• Feb 24, 2016

Low- and High-Context Communication

by Jena Barchas-Lichtenstein, PhD Anthropology

One morning during my fieldwork in Mexico, the dog dragged my freshly washed dress off the line and into the mud. I swore at him under my breath, and a member of the family I was staying with heard me but said nothing.

Some hours later, I was strolling next to the patriarch of this family, Jacinto,* a religious elder in his 70s.

“In paradise,” he said, as if merely making conversation, “we will have a pure language that contains no curses, words that offend or hurt people, or even words about hurting people, because we will have no need for them.”

He did not mention my transgression directly.

*

If you’ve spent time abroad — or even if different regions of the U.S. — you know that cultures can differ in all kinds of ways. Every place has its family structures, its foods, its ideas about which jobs are valuable and what a house looks like. There’s a lot of value in describing the particulars of any given culture, but there are also good reasons to think about the differences between cultures using more widely applicable frameworks.

One of these is the spectrum from low-context to high-context communication. This spectrum has to do with the directness of communication.

Low-context communication is explicit, with little left to inference. The addressee is likely to understand all of the information even if they are unfamiliar with the cultural context. In high-context communication, on the other hand, a great deal of information is implied rather than explicit. An understanding of the cultural context is deeply necessary to understand the message. The warning I received from Jacinto is a perfect example: it made sense only in the context of both my earlier gaffe and the community’s religious beliefs.

In general, low-context communication is more common in individualistic societies, while high-context communication is more common in collectivist societies. (For a refresher on individualism and collectivism, see this earlier blog post.) Why? Because high-context communication is really only possible when people have close connections over a long period of time. Such connections are much more widespread in collectivist societies.

High- and low-context aren’t best used to describe entire countries, or even particular people. Instead, they describe situations and environments. For example, ritualized events like weddings or courtroom proceedings are relatively high-context. It’s difficult to understand them unless you’re familiar with their constraints on what is said and how. Have you ever seen a married couple have an entire conversation without speaking a word, through nothing more than glances and quirked eyebrows? That’s high-context communication.

Even so, all individuals have baseline expectations of how high- or low-context communication should be, and these expectations absolutely do connect to their cultural backgrounds. Japanese communication is generally very high-context, while U.S. communication is very low-context, and German communication may be even lower-context. When individuals with different expectations communicate, there are significant pitfalls that can arise.

Low-context communicators need to pay extra attention to nonverbal messages and gestures, to face-saving and tact, and to building good relationships over time. Meanwhile, high-context communicators need to remember that what they say may be taken at face value, that direct questions are intended to advance the conversation rather than to offend, and that indirect messages may be missed entirely.

*

During my field research, I often discovered that I had given offense only through indirect warnings like Jacinto’s. Asking for clarification never provided me with answers, nor did my earnest if vague apologies. On one occasion, my entire host family stopped speaking to me for three days, and I only found out my error from a gossipy neighbor.

Our communication gap had much to do with precisely this distinction. I am blunt even by the low-context standards of the U.S. and my hosts were indirect even by local high-context ones. I was frustrated by what I saw as a lack of clarity, and they were hurt by my blundering candor. If anything, my frankness always served to compound any initial disrespect.

I wish I could tell you about some meaningful moment of transition, or some magic secret for surmounting this gap. Instead, I can tell you only that progress was slow and frustrating. The better we knew each other, the more patience we had, and the more effort we were all willing to expend on making sure everyone was understood.

* This name is a pseudonym.