural context to understand "basic" displays of emotions.
Cultural differences in advertising and marketing may also be explained through high- and low-context cultures. One study on McDonald's online advertising compared Japan, China, Korea, Hong Kong, Pakistan, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, and the United States, and found that in high-context countries, the advertising used more colors, movements, and sounds to give context, while in low-context cultures the advertising focused more on verbal information and linear processes.
In a 2008 meta-analysis of 224 articles published between 1990 and 2006, Peter W. Cordon wrote:
[T]he theory was never described by Hall with any empirical rigor, and no known research involving any instrument or measure of contexting validates it ... Ironically, contexting is most frequently discussed in terms of directness, yet empirical studies nearly all fail to support this relationship. In other words, the relationship between directness and contexting based on traditional classifications of [high-context] and [low-context] cultures is particularly tenuous. Most of the contexting categories simply have not been researched enough to make firm conclusions. But the fact that contexting has not been empirically validated should not necessarily be construed as a failure of the theory ... Nonetheless, the contexting model simply cannot be described as an empirically validated model.:422–3