The differences between a high vs low context culture

In his 1959 book The Silent Language, the anthropologist Edward Hall first introduced the concepts of high context and low context cultures, mapping these along a continuum.

Hall defined high context cultures as highly relational, ones which tend to place significance on collective wellbeing over individual achievement. Societies under this rubric emphasise strong interpersonal bonds and high commitment between members which in turn has an effect on communication style. High context cultures tend to prefer covert messages with more weight placed on implication and they aren’t as direct with what is communicated or verbalised. In addition, reactions to strong emotions in interpersonal communicative dynamics tend not to be brought to the surface as often. Examples of high context cultures are Japan, Saudi Arabia and the countries of South America.

Low context cultures on the otherhand are less relational. These cultures are ones which have an inclination towards direct methods of communication and verbalisation. These societies aren’t as committed to wider group needs at the expense of individuals and therefore interpersonal bonds can vary in strength. Reactions in conversations are more likely to be brought to the surface. Examples of low context cultures are Switzerland (particularly the Swiss German regions), Germany, Northern European nations and Anglophonic countries.

Communication style and perception of context in interactions form the base differences between a high vs low context culture.

High Vs Low Context Culture Continuum

A consensus mapping of nations and regional groupings along a continuum. The more high context a culture is, the more it prefers implicit messages and dislikes explicitness. The more low context a culture is, the more it prefers conveying feelings with direct expressions and dislikes ambiguity.

Low context cultures tend to communicate using direct language that is simple and straight to the point. This is to remove ambiguity in the message (especially if considering that English, the lingua franca of the world, isn’t spoken well by everyone). It’s also so that the interlocutor is more likely to understand the message quicker and save time to be efficient.

High context cultures tend to communicate more indirectly or at least refrain from being as blunt about a matter as those in low context cultures. Their language and messaging style can be circumlocutory and focus on maintaining a relationship rather than trying to force an action or circumstance. Those in such cultures favour allowing interlocutors to save face and can embellish messages as the delivery and tone of the message style is taken more into consideration, not only its content.

To demonstrate how context culture affects communication in real world scenarios, take the following differences in debt collection persuading approaches used between a high vs low context culture.

In the low context culture of Texas, debt collectors contact a person directly with a clear message stating that they must take an action (pay back the debt) or face consequences. If these initial warnings are ignored, collectors reiterate their message with stronger (but no less overt) wording and as a last resort, confront the debtor in person via bailiffs and a warrant. Zero ambiguity, forthright and blunt.

In the more high context culture of Saudi Arabia however, messages are initially sent, but if there’s still no progress on the collector’s part, companies may employ a female to call the person, something which is seen as humiliating to be on the end of in Saudi Arabian culture. As a last resort, the company may send round a person to the debtor’s house and have them lie down outside the front door until the person pays the debt. This is because in Saudi Arabia, it’s very taboo to step over somebody meaning the debtor is effectively imprisoned in their house through this technique until action is taken.

Why is there a high vs low context culture continuum?

Some of you may be wondering why there are even differences in communication between cultures in the first place. What determines a nationality’s attitude towards the way they exchange messages and the importance they place on context when communicating?

There are numerous cultural metrics shown to correlate with where a nationality falls on the context continuum.

First off is the degree of diversity in a country.

The more homogenised a language group, subculture or regional community remains over time, the more likely it will be a high context culture. People in homogenised groups share more of a common background and knowledge with each other and don’t need to be as explicit in the way they communicate compared to more heterogenous groups. This fosters the development of ‘restricted codes’ where those in homogenised groups can read between the lines with others in the same group without needing further elaboration. For instance, Japan’s in-group/out-group mentality is embedded in the country’s society with a multitude of restricted codes that don’t apply to non-Japanese but also codes within stratifications of Japanese society itself.

In contrast, people in more diverse groups don’t tend to share common knowledge nor backgrounds with each other compelling the individuals to be more explicit in what they say and mean. Such cultures have more ‘elaborated codes’ where the nature of communication ensures messages are spelled out for the recipients. The USA has always had to operate as a highly diverse nation since its founding in 1776 and with the myriad of races and ethnicities that have comprised its population since then, it’s no surprise that it has become a low context culture.

Tied to the above is the cultural metric of social organisation, specifically whether a culture is collectivist or individualistic. Collectivist cultures place high importance on group and community ties. In such societies, each person leans more towards maximising the interest of groups they belong to rather than their own personal interests as group harmony is championed over individual gain.

Individualistic cultures in contrast are more likely to prioritise the intrinsic worth of each person. In such societal constructs, allegiance to group interests for the sake of harmony is of lesser importance and the right to pursue individual freedoms and goals is more recognised.

It’s not hard to see which societal organisation corresponds to which context culture on the whole. Collectivist societies tend to be high context cultures as a communication style which facilitates group harmony and saving face fits the collectivist ethos. Individualistic societies are usually low context cultures since with a reduced need to worry about one’s standing in a group dynamic, one can be more direct in communication.

Another metric that has an influence is the enduringness of tradition. Cultures that have long standing traditions that are everlasting or at least resistant to rapid change tend to be high context as stable cultural aspects better allow for internalised messages and extensive non-verbal codes to develop. Cultures that change at faster rates are more likely to be low context as the in-group/out-group mentality is more flexible and messages need to be more overt than implicit.

High Vs Low Context Culture Tradition

Perception of time between a high vs low context culture

One of the other distinctions between a high vs low context culture is in how each perceives time.

