Low Context and High Context cultures

Cultural Divide, Low Context Versus High Context (direct vs indirect)
In my opinion and experience, this is the cultural difference that probably causes the most frustration, hurt feelings and misunderstandings. It’s also the most difficult one for me to adapt to- I can understand it in my head, but I can’t see it when it’s happening, and it’s really, really hard for me rephrase my communication to be more high context, or to understand what people really mean to be saying when they are coming from a high context culture. It’s not a lack of desire, it’s like being colour blind and trying to function in a world where everybody else assumes you see colour and this word is entirely colour-coded and it hurts peoples feelings if you don’t know the code, and the people are the kindest, sweetest people in the world and you don’t want to hurt their feelings and they know Americans are like that so they try not to take offense, but it still happens. I don’t know the code. I can’t see the code. I can’t tell when I have violated the code. I feel like a bull in a china shop, blundering around, crashing into things, but but the bull is also blindfolded.

It’s not just direct vs indirect communication- because there, often the issue is that we really just have different things we are direct about. But it’s also more complicated than that. It’s about the context of the communications. Because I am a blindfolded bull I can’t explain that well by myself.

So, I’m just going to copy and paste directly from the notes provided in the PDF for this lecture from the cultural intelligence series- not all of it, but enough to give you, hehehe, ‘context.’

The degree to which you want someone to “shoot straight” with you—to directly and clearly say what they mean and mean what they say—is a value that is influenced by both personality and culture. In this lecture, you will learn that low context, whether an individual or a society as a whole, is where one goes to great lengths to be very clear and explicit using words. High context depends much more heavily on implied meaning and assuming that the listener will pick up in between the lines. **Low versus High Context**
In the cultural dimension known as low versus high context, a low-context culture takes very little for granted in communication. Things are explained explicitly and directly, and little is left to subjective interpretation. Very little emphasis is placed on using the context to interpret the meaning.
In a high-context culture, communication presumes an understanding of unwritten rules and a shared narrative that informs a person of what is going on. It is not necessarily assumed that people mean what they say and say what they mean.
If you’ve had much interaction with people from different cultures—through traveling, work, or simply various relationships—you’ve encountered this cultural difference. This partly explains why someone might give you incorrect directions rather than telling you that they don’t know. It also explains why you may be caught off-guard when you discover that someone has been very upset with you but never told you.
The reason this is referred to as context is because it refers to the degree to which individuals and societies reply on the context itself to provide meaning. Context includes things like environment (such as the setting, location, etc.); process (how a meeting or social gathering is conducted, how people were invited, etc.); body language, facial expression, and tone of voice; and appearance (how you’re dressed, what car you drive, where you live, etc.).
Low-context cultures place much less emphasis on things like environment and appearance. Communication is primarily dependent on what people say. Low-context cultures focus more on verbal communication than body language, looking for visible, external reaction.
High-context cultures are very in tune with the context and environment. The context of an event is as important as the event itself. There is no distinction between the idea and the person. A high-context person listens as much to what is not being said as to what is being said.
All of us pay some attention to context as a way of deriving meaning, but for a high-context person, the context of an interaction is constantly being evaluated—so much that it’s looked at more than the words themselves. Someone can say one thing, but you’re primarily looking at the cues the person is sending from his or her responses, questions, nonverbal actions, and overall attentiveness.
In low-context cultures, if there’s a misunderstanding, the assumption is usually first that the person doing the talking wasn’t clear in their communication. In high-context cultures, the default assumption is that the listener has failed.
This cultural difference can be quite readily observed at a societal or institutional level as well. Low-context cultures are usually oriented toward lots of outsiders visiting or living there. The assumption is that not everyone is from there, so they can’t presume that people know what the rules are or how to get around.
When you visit a low-context culture, it’s usually easier to find your way around. The Netherlands is one of the most low-context cultures in the world. This is reflected in how Dutch people interact High-context cultures are much harder to navigate as an outsider. Traditionally, high-context places don’t need street signs or signs telling you where to exit for gasoline and food because if you’re from there, you know how to get around.
Most of us behave in high-context ways within certain subcultures. For example, think about what it’s like to listen to a doctor explain a medical situation to you. They often function in very high-context ways, using lingo and making references that you don’t understand.
Religious communities and, most of all, our families are the most high-context examples of all. Within a religious community, there’s a shared understanding of various traditions and ceremonies. In addition, your family has a shared history together and knows the inside jokes, so when a spouse meets your family, he or she is confused. The same thing occurs in various national cultures. Where Does This Come From?
You don’t have to think hard to see the connection between many of these cultural value dimensions. While there are exceptions, you typically find individualist cultures being more oriented toward low context. Each person needs to clearly say something, and identity is individualized more than around the collective.
High power distance—the level of hierarchy that exists within a culture—also plays a role. Peers in a high power distance culture would typically be quite indirect. A boss would be very direct with a subordinate, and a subordinate would be extremely indirect with a superior.
This also stems from extensive research that’s been done on how cultures look at the world as a whole. Neuroscientists have consistently found that Westerners walk into a room and focus on the primary object or person, and Easterners walk into a room and focus on the holistic context.
It seems that our cultural environments actually play a role in how our brains are wired. If we’ve been socialized in a low-context, individualized society, more than likely, our neurological wiring is oriented to focus on specifics and clarity. If we’ve been socialized in a high-context, collectivist society, it’s more likely that our brains have been wired to focus on the full context and interpreting meaning far more subjectively.

