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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  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.


      • 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.

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