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The Basic Difference Between High-context and Low-context Cultures

Difference Between High-context and Low-context Cultures
Every country in the world possesses its own culture. Due to its unique nature, people from different parts of the world may experience cultural differences when communicating with each other. Examination of these differences with reference to indwelling interactions enables us to classify cultures as being high-context and low-context, and the difference between them is explained here.
Komal B. Patil
Last Updated: May 13, 2018
One of the most effective ways to learn about oneself is by taking seriously the cultures of others. It forces you to pay attention to those details of life which differentiate them from you.
― Edward T. Hall, American Anthropologist
Culture encompasses all sets of human activities and behavioral patterns that occur within a given society along with the symbolic structures that lend meaning and importance to these behavioral patterns and activities. It comprises social elements such as customs, laws, dress style, architecture, literature, social standards and morals, religious beliefs, traditions, code of conduct, etc. It influences the way people within a community view the world, experience it, and engage in it. It is a subconscious entity that exerts an invisible force or control over the people belonging to it. Consciousness of this force is achieved when one interacts with people of other cultures, whereas the differences in cultures allows one to appreciate the unique features of each different culture.

Each culture possesses its own set of components that dictate the limits of what is culturally acceptable. These components are involved in the transfer of information among individuals within that culture, and they lend context to the discourse and activities of the community. The context refers to the information, with regards to communication and cultural issues conveyed via action, behavior, or speech. Depending on the amount of information conveyed, cultures are classified as being high-context and low-context. However, this type of segregation is not rigid, but takes the form of a gradient since the contextual base of a culture is not a quantifiable but relative concept. For instance, A, B, C, and D are four distinct cultures, where the contextual level increases from A to D such that A is a low-context culture and D is a high-context culture. Here, one cannot claim B or C as being part of any one type since B is low-context with respect to C, but high-context with respect to A. Similarly, C also cannot be categorized distinctly, thereby showing that the difference between these cultures is relative.

These terms were presented by the American anthropologist, Edward T. Hall, in 1976, in his book titled "Beyond Culture". He put forth how various cultures function and interact with each other as well as within themselves. He differentiated between them depending on five types of interactions observed in a society.
High-context Culture Low-context Culture
Concept Most of the information is either in the physical context or initialized in the person. The mass of information is vested in the explicit code [message].
Association Relationships are stable, build up slowly, and are based on mutual trust.
Clear boundaries distinguish between people inside and outside a social group or circle.
Execution of a task depends on the relationships between the people and the attention paid to the group process.
Identity of the individual is established according to the groups he/she belongs to (family, culture, work, friends, etc.).
Specific hierarchy is seen in social structure and authority. The responsible person at the top looks out for the benefit of the group.
Relationships are short-lived.
Ambiguous boundaries allow many people to be in a certain social circle.
Tasks are carried out by following predetermined protocols and procedures, and attention is paid to the end goal.
Individual's identity is established by himself/herself and his/her achievements.
The social structure is not centralized, and the authority is distributed on various levels. Each level is in turn responsible for something.
Interaction Extensive use of gestural elements in carrying out a conversation (e.g., voice tone, facial expressions, eye movement, body language, etc.).
Information is conveyed implicitly, and is heavily dependent on context rather than actual words.
Communication is indirect, lengthy, and around the point.
Communication is considered as an art, and as a means to establish and nurture relationships.
Any disagreement or conflict is taken personally. A differing opinion is seen as being personally threatening, and hence conflict must either be avoided or resolved as soon as possible.
Conversation involves extensive use of verbal elements instead of nonverbal ones.
Information is conveyed explicitly in a precise and easy to understand form. It depends on the actual words rather than the context.
Communication is direct, succinct, and to the point.
Communication is regarded as a means to exchange information, ideas, and facts.
Disagreement is not taken personally, but is chalked up to a difference in opinion/outlook that does not affect the individuals personal relationship. Instead, both individuals focus on formulating a rational solution.
Territoriality There is no concept of personal space, instead it is viewed as a communal entity, where people stand close to each other and share the same area. Privacy is extremely important; hence, every individual has his own personal space which is rigidly defined. As a result, people are isolated from one another.
Temporality Time is perceived as a natural process that belongs to others and nature, not to individuals, i.e. no concept of personal time.
Any sort of change in the society is slow to occur as the societal practices are rooted in history and have a stable base.
No specific time schedule is observed, and activities are carried out when it is suitable, as long as the activity is completed.
Time is perceived as a commodity, and hence can be spent or saved. The concept of personal time exists.
Societal change can be rapidly induced, and any affected change yields immediate results.
Time is scheduled for various tasks such that a particular task gets done within a specific time frame in the most efficient way as possible.
Learning Deductive type of thinking.
Multiple sources or information are utilized in gaining knowledge.
Knowledge is gained from situation-specific cues.
Learning is achieved by initial observation followed by replication and practice.
Learning and problem solving are seen as group tasks.
Quality and accuracy of the gained knowledge is valued.
Inductive type of thinking.
Only singular source of information is utilized to develop knowledge.
Gained knowledge is subject to the individual's perception.
Learning is achieved by following directions and explanations of others.
Learning and problem solving are considered individual tasks.
Speed and efficiency of gaining knowledge is valued.
Examples Japanese
Time-space compression due to rapid technological advancement has brought people of different cultures together, personally and professionally. Hence, in order to overcome any misunderstanding that may arise due to the cultural differences of different people, the difference between these cultures should be clearly understood so as to ensure a smooth functioning of the global society.