From http://amzn.to/2FuYTlq
I got mine free from Audible when they were running a special. I have read a couple of David Livermore’s books and I vastly prefer the lectures. They are more informative.

According to this website:

“High-context cultures often display the following tendencies, according to C.B. Halverson’s book Cultural Context Inventory.

Association: Relationships build slowly and depend on trust. Productivity depends on relationships and the group process. An individual’s identity is rooted in groups (family, culture, work). Social structure and authority are centralized.
Interaction: Nonverbal elements such as voice tone, gestures, facial expression and eye movement are significant. Verbal messages are indirect, and communication is seen as an art form or way of engaging someone. Disagreement is personalized, and a person is sensitive to conflict expressed in someone else’s nonverbal communication.
Territoriality: Space is communal. People stand close to each other and share the same space.
Temporality: Everything has its own time, and time is not easily scheduled. Change is slow, and time is a process that belongs to others and nature.
Learning: Multiple sources of information are used. Thinking proceeds from general to specific. Learning occurs by observing others as they model or demonstrate and then practicing. Groups are preferred, and accuracy is valued.”

“Low-Context Cultures
A low-context culture relies on explicit communication. In low-context communication, more of the information in a message is spelled out and defined. Cultures with western European roots, such as the United States and Australia, are generally considered to be low-context cultures.

Low-context cultures often display the following tendencies, according to Halverson.

Association: Relationships begin and end quickly. Productivity depends on procedures and paying attention to the goal. The identity of individuals is rooted in themselves and their accomplishments. Social structure is decentralized.
Interaction: Nonverbal elements are not significant. Verbal messages are explicit, and communication is seen as a way of exchanging information, ideas and opinions. Disagreement is depersonalized; the focus is on rational (not personal) solutions. An individual can be explicit about another person’s bothersome behavior.
Territoriality: Space is compartmentalized. Privacy is important, so people stand farther apart.
Temporality: Events and tasks are scheduled and to be done at particular times. Change is fast, and time is a commodity to be spent or saved. One’s time is one’s own.
Learning: One source of information is used. Thinking proceeds from specific to general. Learning occurs by following the explicit directions and explanations of others. Individual orientation is preferred, and speed is valued.”

This website focuses more on the different high and low context microcultures or situations within the same society- for example, America is a very low-context culture in general- we need explicit communication. But within families, we are very high context- we share so much background context that we don’t need explicit communication (this is probably true of other families in other cultures, at least I would assume it is).

This interested me:
“High contexts can be difficult to enter if you are an outsider (because you don’t carry the context information internally, and because you can’t instantly create close relationships).

Low contexts are relatively easy to enter if you are an outsider (because the environment contains much of the information you need to participate, and because can you form relationships fairly soon, and because the important thing is accomplishing a task rather than feeling your way into a relationship).

