What Is the Difference Between a Low-Context and High-Context Culture?

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The difference between a low-context and a high-context culture lies in the mode of communication that takes place at the individual dialogue level. In low-context cultures, such as those found in the U.S. and in Scandinavia, dialogues and conversations contain self-encapsulated and very direct messages for which no outside references are required for the listener’s full comprehension. In a high-context culture, however, conversations are both steeped in and guided by historical references, community relationships and family interactions.

China, India and Russia are examples of high-context cultures. Someone from a low-context culture may experience difficulty in fully comprehending the meaning of a conversation in one of those countries. Business people from low-context cultures can also cause offense to their counterparts in high-context cultures by their directness if they jump into a discussion of business matters without first inquiring at length about family matters or personal interests. Being aware of a culture’s context level is also an important part of promoting a domestic product or service in a foreign market. Ads and websites may need to be altered to take into account how contextual rules can affect the manner in which potential customers react to them.

A cultural context is not a strict “high” or “low” quantification, but rather a perception of the relative degree of the context levels between two or more differing cultures. Cultural contexts can also vary across a single nation. For example, a stereotypical Texan in the U.S., whose cultural context is greater than a highly explicit speaker from New York City, may be able to communicate more information in a prolonged silence or in a few words than a New Yorker can.