1.4.6 - Context of Cultures: High and Low


Context of Cultures: High and Low


Here is another concept that will help you pull together a lot of the material you have read so far about culture. It is called "high context" and "low context" and was created by the same anthropologist who developed the concepts of polychronic and monochronic time. They complement each other and provide a broad framework for looking at culture.

The list below shows the kind of behavior that is generally found in high and low context cultures within five categories: how people relate to each other, how they communicate with each other, how they treat space, how they treat time, and how they learn. One thing to remember is that few cultures, and the people in them, are totally at one end of the spectrum or the other. They usually fall somewhere in between and may have a combination of high and low context characteristics.




  • Relationships depend on trust, build up slowly, are stable. One distinguishes between people inside and people outside one's circle.

  • How things get done depends on relationships with people and attention to group process.

  • One's identity is rooted in groups (family, culture, work).

  • Social structure and authority are centralized; responsibility is at the top. Person at top works for the good of the group.

  • Relationships begin and end quickly. Many people can be inside one's circle; circle's boundary is not clear.

  • Things get done by following procedures and paying attention to the goal.

  • One's identity is rooted in oneself and one's accomplishments.

  • Social structure is decentralized; responsibility goes further down (is not concentrated at the top).


  • High use of nonverbal elements; voice tone, facial expression, gestures, and eye movement carry significant parts of conversation.         

  • Verbal message is implicit; context (situation, people, nonverbal elements) is more important than words.                

  • Verbal message is indirect; one talks  around the point and embellishes it.                  

  • Communication is seen as an art form—a way of engaging someone.                             

  • Disagreement is personalized. One is sensitive to conflict expressed in  another's nonverbal communication. Conflict either must be solved before work can progress or must be avoided because it is personally threatening.


  • Low use of nonverbal elements. Message is carried more by words than by nonverbal means.

  • Verbal message is explicit. Context is less important than words.

  • Verbal message is direct; one spells things out exactly.

  • Communication is seen as a way of exchanging information, ideas, and opinions. 

  • Disagreement is depersonalized. One withdraws from conflict with another and gets on with the task. Focus is on rational solutions, not personal ones. One can be explicit about another's bothersome behavior.


  • Space is communal; people stand close to each other, share the same space. 


  • Space is compartmentalized and privately owned; privacy is important, so people are farther apart.


  • Everything has its own time. Time is not easily scheduled; needs of people may interfere with keeping to a set time. What is important is that activity gets done.

  • Change is slow. Things are rooted in the past, slow to change, and stable.                  

  • Time is a process; it belongs to others and to nature.    


  • Things are scheduled to be done at particular times, one thing at a time. What is important is that activity is done efficiently.

  • Change is fast. One can make change and see immediate results.

  • Time is a commodity to be spent or saved. One’s time is one’s own.


  • Knowledge is embedded in the situation; things are connected, synthesized, and global. Multiple sources of information are used. Thinking is deductive, proceeds from general to specific.       

  • Learning occurs by first observing others as they model or demonstrate and then practicing. 

  • Groups are preferred for learning and problem solving.

  • Accuracy is valued. How well something is learned is important.    


  • Reality is fragmented and compartmentalized. One source of information is used to develop knowledge. Thinking is inductive, proceeds from specific to general. Focus is on detail.

  • Learning occurs by following explicit directions and explanations of others.

  • An individual orientation is preferred for learning and problem solving.

  • Speed is valued. How efficiently something is learned is important.

The content here is based on the following works by anthropologist Edward T. Hall, all of which were published in New York by Doubleday: The Silent Language (1959), The Hidden Dimension (1969), Beyond Culture (1976), and The Dance of Life (1983). 

Source:  The 1993 Annual: Developing Human Resources. Pfeiffer & Company.




Tales from the... 



Learning from Cultural Encounters !!







To explore where you fit on the low and high context continuum, let's do the following activity... 



Claire B. Halverson

Instructions:  For each of the following twenty items, check 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5 to indicate your tendencies and preferences in a work situation.








 3   4 5

When communicating, I tend to use a lot of facial expressions, hand gestures, and body movements rather than relying mostly on words. 


I pay more attention to the context of a conversation—who said what and under what circumstances—than I do to the words.


When communicating, I tend to spell things out quickly and directly rather than talking around and adding to the point.


In an interpersonal disagreement, I tend to be more emotional than logical and rational.


I tend to have a small, close circle of friends rather than a large, but less close, circle of friends.


When working with others, I prefer to get the job done first and socialize afterward rather than socialize first and then tackle the job.

7. I would rather work in a group than by myself.

I believe rewards should be given for individual accomplishment rather than for group accomplishments.


I describe myself in terms of my accomplishments rather than in terms of my family and relationships.


I prefer sharing space with others to having my own private space. 


I would rather work for someone who maintains authority and functions for the good of the group than work for someone who allows a lot of autonomy and individual decision making.


I believe it is more important to be on time than to let other concerns take priority.


I prefer working on one thing at a time to working on a variety of things at once.


I generally set a time schedule and keep to it rather than leave things unscheduled and go with the flow.


I find it easier to work with someone who is fast and wants to see immediate results than to work with someone who is slow and wants to consider all the facts.   


In order to learn about something, I tend to consult many sources of information rather than to go to the one best authority.


In figuring out problems, I prefer focusing on the whole situation to focusing on specific parts or taking one step at a time.


When tackling a new task, I would rather figure it out on my own by experimentation than follow someone else's example or demonstration.


When making decisions, I consider my likes and dislikes, not just the facts.


I prefer having tasks and procedures explicitly defined to having a general idea of what has to be done.


Your High context score is:

Your Low context score is:   

The difference between your scores is :


Before you see the interpretation of your scores, read this...

Compare your High and Low Context Culture scores.

They can provide a pretty clear indication of how you prefer to interact in work and other social settings. All this means is that you are likely to feel more comfortable using one or the other contexts. 

Neither one is better or worse than the other. Preferring one style does not mean that you can’t interact effectively in many contexts, but just that you might have to make some adjustments if, for example, your style is predominantly high context and you find yourself functioning in a largely low context culture, or vice-versa. It also indicates that overseas adaptation might be easier if you were intending to live in a culture that generally reflected those cultural values. As useful as it is to know what your "natural" style is, it is even more important to understand how your preferred style might differ from others, and what that means when interacting with those who do not share that preference.

If you want to know more about the interpretation of your scores...click here.



  What Happened and Why ?  


Learning from Critical Incidents!! 



To illustrate how cultures fall along the context continuum, here is a chart that includes some cultures that have been studied.



Now  that you have learned how to think about cultures in general, we will look at a culture that you are very close to, US-American. Section 1.5 looks at those characteristics of US culture that will go with you but will not require a suitcase to carry.