What is High Context Culture?

You might have heard of these words: high context culture and low context culture. But what is it and, if you’re working with different cultures, why is it important to understand the differences? In an earlier post, I discussed what is Individualism and the difference between Collectivism. Apart from explaining the two, it makes sense to add some consequences of this difference when it comes to Cultural Communication.

Consequences of High-Context Cultures & Low-Context Cultures

Besides describing characteristics of both Individualism and Collectivism there are clear differences between the two when it comes to Communication:

First a Question:

Consider the following question: “How many rooms does your house/apartment have?” Depending on your cultural background, your answer may differ. I use this example question in my Cultural Awareness Training often. Mind you it’s an illustration and an example! Obviously answers from different people are not the same.

  • Individualistic example reply: “3 rooms.
  • Collectivistic example reply: “Would you consider our attic also as a room, and would you consider our cleaned-up basement also as a room?” (etc…)

The point

The point I’m trying to make here is that Individualistic cultures have a tendency to communicate rather Direct. While Collectivistic cultures have a tendency to communicate more Indirect.

Direct and Indirect Communication

This cultural difference between Individualistic and Collectivistic cultures leads to many communication problems and potential frustration. In addition, it influences both perceptions: Individualistic cultures get frustrated (yes they do) because the Indirect Collectivistic way of communicating does not give them the clarity (and directness) they “need“.

Collectivistic cultures often find the Direct communications of Individualistic cultures rude and crude. To put it in a picture, please have a look below. On the left-hand side is the Individualistic way of communicating. On the right-hand side the Collectivistic way of communicating.

High Context Cultures & Low Context CulturesLow and High Context Culture

The difference between High and Low Context Culture is that Low Context Cultures (Individualistic Cultures) do not need a lot of additional (Contextual) information to engage in “communication“. The reverse holds true for High (Collectivistic) Context Cultures.

Conclusion

Cultural Communication is always a challenge. And when our frustration kicks in, we usually go back to our own “default” behavior, which is not always the most productive in such situations. What helps is asking how you can help your counterpart in getting what they need. And exploring the reply of the other party further by asking more questions.

Should you want to read the Wikipedia version of high and low-context cultures, click here.

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