Remember that every culture and every situation has its high and low aspects. Often one situation will contain an inner high context core and an outer low context ring for those who are less involved.”
I’d like to see churches in particular work to become more low-context, make it easier and more comfortable for outsiders to know what they need, expected norms, to be able to form relationships quickly, less so the ‘important part being accomplishing a task.’
You can take a test to see where you fall on the spectrum here: http://www2.pacific.edu/sis/culture/pub/Context_Cultures_High_and_Lo.htm

For Further Reading

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16 Comments

  1. Cindy
    Posted March 10, 2018 at 7:39 am | Permalink

    Very helpful. Thank you! My sister lived in India for a couple of years. Some of the stories she brought back because of the difference in communication are hilarious. Wouldn’t really want to do it myself, though. High context sounds like a mini-hell to me. Good thing I’m a homebody so i don’t get much chance to offend these other folks.

    • Headmistress
      Posted March 10, 2018 at 7:54 am | Permalink

      It’s confusing to be sure. It’s so much that they are offended- most of the time. Their feelings are hurt. Our feelings are hurt when people we like are directly rude to us, too.

      One of the most interesting things in my reading on this one was that studies indicate the culture shapes the brain- neurologically, the brains of people in high context cultures and different than those in low context cultures.

      Amazing.

      • Cindy
        Posted March 10, 2018 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

        My sister is very adaptable to different cultures, doesn’t seem terribly at home in her own. I wonder what her brain looks like!

      • JoyH
        Posted March 12, 2018 at 10:43 am | Permalink

        “One of the most interesting things in my reading on this one was that studies indicate the culture shapes the brain- neurologically, the brains of people in high context cultures and different than those in low context cultures. ”

        Now, this is terribly interesting. I must read up on it. I am curious now if a person growing up in a low-context and moving to a high-context has brain changes, or visa versa. Maybe that is even one MORE reason why msy’s end up being odd-balls after a while. (As a long-term msy, I can say that.)

  2. Lisa Beth W.
    Posted March 10, 2018 at 9:06 am | Permalink

    I think that I would be extremely handicapped in a high context culture b/c I am of Dutch descent, living in North America. And boy, do we like our communication to be clear! Plus I grew up with no sisters! (I think females generally read context better than males.) I think I would tend to get frustrated with people taking offense and getting hurt where no offense is intended. Wow, what a lot of work it would be to try to adjust my brain to that. Such an interesting post, esp., as you commented, that your brain is shaped by your cultural way of communicating. And it really wouldn’t help you any to say you have an excuse…

  3. Posted March 10, 2018 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

    This is interesting. The South is generally a high context culture, although that’s changing as the population shifts to the cities. But that’s why when people move to a small town in the South they almost always feel like an outsider for a long time.

  4. DMartin
    Posted March 13, 2018 at 2:33 am | Permalink

    My brain is spinning— how can you have sola scriptura in a high-context culture?

    • Headmistress
      Posted March 18, 2018 at 3:49 am | Permalink

      That is an excellent question. I don’t know. Maybe that’s why the Philippines is such a Catholic country? Or maybe there’s something else we’re not thinking of? Maybe the high and low context is a generalization and there are specific areas that are different.

      I know that in Korean culture, which is more high context than American, a number of family relationships and work relationships can have a very specific contextual information- when you know the name for most family relationships, you not only know who somebody’s uncle is, you know if it’s on Mom or dad’s side, an inlaw, and where that uncle (or his wife, if it’s an uncle by marriage) falls in the birth order. However, if it’s a younger sibling or a niece or nephew, you don’t generally even know the gender unless somebody adds context for you.

      Directions here in the Philippines seem to have some added context or at least emphasis- you don’t just say buy this at G-mall. You say something like ‘buy this at G-mall over there at G-mall there (and the ‘there’ varies by what part of speech it is- direct object or subject pronoun, and by how far it is). On the other hand, so far, there’s only one preposition I’ve learned and it pretty much stands for any preposition for direction- you use the same two letter word whether you mean in, out, to, with, by, between, on, and half a dozen more. It’s just a vague reference to something like ‘in connection with or to’ and anything more specific they get from context and I don’t.

