What is high context and low context communication?

The relationship between speaker and listener is an important aspect of high context communication. In order to use this method effectively, you must understand the cultural background of your partner or audience as well as their position in a specific culture. As soon as you know who is speaking or listening to you, it will be easier for you to recognize the hidden agenda behind the message. On the other hand, low context communication doesn’t depend on such things since its focus is more on what is being said than who speaks it.

There are different types of communication styles that can be seen across all cultures around the world. Some are more direct about what they mean, while others prefer to beat around the bush. Let’s have a look at these two contrasting styles:

High-context Communication – The Asian Style

A high-context style of communication is more common in Asia, but there are also some other regions that use this style like South America. This type of communication style depends heavily on non-verbal cues like facial expressions and body language while communicating something with someone else, rather than focusing solely on words.

High Context Communication

In a high context culture, the listener is expected to understand the meaning that lies behind the words. The speaker expects them to understand the context of what is being spoken. They expect the listener to be able to interpret non-verbal cues and intonation in order to fully understand their message. In a low context communication culture, more time is spent explaining what you mean and how you feel about it. You are expected to speak your mind and leave nothing unsaid.

Low Context Communication

Three important characteristics of low context communication include:

  • Direct communication. Conversations are explicit, words are used clearly and precisely to convey the message, and there is little room for misinterpretation.
  • Speakers switch roles. There is no strict order of speakers in the conversation; people address each other directly and do not wait for others to finish before they begin talking.
  • Informal atmosphere. The conversation is not formal; it happens between friends or people who know each other well.

The relationship between speaker and listener is a very important aspect in high context communication

High context communication is the opposite of low context communication. Low context communication is more common in the English speaking world, whereas high context communication is more common in Eastern cultures such as Japan and China.

In this article, we will give you examples of high and low context mediation. We’ll also look at how they’re different and what that means for your work in global business.

High or low context communication style

Knowing the differences between high and low context communication styles can help you understand how to be a more effective communicator.

High context cultures rely on background information, experience, and shared values to communicate effectively. These are often cultures that have existed in a specific area for a long period of time.

Low context cultures rely on the spoken word to communicate. In these types of cultures, people will say exactly what they mean rather than relying on symbols or nonverbal cues to get their point across.

Difference between high context and low context cultures

Communication between people from high-context cultures and those from low-context cultures can be a challenge. This is because, as the names suggest, some cultures use more words than others to convey the same message. In order to understand this concept better, let’s take a look at some of the differences in communication styles between these two types of cultures.

High-context communication is when a speaker conveys meaning through tone and context rather than words. It relies more on verbal cues like body language and facial expressions rather than just verbal ones. Low-context communication relies on explicitness with little or no reliance on nonverbal information for interpretation of what was said (Kataoka 2014).

In addition, since the advent of globalisation, businesses have realized more and more that the intercultural communication style of a particular region can dramatically affect their employees’ internal communication and, in turn, levels of harmony and cooperation.

There’s masses of research on the topic of intercultural communication but the model I prefer distinguishes so-called Low and High Context cultures (a term first used by one Edward Hall). At the risk of massive over-simplification, a High Context culture tends more towards the implicit, the non verbal, the unspoken whereas a Low Context culture tends towards the explicit, the spoken or written, the literal. One is not better than the other. They just distinct.
At the risk of still greater over-simplification, the image above gives an idea of the “distribution” of High and Low-context cultures across the globe.

High and Low-context cultures example

Well, for example, one region’s employees might communicate in a High Context manner with family at home (i.e. a manner that implies rather than states explicitly), but may well struggle to communicate online effectively with colleagues at work from Low Context cultures (i.e. more direct, more explicit and so on).
Increasingly global firms acknowledge, understand, accommodate and enjoy the varied benefits of both High and Low Context communication styles. An idea with wider application, I’d have thought. For instance, I can’t help but wonder whether the problems in the Eurozone have some connection with the semantic and cultural differences between the lower context North of Europe and the higher context Mediterranean. What do you think?

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