High Context Culture Vs Low Context Culture Cultural Studies Essay

With the fast development of globalization, many countries across the globe have become highly related to each other in many fields majorly in culture. In this competitive world every body have many chances to communicate with others irrespective of different countries and cultures thus we can see intercultural communication frequently and in very common. Context and Cultures are the main components, which we can see often in these days. Many countries been divided into high-context cultures and low-context cultures (Hall cited in Singh, Zhao and Hu 2005:135). As Jandt (2004:61) mentioned, when different people from high-context cultures and low-context cultures meet, they will encounter with many problems since different cultures may affect understandings of communication in different ways. The main aim of this work is to compare the differences between high-context cultures with low-context cultures and to observe how different type of cultures react in different situations including language, time, personal space, and interpersonal relationships. It will also examine the problems occurring in the communication process between two cultures and try to provide recommendations and the ways of overcoming the difficulties.

What is Culture

To evaluate the influence of one’s culture on the behavior within a team, a look at the definition of culture is needed. Although there exist many definitions of this term in the literature, the probably best known is that from Hofstede which says that

 “Culture is the collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one human group from another Culture, in this sense, includes systems of values; and values are among the building blocks of culture.” (Hofstede in Mead, 1998, p. 4).

 Following this definition, someone’s culture can be seen as something that is individual to a particular group whose member’s behavior it influences in uniform and predictable ways (Mead, 1998). It is learned and passed on from one generation to the next and includes a certain system of values, norms and behaviors (Mead, 1998).

Definition of Context

Context can be defined as “The environment in which the communication takes places and which helps to define the communication” (Jandt 2004: 33). Dr. Edward Hall firstly put the theory of high-context and low-context cultures forward in 1976 (Jandt 2004:61). A culture can be either high context or low context, which is related to the way people communicating with each other. Jandt (2004: 61) defined high-context cultures, as a culture where the meaning of message lies in physical environment or its already shared by people thus people do not need to say or write it more. In low-context cultures, people have to say or write more because there is little shared meaning of message in communication. As Hall (1976 cited in Jandt 2004:61) stated in Beyond Culture, more information is needed in the transmitted message in low-context cultures in order to make up for what is missing in the context. The most typical countries of high-context cultures are Asian countries including China, Japan and Korea. The low-context cultures can be found in Switzerland, Germany, and North America including the United States (Jandt 2004:62).

Difference between the Context Cultures

There are several key differences between these two types of cultures, among which the way a message transmitted is the most obvious one. People from low-context cultures prefer direct way of oral communication and they always emphasize the efficiency of communication so people seem goal-orientated and tend to use short sentences and brief answers to convey their meanings obviously (Kennedy and Everest 1996: 54, Rinner 2005:14). For people from high-context cultures, this is not a good way of communication. They believe that people should consider various factors in the context such as feelings of their interlocutors by which they can establish harmonious and pleasant relationships (Kennedy and Everest 1996: 54). Their meanings and goals are often conveyed in an explicit way and sometimes reflected by some signals in the environment. In addition, high-context cultures lay great stress on adjustments of contents and ways during conversations and try to make languages be in accord with the context. Therefore, when two cultures meet, people may easily misunderstand each other. Low-context individuals may feel very confused with what their interlocutors said, and people from high-context cultures are likely to regard their conversational partners as impolite and rude, which may cease the conversation or even lead to breaking of relationships. Lastly, body language is more important in high-context cultures rather than that of low-context cultures (Mitchell 2000: 21). Since the same gesture may carry different meanings in different countries, the frequent use of body language of one culture could easily lead to misunderstanding or embarrassment for people from another culture.

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Problems involved in Context Cultures

The different contexts of culture not only affect ways of communication, but also have different impacts on people’s attitudes toward time and personal space, as well as their behaviors of interpersonal relationships.

