Join Tatiana Kolovou for an in-depth discussion in this video Understand high and low context cultures, part of Developing Cross-Cultural Intelligence.
- Have you ever shared a tried-and-true joke or a funny phrase in front of a new audience who looked at you as if you were an alien? If your answer is yes, then you have experienced differences in cultural context. Anthropologist Edward Hall first discussed the concept of high and low-context culture in his book Beyond Culture. The theory that Hall described was simple. Intact, close-knit groups tend to not need many words to explain a complicated message because everyone in this in-group shares common references.
As with a close-knit group, this concept holds true with an entire culture that shares a rich past and history. In this case, a lot more is left unsaid and messages are implicit. If you've been to a family gathering or a school reunion, then you will have experienced being part of a high-context sub-culture. Stories, sayings, and even gestures are understood by everyone in the room, so a newcomer would be lost in that setting. The findings of Edward Hall's theory have been applied to national cultures which have been categorized by countries across the spectrum going from low to high-context.
Low-context cultures tend to focus on individual accomplishments. They follow the rules, they focus on fairness and equality, and use many words to communicate messages in mostly a forward, direct manner. On the other side of the spectrum, high-context cultures tend to be more team oriented, relationship based, flexible on how rules apply to individual circumstances, and finally, implicit and indirect when it comes to communication.
With all this being said, if context grows out of a shared past and common experience, a high-context in-group can exist in a low-context culture. For example, a multi-generational family in the United States. In contrast, a low-context, unfamiliar group can also arise in a high-context culture setting. For example, a new group of employees in an Indian company. The best way I can describe the differences in this spectrum is to tell you of all the things I noticed when I first came to the United States, a low-context culture, from Greece, a relatively high-context culture.
It started with the welcome mats. Now, if you notice, many mats on the doorstep of a house actually say the world welcome. I thought that was strange, isn't that implied? Restaurants had detailed and well-visualized menu items instead of the waiter telling you the specials or even inviting you back in the kitchen to see what's cooking. Predictability is expected in a low-context culture and something impossible to manage in a high-context culture where seasonal items change and every customer pretty much knows the staple dishes of a local restaurant.
I noticed restaurants, and even workplaces, with plaques on the wall celebrating employee award winners. Initially, I thought those were the owners of each location. How could it possibly be that one employee would be singled out for best performance? Collectivist, high-context cultures are much more team oriented. Finally, the one low-context culture example I noticed often were bumper stickers. The fact that people would post statements about their kids, their pets, their political affiliations, or social justice issues on the back of their car was completely foreign to me.
You would rarely, if ever, see that in a high-context culture. What you see more is likely that people are being careful on what fashion brands to parade on their clothes, accessories, and homes to show their trendy and chic style. In chapter two, we will dissect all the pieces of the high and low-context culture puzzle. For now, I want you to understand that the differences exist and depending on which part of the spectrum you come from, to consider adapting your style in order to fit in and be an effective communicator.
In my academic classes, I like to use commercials to bring some points home. They're quick peeks into pop culture and in many cases, they make the point quickly. Watch segments of two insurance commercials, both relating to coverage and benefits, but depending on their cultural context, they do it a little differently. Watch these videos and think about the culture that each commercial is intended for. Is it high or low and why? - Boy, I'm glad we got Aflac, huh? - Aflac.
- Neh, I've just go major medical. - Major medical. - But, helps pay the doctors. - Where's the doctors, boy? - Oh yeah, what about your family? (vinyl record scratching music) - We added Aflac so we get cash. It's like our safety net to help with the mortgage or whatever we need. (traditional Indian singing) ♫ Oh, Aja, Oh, Aja ♫ - (foreign language) - Aja, aja.
- (foreign language) - Chocolate. - So, what do you think? The first ad mentions the name of the company several times, literally shows the animal mascot handing money back to the insurance holder and clearly demonstrates the benefits of having coverage. If you thought this ad was meant to be shown in a low-context culture, you are correct. The second ad is also selling insurance. In the short segment, you see a private grandparent moment that the mischievous grandson takes advantage of in order to make some more pocket money.
The multi-generational family is evident. The secret information and it's negative effects are implied and the commercial goes on to involve the father of the family telling grandma that she doesn't have anything to worry about. Throughout the entire clip, the company name is only mentioned with a single tag line at the end of the commercial. Benefits, return on investment, and the company's credible coverage are also implied. Obviously, this ad is intended for a high-context culture.
So as we wrap up discussion on low and high-context culture, it's important not to conclude that one approach is better than the other, they're just different, and as foreign as it all seemed to me at first, I learned to adapt and flex in order to be effective. The concept of high and low-context culture is the most important aspect of you developing your cross-cultural intelligence.