Many high context cultures tend to have a polychronic (open) conception of time. Time is viewed as more fluid with people having the ability to do many things at once. As these societies are more relationship-oriented than task-oriented, they place less weight on precise accounting of time and punctuality if something they’re currently doing can take precedence. High context cultures tend to be less governed by calendars, schedules or deadlines as time can expand or contract as need be.

In contrast, most low context cultures lean towards a monochronic (closed) conception of time. In this purview, time is seen more as a fixed and regimented construct, a sequence within which only one thing should be done at a given moment. Monochronic cultures are correspondingly more task-oriented than relationship-oriented and it’s not uncommon for motifs such as “Time is money” or “Time is of the essence” to be widespread beliefs among their populations. As such, punctuality carries more gravitas in such cultures and being late is considered wasteful and unproductive.

Of course as with any aspect of human dynamics, there are exceptions and we must be careful not to believe that everything fits into a strict dichotomy.

Japan might be one of the most paradigmatic examples of a high context culture yet its people place high importance on punctuality and utmost respect for other people’s time. The country didn’t gain its prestigious reputation for having one of the best train operations in the world by having a fluid concept of time. It’s not uncommon for train guards to apologise profusely (with bowing) to customers when a train is a mere two or three minutes late (a standard I miss when I come to my home country the UK).

In a similar vein, it’s not hard to find natives of low context cultures who aren’t exactly fastidious with their time and punctuality—sometimes the apples fall far from the tree.

High Vs Low Context Culture Time

Applying high vs low context culture knowledge in the real world

It’s all well and good knowing the distinction between a high vs low context culture and where certain countries fall on the continuum but how do we use this knowledge?

Knowing where particular nationalities tend to fall on the context continuum means we can calibrate our communication style accordingly.

If you’re a straight talking Dutch person in a meeting with South Korean colleagues, you’ll probably get more out of it if you take care not to be too abrasive or blunt in your manner of speech with them. Sure, the short-term goals of the meeting might be achieved even if you were to speak to them as directly as you would with someone from your own nationality. But in calibrating this way, you’ll endear yourself further which is more beneficial for your long-term working relationship with them.

In contrast, if you’re African and doing business with Germans, it’s better that you get to the point right away in meetings rather than spend time at the start making small talk or having a chinwag. In many high context cultures, currying favour at the start of a business meeting is seen as important relationship building but in low context cultures this can come across as dilatory and aimless.

Or take a personal example. If you’re British and looking to ingratiate yourself with French colleagues (especially if you’re learning their language), it’ll pay to hang out with them during lunch breaks over a table than to default to the very British convention of eating a sandwich at your desk as you continue to work.1 According to one French friend I have, French people place a lot of value on the social relationship with colleagues and will spend time cultivating that even if it means finishing work later than expected.

Then there’s accounting for perceptions of time. If you’re from a monochronic culture and planning to meet someone from a more polychronic culture, factor in that they might not arrive on time and adjust so you aren’t hindered by a late arrival.2 I have a certain Arab friend who I deliberately meet in a cafe or restaurant as he is often very late and this way I can start consuming a drink (which we’re going to do anyway) instead of standing outdoors.

On the other side of the spectrum, if you’re from a polychronic culture and meeting someone from a more monochronic culture, do your best to show up on time, meet deadlines etc. Don’t assume that since people from your own nationality are more flexible in expectations of time, other nationalities will be. Respecting time = more respect.

Note that there’s a big difference between fine-tuning your communication style to another culture and pretending to be something you’re not. Whenever we meet someone from another nationality, we never completely assume they’ll act in line with our own.

We always give what I term a ‘cultural leeway’ – degrees of acceptance of cultural differences between individuals. A Brazilian will never expect a Swede to behave in the same way as them so you don’t need to sycophantically try. Adjusting to other cultures isn’t about putting on a fake persona, it’s about continuing to be authentic but holding an empathetic awareness of the other person’s disposition so that you calibrate and reach a level of fine-tuning in your communication with each other. The other person will feel that interacting with you is smooth and you’ll get more out of your communication with them in the long run.

High Vs Low Context Culture Meeting


It’s evident that different cultures have different communication styles and these differences can be mapped onto a high vs low context culture continuum.

High context cultures tend to be homogenous, collectivist and have stable traditions. These cultures place huge value on relationships and harmony between members of their societies which leads to a more implicit and less direct form of communication. Such cultures may even have restricted codes where people read between the lines instead of bringing understanding to the surface.

Low context cultures tend to be more diverse, individualistic and with less stable traditions but a faster rate of change. They worry less about societal harmony at the expense of individual rights and self-expression which leads to a more direct and explicit communication style. These cultures can have elaborated codes to avoid ambiguity in messages between people.

There are also differences in perceptions of time between a high vs low context culture. High context cultures are typically polychronic—they treat time more as an open and flexible construct and don’t place as much emphasis on punctuality or scheduling as a result. On the flip side, low context cultures are predominantly monochronic—time is perceived as more fixed and rigid so scheduling and being punctual are cherished values in such societies.

When we know the differences between a high vs low context culture, we can operate with communicative calibration. We know where we tend to fall on the continuum, where our interlocutor falls and adjust to allow for the smoothest possible communication between us without becoming inauthentic.

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1 I’m ashamed to admit it but this was me several years ago. Instead of taking (many) opportunities to practice and chat in French with those colleagues over lunch, I usually remained glued to my desk, sandwich in hand. Luckily I improved my French over the months via other means but I’d stupidly delayed my progress in the language out of shyness.

2 Hopefully this goes without saying somewhat but I don’t recommend employing this technique with every polychronic person. You wouldn’t want to deliberately show up late to a meeting with businessmen from a gulf state who might invest handsomely in your business simply because they’re from a high context culture. Use common sense.