A high-context culture is a culture in which people rely heavily on nonverbal and implicit communication.
In anthropology, high-context and low-context cultures are the ends of a continuum portraying the level of explicit information and the importance of context in a given culture. They indicate the range of communication tools (verbal messages, gestures, etc.) that people in a culture generally use.
Examples of countries with high context cultures include China, Thailand, Japan, Korea, Brasil, Spain, Argentina, and Saudi Arabia.
However, a country is never high-context or low-context in absolute terms. Instead, every culture uses a mix of explicit & implicit communication to different degrees, and there are also exceptions within cultures.
High Context Culture Definition
Edward T. Hall, the anthropologist who introduced these concepts, defined high-context culture as one in which:
“much of the information is either in the physical context or internalized in the person, while very little is in the coded, explicit, transmitted part of the message” (1976)
In other words, high-context cultures often do not explicitly state their message in words; instead much of their information is embedded in the context. This context includes the shared history, the relationships, and the cultural norms/values shared by the individuals communicating.
High-context cultures prioritize the group over the individual, and they value collectivism (Hofstede, 1984). Since individual communication is ultimately founded upon the shared values of the group, it is understandable why the sense of community is emphasized.
This is also why it is harder for an outsider to enter into a high-context culture than a low-context culture. One needs to be familiar with the cultural norms and values of the community so that they don’t miss out on the important information shared in the context.
Finally, high-context cultures can seem relatively less formal than low-context cultures because of the implicit nature of their communication. Moreover, communication is not always guided by rational or task-oriented decision-making but is often shaped by emotions, traditions, etc.
High Context vs Low Context Culture
In anthropology, high context and low context are concepts to describe the level of explicit information and the importance of context in a culture’s communication.
High-context cultures, as we discussed above, rely heavily on nonverbal and implicit communication. On the other hand, low-context cultures depend on verbal communication and explicit statements.
The meaning of their communication is much more straightforward and less dependent on the context (shared history, cultural norms, etc.). This is why it is easier for outsiders to enter into a low-context culture; it doesn’t necessitate an in-depth understanding of cultural norms & values.
Unlike high-context cultures, low-context cultures prioritize the individual over the group and champion values like individualism (see also: individualism versus collectivism). This is again in line with the nature of their communication: meaning is not grounded upon group values, so individuals can communicate independently.
Finally, because there is no shared group history or values, communication has to be very explicit & precise in low context cultures, which helps reduce uncertainty. This is also why they often use written agreements (Gudykunst & Ting-Toomey, 1988), which can make it seem slightly more formal. Moreover, the rational & task-oriented outlook of these cultures further adds to the formality.
The terms “high-context” and “low-context” usually refer to nations or language groups. But we can also use them to talk about smaller groups or settings, such as corporate cultures, international airports, etc.
Summary of Differences
|High Context Culture||Low Context Culture|
|Nonverbal & implicit communication||Explicit statements|
|Nuanced and often indirect communication||Straightforward communication, direct tone|
|Group over individual||Individual over group|
|Relatively informal, less task-oriented||Slightly formal, more task-oriented|
10 High Context Culture Examples
- Implicit Communication: In high-context cultures, meaning is often conveyed through nonverbal cues and the given context, instead of being explicitly stated in words. So, people rely heavily on shared history, relationships, and cultural norms to communicate. Nonverbal cues like body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions also play a significant role.
- Indirect tone: High-context cultures are not just implicit in their messages but also indirect in their tone. They can convey meaning through subtle hints and are a lot less straightforward, requiring members to have in-depth cultural knowledge. Low-context cultures, on the other hand, are always precise and direct in their communication.
- Socially oriented: In high-context cultures, communication is primarily directed toward building and strengthening relationships. More than efficiency, it is the harmony of the group that matters. This is in contrast to low-context cultures, where communication is more task-oriented and aimed toward effectively achieving goals.
- Collectivism: The group is more important than the individual in high-context cultures, and they value collectivism. Members are expected to be familiar with the shared history and values of the group since communication is founded upon that context. These cultures tend to be more interdependent and offer higher social support.