      At least, that’s how I understand it, and it’s important to remember I very likely don’t understand it at all.

      • D Martin
        Posted April 1, 2018 at 9:50 am | Permalink

        The more I think about it, the more questions I have.

        And so many of the low context cultures are bastions of protestantism, at least historically. I can’t help wondering if it’s a chicken/egg thing….. did the sola scriptura create the low context culture?

        Is it possible to look at histoical records and deduce which kind of culture the records came from?

        We recently read a few of the Icelandic sagas as a family, and what often amazed me, was how much was communicated with so little said…. perhaps there was more of a context that doesn’t come through in the text? (Or perhaps I am completely discombobulated here.)

        How does Proverbs 6:13 play into this? Or does it?

        Thank you so much for your posts, cultural and otherwise. I always come away with something to think about. I was fascinated with your TCK posts and did some follow up reading, only to find myself an expat wife with two kids five and under before the year was out. And now we look at a potential move from Europe to SE Asia. Providentially preparatory!

        • Headmistress
          Posted April 1, 2018 at 8:30 pm | Permalink

          This one is really hard to wrap our western heads around, isn’t it?

          I think Proverbs 6:13 is about intending to deliberately deceive and manipulate, and the intent generally is not deception, it’s saving face, protecting one another from embarrassment (and it gets more complicated when the things that are presumed to cause shame or embarrassment in one culture aren’t remotely awkward in another). When everybody in the high context culture shares the cultural understanding, everybody knows that “Oh, I can’t go out with you because I have already made plans that day” is a polite refusal, just as everybody in American culture knows that “Hi, how are you?” does not usually mean ‘please give me a detailed update on your mental, emotional, and physical health,” and “I’m fine” does not necessarily mean everything is fine. We know ‘where did you get your dress’ can be making conversation and doesn’t necessarily mean I want it or plan to buy it. “I’m dying to hear about your vacation,” isn’t literal, and it doesn’t even necessarily mean the person is truly more interested in that than any other topic of conversation. But we know all the cues and we know them so well that we think they are obvious.

          Even in western culture, there are generally approved methods of not answering questions that are not somebody else’s business, but we have very differing ideas about what is and what isn’t somebody’s business.

          But if you are outside the culture, the cues are not obvious, so it looks different.

          The PHilippines is a high context culture- and its very Catholic.

          I think high context cultures tend to historically be more homogeneous and have fewer outsiders routinely coming in and out and making themselves at home. I could be wrong, but that’ s just my impression. But it makes sense to me when we think about the fact that families are almost always places with a very high context and unique microcultures. Within the family we can say things or not say things through a word, a look, a joke, a movie or book quote, or microexpressions that our family members get, but that look incomprehensible to outsiders, because we have so much shared background knowledge that it works.

          And all that said, it’s likely that within each culture there cultural blind spots that make us more susceptible to one sin or another, and maybe deception is more acceptable in high context cultures than low- but I also suspect that it’s much easier to see and/or to label the sins of other cultures than our own. A Filipino friend confessed to me that he doesn’t understand why Americans don’t see that our pull yourself up by your boot-straps, stand on your own two feet, don’t impose on others, individualism is really just raw, naked pride. (those are’t his words, he couldn’t be that blunt about it). HE really was astounded at a couple examples that seemed to him to be just obvious, glaring examples of pride and that I had a hard time seeing it or admitting it, and still do, even though I think he’s actually right. One of the examples was that when my husband and I married and were struggling, i wouldn’t tell my parents the full extent of our poverty and never invited myself over to dinner at their house, and when we were on food stamps I would leave a grocery store if somebody at the cash register was somebody I knew from church because I was so ashamed.
          Him: Really? Wasn’t that just pride? Me: I guess you could be right, but I just didn’t see it that way. Him, staring, goggle eyed: How could you *NOT?* Me: Because I’m not Filipina?

          Your potential move sounds exciting!

