The Context of Cultures

high and low contextThe culture of a country is important to understand and respect as you move around the world. Whether it be as a traveler or as an expatriate for your career, it will control how you interact with people there.

The anthropologist Edward Hall made famous the general terms of “high context” and “low context” as an overall way to start evaluating communications within a culture.  Knowing the differences between the two and how to identify which type of culture you are entering will give you one more tool for success.

A high context culture puts more faith in intuition than facts. This is the “gentleman’s word” poster child. What is known about you, your family and your past action plays a much bigger part in decision making than any facts or figures that are presented. Long term relationships are essential and people take time to build relationships and trust.

Other traits include:

  • Less verbally explicit, less written/formal information
  • More internalized comprehension
  • Situational knowledge and its relationship to parties

In a low context culture, more emphasis is put on the literal meanings of words, facts, numbers and data. The feeling about a person or situation is less likely to have an impact on the final outcome.  Relationships in this culture are normally of shorter duration so environment rules are more prevalent and guide how each person relates and communicates with others.  Words used are intended to be taken explicitly. Such interaction can lead those accustomed to a high context culture to believe there is a lack of trust in the transaction.

Other traits include:

  • External rule orientated
  • Relationships by purpose and of shorter duration
  • Centered on tasks to be accomplished and decisions to be made
  • Less internalized information that is more easily transferred between parties

There are no clear cut lines between the two categories; no one culture is all of one and none of the other. Often both exist in the form of subgroups. For instance, the United States is a low context culture. But within your family, it can be high context based on years of familiarity and mutual understanding of how your family interacts with one another and within society in general.

Knowing the difference between high and low context cultures and your role within them can make your life easier in a foreign country, both personal and professional. It is the beginning of the transformation every expatriate must make to be successful.