- Use of gestures: In high-context cultures, gestures play a significant role in communication. They can convey emotions, express agreement/disagreement, and make requests. One must be aware of the meanings of these gestures, which can change depending on the context. Low-context cultures rely less on gestures.
- Valued-based decision-making: High-context cultures take into account emotions, traditions, and cultural norms in their decision-making. The consensus and needs of the group are considered in the decisions and actions. This is in contrast to low-context cultures where logic and critical thinking trump other considerations.
- Fluid communication: In high-context cultures, communication is flexible and fluid. This means that it does not follow a strictly linear path or structure. This is in contrast to low-context cultures, where members are expected to present their ideas in a clear, structured manner, often supporting their arguments with evidence.
- Avoiding disagreement: People in high-context cultures usually tend to avoid expressing their disagreement openly. Because there is a great emphasis on maintaining group harmony, conflicts are avoided and opposition is usually expressed indirectly. In contrast, low-context cultures value directness, even in disagreement.
- Stable foundation: High-context cultures are founded upon shared history & cultural norms, so they are much more stable. The shared values allow people to relate to a common thread, providing stability to the group. Low-context cultures have less stability, but at the same time, this helps them quickly adapt to changes.
- Restricted codes: People in high-context cultures use restricted codes because the members are familiar with the shared values of the group (Bernstein, 1971). As such, they don’t need to spell out everything and can rely on the context to supplement their restricted codes. In contrast, low-context cultures use elaborate codes.
Case Study Examples
1. Corporate Cultures
In high-context cultures, people are more socially oriented and less confrontational in the corporate world.
Kim Dunghoon conducted a study to test differences in cultures by gathering data from three countries: the United States, China, and Korea. It involved various aspects such as confrontation, responsibility, dealing with new situations, etc.
The results showed that people in high-context cultures like China and Korea are “more socially oriented, less confrontational, and more complacent with existing ways of living” (1998) than those in low-context cultures, like the United States.
Similarly, in Japan, managers rely heavily on nonverbal cues in meetings, such as nodding or eye contact to convey different meanings.
High-context cultures prioritize collectivism and emphasize the values of the community in every field, including businesses.
High-context cultures place great value on their shared history, relationships, and cultural norms, which lay the foundation of their communication. The group—whether family, work team, or community—is more important than the individual.
This influences one’s entire outlook. There is a strong loyalty to one’s group, a willingness to make sacrifices, and an expectation that the members will support each other. They prioritize group harmony and maintaining relationships.
The collectivism of high-context cultures seeps even into the business world. For example, in India and Japan, business is done by building relationships and communicating respectfully (Lewis, 2006).
This is quite in contrast to low-context cultures, like the United States and Australia, where transparency and competition are valued in the business world.
3. Importance of cultural values
High-context cultures give great importance to their shared history and beliefs, including religion.
For example, Saudi Arabia is a Muslim-majority country, and Islam plays a central role in shaping the country’s society & culture. In workplaces, religious customs (observance of daily prayers) are followed, and they highly value Islamic values like integrity & fairness.
Religion also influences power dynamics. For example, in some countries, religious leaders and scholars are consulted while taking major business decisions. So, high-context cultures also consider factors other than reason (traditions, beliefs) in their decision-making.
High-context culture refers to a culture that relies heavily on implicit communication.
Instead of depending only on explicit statements, people in these cultures use non-verbal cues (facial expressions, tone of voice, etc.) and the given context (comprising shared history, relationships, and cultural norms) to convey their meanings.
Such cultures emphasize values like collectivism, and maintaining group harmony often trumps individual concerns. Examples of high-context cultures include Asian, African, Latin American, and some European countries.
Gudykunst, W. B., & Ting-Toomey, S. (1988). Culture and Interpersonal Communication. Sage Publications.
Hall, E. T. (1976). Beyond Culture. Anchor Press/Doubleday.
Hofstede, G. (1984). Culture’s Consequences: International Differences in Work-Related Values. Sage Publications.
Kim, Donghoon (1998). “High- Versus Low-Context Culture: A Comparison of Chinese, Korean, and American Cultures”. Psychology & Marketing.
Lewis, Richard D. (2006). When cultures collide: leading across cultures: a major new edition of the global guide. Nicholas Brealey International.