Close

What are the differences between high context and low context cultures?

Published on September 19th, 2022

How people communicate with one another differs greatly across cultures. Clear communication and understanding are key to a successful business, so it is even more important to understand these differences in order to overcome and manage them in the workplace.  

Anthropologist Edward T. Hall developed a very useful framework for understanding different communication styles, creating a distinction between High and Low context cultures. Since its introduction, the concept has served as a basis for assessment and management tools to this day and is at the heart of the Implicit vs Explicit dimension in the WorldPrism model of culture. You can read in more detail here on how the concept was incorporated into the practical model.

Differences between high context and low context cultures

Every culture has a dominant communication style shaped by specific values, social norms, and standards. The high and low context cultures in this concept refers to how important contextual cues are in interpreting a message. High context cultures have a communication style based on body language, tone, and overall context; while low context cultures are more straightforward and explicit in communication. 

For low context cultures, the exact meaning of words is important, in comparison to high context cultures which put the focus not just on what people say, but when, where, and how they say it, and even what they do not say at all. A lot of meaning is implicit, while the social setting and personal impressions play an important role in building trust and understanding. To put it simply, people from high context cultures tend to leave some things unsaid, while people from low context cultures are quite direct and mean what they say as they said it.  

People from different cultural backgrounds and communication styles working on the same project face potential misunderstandings and even conflicts. To someone from a high context culture, low context communicators can seem impersonal, distant or untrustworthy. Vice versa, high context communicators could be seen as intrusive or even impolite. These differences are a risk to collaboration, creativity and efficiency of the team, which is why recognizing and adapting social settings and communication styles is necessary. 

High context and low context cultures in business communication

Communication styles determine how we make and manage agreements, negotiations, and decisions, which is crucial for any business. Understanding different cultural characteristics and preferences can help team leaders adjust and plan their approach to different groups.  

People and teams working in low context cultures take the words spoken literally and prefer having comprehensive information to prepare for a meeting or task. In this sense, there is an expectation for precise agendas, info packages, and meeting reports. On the other hand, high context cultures don’t prefer formalized information and would find the previous approach too technical or unnecessary. They prefer face-to-face meetings over documents, as they find relationship-building and close contact necessary for establishing mutual understanding.  

Means of communication can be adapted based on these differences – in high context cultures, people understand messages more through testimonials or personal stories, best practices, and real-life examples. On the contrary, low context countries focus on comprehensive information and data in brochures, presentations, briefs, etc. 

Both styles have their good and bad sides when it comes to doing business. Low context can mean more precision, planning, and detail, while high context is good for establishing more personal and solid bonds between business partners. A clash of these two sides can end with a lot of misunderstandings and unfinished business. But, if teams are aware of cultural impacts and work to gain an understanding of each other’s perspectives, they can learn from one another and accomplish good results – and even more than that, they will benefit from diverse approaches and perspectives to problem-solving.  

Examples

So, what does all this mean in real life? We can explain the differences in a classic working situation – meeting project deadlines.  

Sam, an American, is a manager of a big international company based in the U.S. A new project is underway that involves several teams across different countries. On the other side, Maria is leading a local organization in Spain and has just shared the news about an exciting new project with her colleagues. During the kick-off meeting the conversation went along these lines:  

John: “…This new project is quite important and complex, and our first deadline is in a month.” 

Maria: “Great! We are very excited about this initiative. Let’s hope we will fit all planned activities in the upcoming period with ongoing jobs.” 

John: “We are here to support you with any materials and information along the way. Also, we can always schedule an online call if needed before the visit.” 

Maria: “We are really looking forward to hosting you here in Spain!” 

John: “Great, we will keep in touch. Good luck with the work!” 

In the following period, Maria didn’t reach out for any assistance and John had the impression everything was on track. After a month the partners met in Spain to discuss progress and upcoming plans.  

calendar of events blog image

Sam was greeted with a warm welcome – coffee, snacks, a tour around the office and a lot of small talk. As time went by, it didn’t seem like they would move to a meeting room anytime soon. At some point, the conversation steered towards work related topics. At this moment, Sam realized that the team was only halfway through planned activities and that the deadline was missed. Spanish partners kept on going about their actions so far and plans for the future as if the deadline was not a problem at all. Sam got a bit nervous and had to interrupt the discussion:  

Sam: ,,It seems like you did not manage to meet the agreed deadline. You could have contacted us for support earlier if necessary, or simply let us know in order to rearrange.”  

Awkward silence emerged and the atmosphere changed from enthusiastic to worrisome. Maria and her colleagues were confused. She decided to break the awkward silence:  

Maria: ,,Apologies, but we were not really aware of this issue and I thought I made it clear that we were uncertain if the initial deadline could be met. I am sorry for any inconveniences this may have caused you, or any of my colleagues…” 

In this example, the local partners appear to be high context, while the manager is a low context communicator. They did not interpret the initial conversation in the same way. For Spanish colleagues, it is a common thing to be flexible with deadlines and for Maria, pointing out other obligations was a clear sign they might not be able to make the deadline. It did not occur to her to send official notifications, as she expected the in-person meeting would be the time and place to go over all details.  

Sam, on the other hand, did not get the message. From that perspective, it was unbelievable that local partners did not ask for a deadline extension or notify them directly about the delay. 

Misunderstandings such as this occur regularly in multicultural teams. This is why it is important to know distinctive styles and preferences and adapt means and channels of communication accordingly. We can avoid potential problems by discovering how team members’ communication styles differ from one another in order to know in advance where potential conflicts exist. The WorldPrism tool makes this possible and easier – it is a profiling tool, where you can create your profile and compare it to other colleagues’ or country profiles. 


We’ve got over three decades of experience supporting over 1 million people worldwide. We’re passionate about delivering change; how can we help you?