Low-context communication works by depending heavily on words while additional factors like context have a small influence. 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 in 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 more about how we communicate than others will. Still, each factor plays an important role 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 low-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 low-context culture.
If you are interested in learning more about high-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 facial expression of the speaker, the eye contact, and various 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 that are 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 context that surrounds them. 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. Because even when we are speaking the same language, we may not always understand it similarly with different cultural backgrounds.
Common Traits of a Low 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 low-context communication to help us understand how the low-context communicator works.
Straight to the Point
When people from low-context cultures speak, they will often begin with the main point of their message and then support it with other details or facts. By putting the main focus of the message first, low-context communicators hope to ensure that the recipient can process and digest at least this point. This may also be driven by the lack of attention span that accompanies low context culture communication. High-context cultures will often provide details and examples first because this can add the necessary context and provide the recipient with pertinent information.
Say What They Mean, Mean What They Say
Many cultures with low-context communication will be considered blunt or abrupt because they will often say exactly what they mean and nothing further. They do not like to shield the meaning of a sentence or give context or details that could confuse the situation. This way of communicating is very linear. In a high-context culture, the meaning of a message is often shielded by context and words that may not convey the full message intended.
Emphasis on Logic
In addition to getting straight to the point, low-context communication places a high value on logic and facts, often ignoring the very real context that exists outside of straight logic. Alternatively, those in a high-context culture will focus on the other influences that relate to the topic at hand and rely on relational structure and emotion to convey what they need to convey.
Low context communication tends to be very sequential and complete on each point, meaning that the speaker will not move on to the next point until they have completed the thought, but once they move to the next point, they will not be returning to the previous one. They seek to keep each topic or idea separate to ensure that understanding is made in full. By contrast, many high-context cultures tend to return to various points because they see them more as connected, rather than separate.
For most low-context communicators, precision and clarity are at the forefront when they communicate. This means that unnecessary words and details will be left out intentionally to draw attention to the most important message. For people not used to this, it can often feel very short or specific but will be complete, similar to standardized business communication. In high-context situations, this precision may be set aside to provide the additional details necessary for the context.
Individual Achievement over Collective Achievement
For low-context cultures, rewards and praise are doled out on an individual level rather than a group level in most cases. When someone succeeds at a task or a goal, it is often based on their achievements rather than any collective work that they accomplished with a team or group. By contrast, high-context cultures focus more on the good of the group, and achievements are often attributed to the collective.
Seeking Out Attention
Another common trait among low-context communicators is the tendency to seek out attention and approval for the things that they have done and to expect this approval or recognition to be voiced by others. They will spend more time and effort, and take greater initiative to be noticed for their work.
However, this can also come with the tendency to “sell out” to gain this recognition from the people who may not be worthy of the work or effort. By contrast, those in a high-context culture will often allow the group or the organization to take credit and gain recognition for the accomplishments that they have had.
Diving into Conflict
Low-context cultures also tend to dive into conflict and address it head-on. This idea will be fleshed out more thoroughly below, but a person in a low-context culture will often be direct with conflict and work to ensure that they are properly understood in social settings, especially when there is a chance to avoid misunderstandings. However, someone in a high-context culture may try and avoid conflict because they have a strong sense of duty or loyalty to another person and they cannot allow a disagreement to harm that loyalty.
Scared of Silence
Low-context cultures place less emphasis and understanding on silence and tend to shy away from using silence to communicate what they have not. For most people in low-context cultures, silence is a thing to be feared because it can communicate that you have not properly explained yourself or that others are not on the same page. However, in high-context cultures, the nonverbal communication that happens in silence is often a source of more context and understanding throughout communication.
Clearer Written Word
While this is not always the case, a low-context culture is more likely to very clearly spell out what they would like when they write down information. This can be a business communication, a contract, or a job offer, but they are typically obvious and may carry legal weight. Conversely, those in a high-context culture may not include legally binding language and important information in writing because the importance of nonverbal cues is often lost when communication is not face-to-face.
Low Context Communicators and Conflict Resolution
As mentioned above, the way that context influences communication will also have an impact on how people tend to deal with conflict resolution. A low-context communicator will deal very differently with conflict than someone within a high-context culture, and both high-context and low-context communication can influence how conflict is dealt with.
For those who are from a low-context culture, conflict will often be something that needs to be addressed quickly and efficiently. This means that conflict will often be brought up immediately, even in social settings or with people who hold power. Those addressing the conflict may be blunt with how they speak about the conflict and can call people out if they feel that they are causing the issue. This can lead to further tension and conflict, but it can also cause the issue to be resolved more quickly.
Additionally, relationships are not as central to communication and context as they are in high-context communication, such as in Japanese culture or Latin American countries. Because relationships do not hold as much weight within the communication system, they will often shift and change more, and they are not as central to conflict. When relationships are less vital, they can be discarded or set aside to resolve conflict more directly.
Communication Styles and Cross-Cultural Communication
Cross-cultural communication is a difficult and often overwhelming task to take on, especially when you are handling communication between two parties that are from opposite sides of the context continuum. However, with the understanding that you have gained from this article, handling cross-cultural 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 space that is safe for communication, both with and without context.
To learn more about how low context communication works, communication skills, and more, contact ADR Times.