High-context communication focuses more on the context than the actual words being exchanged. If you grew up in the United States or other similar countries, you may notice that you communicate differently than people who grew up in other countries, particularly Asian countries. You may notice that you tend to be direct, and that can be offputting for some other communication styles. How we communicate is impacted by various factors, including our experiences, family structure, and the culture we grew up in.
Some factors will influence how we communicate more than others will. Still, each factor is important in determining how we use our words, body language, and cultural relationships to interact with the world. This article will examine one of these factors, the role that our cultural differences and context play in how we communicate. This article will focus on what is considered high-context communication and how people communicate with that background.
We will examine common traits, how the context impacts conflict resolution, and how cross-cultural communication may be difficult for someone from a high-context culture. If you are interested in learning more about low-context cultures past a brief overview, I recommend looking into other articles on our site, which will have similar information for the opposite communication style.
The Role of Context
Before diving into the different communication styles that may arise depending on your culture, it is important to understand what we mean when we talk about context. Context is the influence of everything else surrounding the actual words in the communication that influences how a person interprets the meaning of the message. In a standard message, there is a sender, a recipient, the message itself, and the context surrounding the message as it is relayed. This attention given to this context will influence how you receive these messages. Several factors make up context.
Body language is an important part of the context surrounding a message. Body language includes the tone used, the speaker’s facial expressions, eye movement, and other non-verbal cues that some people may pick up on as the message is being relayed. In some instances, these unspoken cues will communicate more than the actual meaning of the words could.
Another factor that will influence context is interpersonal relationships between the sender and the recipient as well as their relationships with other people. If the sender perceives the recipient as a superior based on their job or other cultural contexts, they may relay the message differently than they would if they see the other person as a subordinate. Relationships can also implicate certain shared cultural contexts or understandings that may not be present in the same way in cross-cultural communication.
Finally, the actual meaning of the words used, also called denotation, can add to the context of the communication, particularly if the people communicating have a shared cultural experience. While some cultures will rely solely on this, other cultures may use certain words or phrases to add context that is not present otherwise.
When you look at the various factors that can add to the context of the message, it is clear that context can play a massive role in understanding and speaking with others in cross-cultural communication. This context’s role differentiates between a low- and a high-context culture.
Low Context Cultures v. High Context Cultures
Now that we have an understanding of what context is when it is used in communication, it is time to dive into a discussion about low- and high-context communication. This idea was put forth by the anthropologist Edward T. Hall. Hall proposed that different cultures view and understand context in different ways, which can have a direct impact on how people tend to communicate.
In his work, high-context cultures tend to rely more on the context surrounding the message than those in a lower-context culture would. While many of Hall’s theories are unproven by much empirical data, there can be some benefits to understanding the role that context plays within a culture and how that may impact communication differences.
However, the idea of culture tends to generalize and place people into boxes that they may not fit, which also makes it important to acknowledge that our discussions of culture here include generalizations, meaning that they also hold many exceptions. Additionally, while this idea is most commonly applied to cultures bound by national or cultural origin, culture can also be created within a section of the United States, a city, or even within an individual business.
While high and low-context communication will typically apply to the country of origin and other markers of cultural differences, this discussion applies just as heavily to cultural context within smaller communities that do not share a traditional cultural heritage.
High Context Cultures
For those from a higher context culture, the words that are said mean little to the overall message that is to be conveyed. Instead, the context that surrounds the message has a large impact on the way that the sender expects the recipient to respond. In some ways, the recipient needs prior knowledge of the context between the parties to understand the meaning. High-context and low-denotation cultures tend to be more collectivist and place a high value on the relationships between the people speaking.
High-context communication is common among those with more collectivist cultural backgrounds, generally meaning that the good of the whole group is seen as more honorable than that of the individual. Eastern cultures, such as Japan, China, and other Asian countries are considered high-context countries and cultures.
Low Context Cultures
On the other hand, low-context cultures tend to rely heavily on verbal messages themselves and ignore or not identify the surrounding context. The words themselves carry more weight and the relationships with the people receiving the message do not carry much if any weight. The onus is on the sender to communicate exactly what they mean with their words. Lower context culture relies heavily on individual achievement and is more individualist overall.
This means that the value of the individual achievement is placed more highly than that of the collective. Lower-context cultures are common in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and other European nations. While the differences between high and low-context communication can be dramatic in situations where someone is using very high or very-low-context communication, these ideas exist on a spectrum with a lot of room for overlap and varying degrees of context application.