People from high-context or low-context cultures hold different attitudes toward time. According to Komlodi and Carlin (2004), most people in high-context cultures neither have a standard of time nor take punctuality seriously. Sometimes they could change the original plan for different persons based on their different relationships. On the contrary, low-context cultures take punctuality extremely important. Delay of work is always considered lack of interest. Moreover, they see time as commodity, or more precisely, as money. Chinese employees in American companies usually have the same experience of being criticized or even fired due to their late for work for only five minutes. It is also common that a German teacher gets angry with his Japanese student for he or she failed to follow the original schedule despite the much better work he does.

In regard to personal space, people from different cultures have their own point of views. Hall (1966) believed the space speaks to people as loudly as words. People have invisible boundaries of their personal spaces that may vary with cultures. Low-context individuals may feel uncomfortable and violated when they talk with people from high-context cultures because the latter stand closer and touch a lot. In addition, high-context cultures require less respect for privacy (Lebauer 2000). It has been a common knowledge that asking questions about age or salary is offensive for western people whereas it is widely acceptable in most Asian countries.

As far as interpersonal relationships are concerned, high-context cultures are very different from low-context cultures in many aspects. Kim, Pan and Park (1998: 510) pointed out that people in high-context cultures usually have a strong sense of responsibility for their whole group or family. Take a company as an example. If employees make mistakes about their work, the manager or the top person in this department is thought to have to take part of blame for the mistakes. The case will be very different if it happens in low-context cultures. People in this culture place great emphasis on individuality and equality, and in consequence they may pass the buck to other persons (Kim, Pan and Park 1998: 510). This still remains a problematic issue in multinational companies or organizations which may cause a lot of troubles in management and internal relationships. The collective idea related to high-context cultures can be regarded as another different point. As a Chinese idiom said, unity is strength. Chinese people who represent high-context cultures believe that the power of group work is much stronger than that of individual work (FitzGerald 2003: 81). Lastly, high-context individuals behave well in daily life depending more on social restraints than legal restraints, thereby trusting the words of their friends and sometimes cooperating with usual practices rather than written documents (Kim, Pan and Park 1998: 510). Unlike high-context cultures, low-context cultures regard laws and contracts more reliable and effective than spoken words. Different attitudes of group work may make whole thing in a mess and it is possible that only a little controversy of the contract could ruin the whole business due to opposite ideas from different parties.

It is self-evident that the difference of cultural contexts may bring a lot of problems to people from different countries during the communication. Nowadays, the more frequent intercultural communications become, the more necessary solutions for preventing these problems are needed.


In general, the crucial way to solve the problems is that people should try to understand and respect cultures of their interlocutors as much as possible rather than make interlocutors accept their own cultures. First of all, people should be cautious about word use and avoid using slang and jargons. It is also necessary for them to not assume ideas about their interlocutors if they really do not know. In order to make sure the messages are not misunderstood, people should ask their interlocutors to retrospect what they said (Deeks 2004). Besides, too much body language should be avoided. Secondly, as an old adage said, do in Rome as the Roman do. People should respect local cultures and follow local customs when they enter a foreign country. In a company or a school, people should behave according to company rules or school regulations. Furthermore, Zielinski (2000) suggested that people had better reach a compromise if they cannot accept different customs or traditions. For example, Chinese people who often stand closer to their interlocutors could stand a little further while American people may accept a closer distance than their usual ways. Finally, the multinational education or cross-cultural training program plays an important role in companies and organizations, by which staff could learn more about different cultures and have better communications with foreigners, thus good business relationships are more likely to be built.


When Low-context cultures interact with high context cultures, there could be a number of problems in many aspects including language, attitudes toward time and personal space, and interpersonal relationships. These problems may not only cause misunderstanding and disappointment of both sides, but also may lead to failure of business, so effective solutions are necessarily needed. The essential way is to understand and respect different cultures. Language use needs to be paid much attention. Despite the cultural differences, people should follow local cultures or make a compromise if they cannot accept another culture. Multinational education cannot be neglected for its major role in companies and organizations. Since the globalization has been an inevitable trend in many fields today, intercultural communications will be increasingly frequent and common. It would be of great importance for people to master skills of intercultural communication. Many people have realized this importance, but they have not found effective ways to overcome the difficulties in communications. Therefore, for creating good cross-cultural communications, there is still a long way to go.

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