Communicating: Low vs. High Context

Communicating across cultures and languages brings with it a number of challenges, both in what is said and what is not said. While English is commonly used as a lingua franca—a “bridge” language for people who speak different native languages—that doesn’t mean we always understand each other. As more and more variations of English are being used and accepted in communication, we can often find ourselves feeling  “lost in translation.” In addition, differences in the way we express ourselves can lead to major misunderstandings. When describing these differences in communication style, Erin Meyer uses the terms low and high context, which were originally established by Edward T. Hall. You may also hear terms like “direct vs. indirect” or “explicit vs. implicit” used when describing similar dimensions of intercultural communication. 

In a low-context society, communication is meant to be clear, to the point, and transparent. Low-context communicators say precisely what they mean. Words carry meaning and the speaker assumes others have a low shared understanding of the context of the conversation. That means the speaker is obligated to explain very explicitly and clearly what they mean. Low-context communication is often identified as a direct communication style. Meaning lies predominantly in what is said, and written and spoken communication often have the same value in carrying meaning.

In a high-context society, speakers and listeners assume that there is a great deal of shared context and mutual, unspoken understanding. Communication is layered, nuanced, and implicit. The speaker doesn’t have to say exactly what they mean because gestures, tone of voice, facial expressions, and even status and environment add meaning to the message. This means that high-context communication is often identified as an indirect communication style. Meaning lies in what is said, how it is said, who is saying it,  and even by what is left unsaid. In other words: silence has meaning.

In the following video, Erin Meyer provides several concrete examples of how collaborations among high and low-context communicators can sometimes lead to misunderstandings.

Edward T. Hall compared low-context communicators to newlyweds: they have no shared history therefore everything needs to be explained explicitly. They’re the couple in the restaurant that talks all the time. High-context communicators, on the other hand, are more like a couple that has been married for decades: there are years of shared history and therefore not everything needs to be spelled out. This is the couple that talks less and understands each other perfectly from a look, a gesture, or a few words that might not mean much to outsiders.

Country Comparison

The more homogeneous a country is (Japan, for instance),  the higher the shared context and the more indirect the communication style. Heterogeneous countries like the US have little shared context. Americans have different backgrounds and share less history compared with citizens in a more homogeneous country, which is one reason why Americans’ communication style tends to be more direct.

The chart below shows where specific countries fall on the high vs. low-context dimension of culture.

Challenges: Low vs. High-Context Communicators

Here are a few key challenges that can arise when low-context communicators collaborate with those who prefer a more high-context communication style.

Challenges for Low-Context Communicators

More likely to be confrontational and cause others to “lose face”

Might be labeled as abrasive, bossy, or rude

Challenges for High-Context Communicators

Critiques of others’ ideas may go unnoticed if too indirect

Might be labeled as passive, vague, uptight, or inauthentic