High and Low Context Cultures
Updated: Jul 9
I am contracted with Sage Publications to submit this entry for their upcoming Encyclopedia on Multicultural Counseling, Social Justice and Advocacy. Here is my entry (it hasn't been thru their editing process yet) : High-Context and Low-Context Cultures
Context in culture speaks largely to the idea of how culture is understood. Low-context culture depends more on verbal interactions and use of precise, logical, direct verbal statements. High context culture depends more on implicit messages such as gestures, facial expression, environmental cues and mood. For example, a high-context decision may be agreed to with a handshake whereas a low-context decision may be agreed to with a formal contract. This concept of cultural context is important to the field of counseling because it causes the counselor to look at larger cultural contexts so as to impact clients at the broadest level of understanding. Contextual cues include many items but for this article, time, space, relationships, power distance and tolerance of ambiguity is discussed.
This concept originated with anthropologist ET Hall in his book The Silent Language where he noticed cultures interact based upon whether the culture was high (context is decisive) or low (contracts are decisive). Originally, the concept was bifurcated into high and low but now has to be seen on more of a continuum. With the advent of the internet and multiculturalism, cultures are becoming more diffuse and this distinction is becoming less apparent making the continuum model more practical than the original bifurcation model.
The following three areas are examples showing anchor points positioning them on the continuum. It is not necessary to see the extremes noted in the original bifurcation model.
Time People within high-context culture view time as expanding and shrinking and dependent upon who is going to be attending an event and perceived expectations of the host of the event. Time is therefore seen as more flexible and past oriented. People in low-context culture see time as more of a commodity (for example, time is spent or wasted) and punctuality is expected. Time is seen as more rigid and future oriented.
Space People with a high-context culture see space as public, pursuing a harmonious, shared group space. Whereas people with a low-context culture are more territorial, private and the individual is to be more considered than the group.
Relationships People with a high-context culture tend see relationship as evolving throughout life. Saving face and honor are important as are family and tradition. Compromise, group goals, and feelings are taken into consideration. People with a low-context culture see relationships as transitory and utilitarian. Logic and winning/losing are emphasized. Personal goals take precedence over group goals
Organizational anthropologist Hofstede expanded this concept in his book, Culture’s Consequences and more recently in Cultures and Organizations, noting that there are national cultures which can, for the most part, fall along the continuum of high and low context cultures, varying by region of the country and/or the influx of immigrants in that nation. He related concepts such as power distance and the tolerance of ambiguity as being found on the high/low culture continuum.
Power Distance People who have high context cultures typically see a preference for consultation, interdependence and collaboration with those in authority. These are considered small power distance. People who have large power distance are more comfortable with a low context culture, prefer autocratic or paternalistic authority and are less likely to approach those in authority. Hence, in terms of power distance, those in high context cultures see experts as transferring impersonal and interpersonal truths. Counselors are treated as equals and suppliers of information. Those in low context cultures have a power distance where experts are to transfer personal wisdom. Low context individuals consult counselors as superiors, the consultations are shorter and controlled by the counselor.
Tolerance of Ambiguity Hosftede’s work demonstrates that people from high context cultures tend to tolerate ambiguity more than their low context counterparts. In high context culture, uncertainty is a normal part of life, living each day as it comes. Typically, aggression and emotions should not be shown and agreeableness is dominant. Differences bring curiosity and family life is relaxed rather than stressful. For those in low context cultures, uncertainty is continually threatening and must be fought against. Therefore, aggression and emotions have their place and familiar risks are accepted. However, unfamiliar risks are fearful and dangerous. Family life is stressful and anxious.
These concepts have some utility for the counseling profession. Drs Sue & Sue in their seminal work, Counseling the Culturally Diverse, are credited with introducing this high and low context paradigm into the field of counseling. The concept is useful in the counseling field in noticing how people seem to prefer to pick up their contextual clues. Some people pay more attention to what is said (and what is not said) in high context, whereas in low context what is said is not as important as to what is agreed upon in writing.
Other areas that could be helpful for counselors is noting that low context individuals prefer a medical, clinical approach in treatment, preferring set business hours, professional distance and would be uncomfortable if they saw their counselor outside the office shopping. Whereas, high context individuals prefer a relational model that is more psychoeducational and collaborative. A low context person would be attracted to a counselor that dresses professional, has polished advertising and lavish office furnishings. A high context person would seek out a counselor that dresses casually, seek out a counselor due to word of mouth rather than advertising and prefer simple office surroundings.
Though this concept is transtheoretical in regard to counseling theory, a counselor could consider what parts of their theory to emphasize or deemphasize. For example, Adlerian theory, which relies on early recollections, might be more compatible with someone from a high context culture as it deals with perceptions, feelings, extended family, etc. Cognitive behavioral theory (CBT), on the other hand, might be more compatible with someone from a low context culture as CBT is more logic based and individualistic. This is not to say that CBT cannot be used with people from a high context culture, but the counselor will want to be less directive than usual, be more collaborative and allow exploration of feelings, noting familial/generational thought patterns.
Dale V Wayman
See also: High-Context and Low-Context Cultures, Communication in; Cultural Competence; Power; Intercultural Relationships
FURTHER READINGS: Hall, E.T. (1959). The Silent Language. New York: Anchor Books
Hall, E.T. (1983). The Dance of Life. New York: Anchor Books
Hall, E.T. (1966). The Hidden Dimension. New York: Anchor Books
Hall, R.T, & Hall, M.R (1990). Understanding Cultural Differences. New York: Anchor Books Hofstede, G, Hofstede, G.J. & Minkov, M. (2010). Cultures and Organization: Software of the
Mind. New York: McGraw-Hill Richardson, M. (2001). The Experience of Culture. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications Ross, N. (2004). Culture and Cognition: Implications for Theory and Method. Thousand Oaks: CA. SAGE Publications Sue, D.W., Sue, D., Neville, H.A., Smith, L. (2019). Counseling the Culturally Different: Theory
and Practice (8th Edition). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley and Sons