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High and Low Context Communication

High and Low Context Communication

Author: marlene johnson

At the end of this tutorial, the learner will understand that cultures vary in their use of directness in verbal communication.

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If you've grown up in the United States or lived here for a while, you know that we're a culture that values direct communication. How often have you heard the phrase get to the point? Or say what you mean?

Well, not all cultures value direct communication the way we do. Cultures vary in their directness when it comes to verbal communication. I'm Marlene, and today I'd like to talk with you about those differences.

So we can divide cultures into two aspects, high context communication and low context communication. Now, here in the US, we fall into low context communication. And that's because we value directness.

Here are some of the characteristics of a low context communication culture. Very direct, which means the meaning of what we say is carried mostly verbally. We don't rely a lot on context or nonverbals for the real message to get across.

Now, of course, all cultures use nonverbal context, but low context communicating cultures tend not to rely on it as much as high context. So we want people to get to the point, and we use language to transmit information. That's its purpose, and we rely on the verbal.

So how does this contrast with the high context communication cultures? Well, let's take a look.

A high context communication culture interprets much of the message via context. Context and subtle nonverbal cues. So it's known as an indirect communication style. The meaning is in the context and nonverbals, and the real focus here, rather than getting to the point, is on courtesy and respect.

So for example, if you were going to write. In a business situation, instead of getting right to the point in a document, you would start out with some courtesies, some respect, some things that maybe you wouldn't do if you were communicating here in the US.

And language is not just about transmitting information, it's about preserving social interests and social harmony. So let me give you a couple of examples of how this could play out. Here's just a mundane, ordinary example.

You have two men standing in a room having a conversation. One man is younger, and he's wearing a hat. The other man is older, and he's of higher status and rank. The older man, without the hat, looks at the younger man and says, nice hat.

Now, if you're in a low context culture, you take what he said at face value, and you'd probably say, thank you. Thank you. He likes my hat.

But if you come from a high context culture, you're going to be reading a lot into the cues-- the context, the cues. So you may be thinking, oh, he's telling me I shouldn't be wearing a hat.

After all, we're indoors. And after all, he is my senior, he's of a higher rank. And he's letting me know that I shouldn't have this hat on. And you might take it off and say, I'm sorry, I shouldn't have been wearing the hat.

Now, those are two totally different responses coming from two totally different ways of hearing the message. Direct, face value, I like your hat, as opposed to, oh, he's letting me know that I shouldn't be wearing it in a very subtle way.

Because, remember, it's not just about transmitting information, but it's about preserving social harmony and interests. In a high context communication culture, people are very sensitive to the effect of their words on others so they're very uncomfortable coming right out and being direct. For example, just say no to something.

So here's how this could work out in, say, a business situation where there might be some conflict as opposed to just miscommunication here in this mundane example with the hat. Let's say you have a business person from the United States, low context communication, doing business in a country that's high context communication.

So the US business person arrives ready at the planned time, ready to get to work immediately. You maybe exchange a few little niceties, but then you want to be direct, efficient, get to the facts, get the job done.

Whereas from the high context culture, they approach this differently. This is an important project we're working on so there's preliminary socializing, setting the tone, getting to know people, reading cues, understanding the context. Discussing things that have nothing to do with the project sports, the weather, family.

So what happens here? Well, it's ripe for misunderstanding. The person from the low context culture could be thinking, well, they're not really serious about this. Why aren't we getting to work?

Whereas from the high context culture they may be feeling as though this business person from the US, say, is rushing work. They're insensitive to wanting to know about family and other topics that are being discussed.

And they're insensitive to feelings, because when the person from this low context culture asks, well, are there any disagreements here? And expects a direct yes or no and gets maybe a question, well perhaps we should consider? Or do you think? They may not interpret that as disagreement and just keep blundering on.

So there's a sense of not being heard because indirect communication, coming from this context, can feel like hinting or not really being clear to someone from a low context culture. Although it's perfectly clear to the people on the high context culture what they're saying and what they're intending.

So this difference between directness and indirectness in communication, high context communication or low context communication, is a fundamental thing to understand in order to avoid miscommunication and conflict.

So I've enjoyed being part of this tutorial, and I look forward to next time.

Terms to Know
High Context Communication

A communication style in which the listener or receiver of communication is expected to interpret much of a message via context; also known as an indirect communication style.

Low Context Communication

A communication style in which the majority of a message is carried directly and overtly through a code requiring minimal contextual interpretation on the part of the receiver; also known as a direct communication style.