High-Low Context

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High and Low Context


Culture at Work

Communicating Across Cultures
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High and Low Context
Definitions of High and Low Context or Low Context Situation Main differences Entering a High

Other pages in this series: » What is "Culture"? » "Culture" Metaphors » 3 more metaphors » Create metaphors » Iceberg » High and Low Context » Culture "embodied"

The general terms "high context" and "low context" (popularized by Edward Hall) are used to describe broad-brush cultural differences between societies. High context refers to societies or groups where people have close connections over a long period of time. Many aspects of cultural behavior are not made explicit because most members know what to do and what to think from years of interaction with each other. Your family is probably an example of a high context environment. Low context refers to societies where people tend to have many connections but of shorter duration or for some specific reason. In these societies, cultural behavior and beliefs may need to be spelled out explicitly so that those coming into the cultural environment know how to behave.

High Context

Less verbally explicit communication, less written/formal information More internalized understandings of what is communicated Multiple cross-cutting ties and intersections with others Long term relationships Strong boundaries- who is accepted as belonging vs who is considered an "outsider" Knowledge is situational, relational. Decisions and activities focus around personal face-to-face relationships, often around a central person who has authority.

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Small religious congregations, a party with friends, family gatherings, expensive gourmet restaurants and neighborhood restaurants with a regular clientele, undergraduate on-campus friendships, regular pick-up games, hosting a friend in your home overnight.

Low Context

Rule oriented, people play by external rules More knowledge is codified, public, external, and accessible. Sequencing, separation--of time, of space, of activities, of relationships More interpersonal connections of shorter duration Knowledge is more often transferable Task-centered. Decisions and activities focus around what needs to be done, division of responsibilities. Examples:

large US airports, a chain supermarket, a cafeteria, a convenience store, sports where rules are clearly laid out, a motel. While these terms are sometimes useful in describing some aspects of a culture, one can never say a culture is "high" or "low" because societies all contain both modes. "High" and "low" are therefore less relevant as a description of a whole people, and more useful to describe and understand particular situations and environments.

Ways that High and Low Context Differ
1. The Structure of Relationships

Dense, intersecting networks and longterm relationships, strong boundaries, relationship more important than task Low:

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Loose, wide networks, shorter term, compartmentalized relationships, task more important than relationship

2. Main Type of Cultural Knowledge

More knowledge is below the waterline--implicit, patterns that are not fully conscious, hard to explain even if you are a member of that culture Low:

More knowledge is above the waterline--explicit, consciously organized

Entering High and Low Context Situations
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...
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