Understanding that there are a variety of ways that people may process information and expect messages to be sent and received is a vital part of participating in intercultural communication. People within the same culture may be more high-context or low-context than others. Because even when we are speaking the same language, we may not always understand it similarly with different cultural backgrounds.
Common Traits of a High Context Culture
Now that we have an understanding of the major differences between high and low-context communication, we can begin to dive into the traits that are common in high-context communication to help us understand how high-context communicators work.
When high-context communicators speak, they will often begin with the details that need to be shared to provide the necessary context for the message. This helps the recipient understand the various aspects of context that surround the main point of the message. In some cases, high-context speakers can communicate effectively without having to say the main point at all. On the other hand, low-context cultures will often begin with the main point to ensure that it is heard and received.
More Than What’s Said
Because high-context communicators rely heavily on context, they will often not say what they mean, instead hoping that the recipient will observe the meaning from the context that is added. This allows the recipient the ability to recognize and understand the meaning by observing all of the various aspects of context that are added. These communication styles will often circle a point and not approach it directly, unlike those in a low-context culture that will get straight to the point.
Emphasis on Feelings and Relationships
When people rely on high-context communication, they will emphasize the feelings of the recipient and the relationship between the parties. This helps protect inter-business relationships and creates a shared understanding of the necessary points without unintentionally insulting or harming someone else. This will also be evidenced in client-focused communication within a business to ensure that the relationships are protected, even at the cost of an individual. This is often more approachable for some than the logic and fact-based language of low-context cultures.
Unlike the compartmentalized language of low-context communication styles, the ideas and concepts of high-context communication are connected and can be moved between even within the same thought. The connections between the ideas that are drawn allow the high-context communicator to create a full understanding of the issues individually and how they interact with each other. High-context language tends to be spherical, encapsulating everything that is connected to add context.
High-context communicators will not use precise language to detail what they mean at face value. Instead, they will hint at the meaning of the message through metaphors and implications, which helps the recipient understand what they need to without being told. Additionally, nonverbal cues like a facial expression or a certain movement may indicate additional information. This is contrasted to the precision that is found in low-context communication.
For high-context cultures, the achievements and success of the group are valued over that of the individual. The members of the group are seen less in their capacities and more in what they contribute to the overall success. By contrast, low-context communication styles will often praise the individual over the collective.
Unlike the loud ambition of low-context cultures, high-context communicators will expect praise and admiration to come as the result of hard work and dedication instead of seeking it out. Because the relationships built and honored and the collective goodwill is highly valued, recognition will often come with dedication to the cause of the group.
While low-context cultures also tend to dive into conflict and address it head-on, high-conflict communication styles will more frequently deal with conflict indirectly. This can mean involving a third person to help the parties mediate the conflict or seek out ways to work behind the scenes to resolve the conflict. Honor and relationships will play a vital role in problem-solving for high-context communication, and face-saving, or the idea of protecting one’s reputation will play a major role in how one approaches the conflict.
Silence is an important form of context within high-context cultures. Silence can speak what words may not be able to, including satisfaction or disdain, power or weakness, and approval. While the low-context communicator may become uncomfortable in the silence, the nonverbal communication that happens in silence will provide high-context communicators with a strong sense of accomplishment and control in social settings.
For low-context communicators, the written words of a contract or agreement are paramount and binding. However, for the high-context communicator, agreements can be more fluid, even those in business communication. In many countries and cultures, a handshake creates an agreement, and the parties will continue to flush out the different aspects and effectively improve the terms while they work together toward their shared purpose.
While the strength of the binding written word seeks to avoid misunderstandings in a low-context culture, in high-context cultures, such as Japanese culture or those from Latin America or the Pacific Islands, context is the key to continuing business.
Communication Styles in a Multinational Organization
Multicultural communication is a difficult and often overwhelming task to take on, especially when you are handling communication between two parties that are from high-context and low-context cultures. For example, it is often difficult for a high-context communicator to speak with a person from a low-context culture. Exchanging information can be exhausting when you need to rely more on direct communication over context.
However, with the understanding that you have gained from this article, handling such communication can become an easy and worthwhile task to accomplish. You may be able to provide support and understanding to those around you and create a safe space for communication, both with and without context.
To learn more about high-context communication, communication skills, and more, contact ADR Times!