  5. Cindy
    Posted March 30, 2018 at 9:35 am | Permalink

    You know what’s interesting to me, lo, these many days late for your post? It’s the fact that the author of the paper chose to use the terms “high context” and “low context”, rather than, respectively “low trust” and “high trust”. Make of it what you will, I certainly have some theories on that.

    • Headmistress
      Posted March 30, 2018 at 10:27 am | Permalink

      I don’t understand. It’s a difference in trust that America has street signs and house numbers everywhere, and high context cultures don’t? It’s trust that is the reason cultures that require loads of explicit communication tend to be more individualist and cultures where contextual understanding is vital and also largely assumed tend to be more relationship based and more indirect in communication styles? HElp me out here, I’m flailing.

  6. Shari
    Posted April 15, 2018 at 7:17 pm | Permalink

    You nailed it, and Kelly confirmed it! I am low context. My husband and his family are high context. We’ve lived in his small, southern hometown for 8 years and I still feel like a stranger.

    • Headmistress
      Posted April 16, 2018 at 4:43 am | Permalink

      Yep. The South is much more high context than the rest of the country. And Livermore says of all the categories of cultural difference, this one stands ou as being the most onesided. That is, adapting is equally difficult for all sides or places on the spectrum of the other cultural difference areas. But for this one, the low context culture people moving to high context struggle the most and longest. It is legitimately really, really much harder.

      • Posted April 16, 2018 at 8:32 am | Permalink

        That’s interesting. I wouldn’t have though that it would be hardest from that direction. It’s been very hard on me, being from the south and living in a region where most of my acquaintances aren’t southern. My interactions with them leave me feeling taken advantage of, and the only way I can keep from feeling like I’m being treated like a doormat is to resort to behavior that feels so very rude to me. And I hate being rude more than anything — when you’re a southerner, that’s practically the unforgivable sin, and I mean it really does feel like a horrible sin.

        I once heard an autistic man describe growing in a neuro-typical family as being surrounded by a tribe of telepathic monkeys. He needed every single thing to be stated explicitly and literally, and they seemed to have their own language that left him out completely. Maybe that’s something like the way it feels being a low context person in a high context culture? Bewildering? Baffling? Alien? Not human?

        • Headmistress
          Posted April 16, 2018 at 10:22 pm | Permalink

          Bewildering, baffling, like things are going on behind your back *all* the time, because they are. Everybody else knows the rules and you don’t and you can’t even see them. You know they are there, but they are invisible, and you know you’re blundering, but you can’t figure out how not to. Also, conversations often either make no sense, or they seem to be about one thing but there’s a subtext that you don’t get and can’t get. And then there’s knowing you will never, ever really be part of the group but will always be seen as an outsider. Also, knowing that I am being rude nearly all the time and in every interaction, but I have no way not to be rude because I don’t know the secret code and never will. When I’ve tried to explain this a handful of times to others, the high context people tell me not to worry about it, that they understand American ways and make allowances, which I know, and I do appreciate it- but I desperately wish I knew enough that people didn’t have to make allowances, and it also reinforces the reality that I am and will always be on the outside looking in.

          I understand what you’re saying when you say you feel like you’re being rude, and it feels sinful – but there’s really a difference- you feel that way because you are violating *your* cultural standards and that is always uncomfortable and awkward and hard. But I *know* I am violating somebody else’s cultural standards and I can’t learn the ways not to do that, because it’s like a secret language with secret signs and codes for the insiders only.

          I once had a conversation in a crowded, noisy church building with a young man who was telling me which of the members were his family. But… you *really* can’t point here, or call somebody’s name loudly, and especially not a younger person to an older person (and as true as all these things are in the South, multiply that by ten, at least) so keeping his hand down at his side he sort of made a slight waggling motion while saying ‘these people’ almost under his breath, and I didn’t push it because I could tell he was uncomfortable, but really? “these people’ when we were surrounded by 30 people, and his hand gesture was small and indiscriminate to me.

          People here point with their lips, which, if nobody tells you that, looks just like they are lightly pursing their lips while thinking, not like they are giving you imformation.

          OTOH, I have learned how to flag down cabs and tricicabs on occasion using only my eyebrows.

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