Dale V Wayman, PhD
High-Context and Low-Context Cultures, Communication in
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, Communication in
The concept of high and low-context cultures has proven to be very beneficial, especially its utility in communication. 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. As this concept has expanded, it has been shown to be helpful to counselors and other advocates.
This idea of understanding cultures was initiated by ET Hall in his book The Silent Language, which bifurcated cultures into two extremes: high context and low context. However, as nations have become more multicultural, communication in high and low context cultures is better understood as falling along a continuum with high and low at the extremes.
High context cultures usually contain historical information in their communication that is readily understood by those individuals. For example, Mandarin, having developed over centuries, is implicitly nuanced through its pictorial and ideographic language. The visual use of characters, rather than an alphabet, in the Mandarin language contain elements of this historical culture. Those raised in Chinese culture would readily understand a fair amount of their culture just in the use of language, leading to an economy of communication. More is implicitly understood, making communication more efficient.
Low context culture is more dependent on exactness in communication. For example, English, a relatively newer language, is often slowed by definitions of terms and different cultural understanding in the speaker and the hearer. Terms often need to be agreed to before the communication can continue. With such exactness, communication can be difficult and less efficient.
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. They noted that if a counselor only pays attention to the explicit part of a message, there is likely to be misunderstanding and miscommunication.
Rao gives an example from the medical field that can be adapted to counselors. For a counselor to say that a client is non-compliant is actually biased towards a low-context culture, one that sees the counselor as an authority. If the client is from a high-context culture, the client may be polite so as not to hurt the counselor’s feelings but then not follow through, leaving the low context counselor to write non-compliant with treatment in the client’s chart.
Another example is a high context counselor may see the family as a client, wanting multi-generational input for a client’s issues. A low-context client might not be comfortable with having family involvement and not invite multi-generational input. Hence, the counselor may note non-compliance with treatment in the client’s chart.
In both of these instances, there is a mismatch between the counselor’s expectations and the client’s expectations. It is incumbent upon the counselor to try and understand elements of their client’s culture to understand what is going on rather than to simply consider a client is non- compliant.
Other communication dimensions are realized with the high/low context model. For example, in low context cultures it is important to get credit for one’s own ideas, especially when these ideas are original. Who you know is important. Whereas, high context cultures create silence, build on each other’s ideas, ask questions to make points, and ideas are modifiable. Titles are important.
In listening, specific words are important for low context cultures. In high context cultures, the timing of something said is considered just as relevant to the message. Also, pauses, what is said and what is not said, are all important. In high context cultures, there is a polite silence, whereas in low context cultures, restating is important to show one is listening.
High context cultures have efficient communication because the context of the communication carries a majority of the message. High context communication releases time, energy and talent for the main tasks so as to not get bogged down in trivialities. Group projects and team efforts are practical and effective, promoting a shared and coherent moral vision. At times, in high context cultures, systems and institutions are maintained at the expense of the individual. This can allow for immoral, destructive and incompetent behavior due to uncritical acceptance of the system. Serious change in established patterns of thought and behavior in multi-generational systems can be difficult.
Low context cultures promote individual opportunities as the communication allows for much creative energy and initiative. Since contextual history is not a cultural norm, change is easier to promote. This allows for flexibility, adaptability and originality. In low context cultures, communication is at the expense of the group. Energy can become depleted because low context cultures are constantly reinventing, defining and redefining. There can also be a resistance to a shared and coherent moral vision as power and authority depend upon the credibility of the individual. Communication in decision making can become paralyzed because every individual must be part of the process and wants their view heard, understood and considered.
Dale V Wayman
See also: High-Context and Low-Context cultures; Communication Styles
FURTHER READINGS: Hall, E.T. (1959). The Silent Language. New York: Anchor Books Hall, E.T. (1966). The Hidden Dimension. New York: Anchor Books Rao, N. (2006). “Half-Truths” in Argentina, Brazil, and India: An Intercultural Analysis of Physician-Patient Communication. In Intercultural Communication (A Reader) Edited by Larry A Samovar, Richard E Porter, and Edwin B McDaniel (11th Edition). Belmont: CA: Thompson Wadsworth 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: 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