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Level of Context

Most English-speaking cultures are low-context, meaning they put a message into
explicit words. In these cultures, saying "no" when you mean "no" is just considered
straightforward or honest. High-context cultures, such as Japan, expect the listener
to pick up more meaning from the general situation. For example, Asians sometimes
say "yes" or "maybe" when they actually mean "no," Asians often consider an
outright refusal blunt rather than honest.

o The concepts of high context and low context refer to how people
communicate in different cultures. Differences can be derived from
the extent to which meaning is transmitted through actual words
used or implied by the context.
o Cultural contexts are not completely high-context or low-context,
since all societies contain at least some parts that are both high and
low. For example, while the United States is a low-context culture,
family gatherings (which are common in American culture) tend to
be high-context.

2 Levels of Context

High Context Communication

 Members of high-context cultures usually have close relationships that last for
an extended period of time. As a result of these years of interacting with one
another, the members know what the rules are, how to think, and how to
behave, so the rules do not have to be explicitly stated. This makes high-
context cultures difficult to navigate for those who do not understand the
culture's unwritten rules.

 Relies on implicit communication and nonverbal cues.

o Meaning that context and relationships are more important than the
actual words, and therefore, very few words are necessary. It focuses
on underlying context, meaning, and tone in the message, and not just
the words themselves.
o High-context culture similarity is an important characteristic. This is
because the majority of the population in high context cultures
typically have the same level of education, as well as a shared
ethnicity, religion, and history.
o Through these shared experiences, messages can be contextualized by
assuming an audience will think in the same way and follow the
underlying message implicit in someone’s speech or writing.
 utilizes small communication gestures
o A few words can communicate a very complex message effectively, but
may only be understood by people within the speakers own culture.
o High context refers to societies or groups where people have
close connections over a long period of time. Many aspects of
cultural behaviour are not made explicit because most
members know what to do and what to think from years of
interaction with each other. Your family is an example of a high
context environment, Small religious congregations, a party
with friends, family gatherings, expensive gourmet restaurants
and neighbourhood restaurants with a regular clientele,
undergraduate on-campus friendships, regular pick-up games,
hosting a friend in your home overnight.
 Messages are interpreted using tone of voice, gesture, silence or
implied meaning, as well as context or situation.
o Word choice, tone and facial expressions have a great impact on the
meaning of the message.
o High contexts can be difficult to enter if you are an outsider
(because you don't carry the context information internally, and
because you can't instantly create close relationships).

High-context cultures also prefer personal bonds and informal agreements over
meticulously worded legal documents. They “are looking for meaning and
understanding in what is not said — in body language, in silences and pauses, and in
relationships and empathy,” Carol Kinsey Goman says.

Examples of High-Context Culture

In Japan “First Name Basis”

 In Japanese culture, it is almost taboo to use names.

o They avoid using names as much as possible since it is very intimate,
and something only close friends, lovers, and family member use.

 Generally people address each other with the proper honorific.

o Japanese honorifics include: “-san” is for gender-neutral and the

speaker doesn’t wish to be rude. “-kun” is used fo male children or
among friends. “-chan” is used to address children and female subject.
“-senpai” is used for upperclassmen. “-kohai” is used to address

In Korea “Age Basis”

 You ask for the age and marital status on first time interaction
o This information tells you how to proceed with your interaction.
 If someone is older than you, you must refer to them with proper honorific.
o Even it is by one year or one month, you have to use proper honorific
because this shows the power and authority the other person has over
you which is practiced in the culture. Even if you become close with
this person, the honorific is still there.


Understanding whether your international colleagues are high context or low context
will help you to adapt your communication style and build stronger relationships with
them. These concepts are covered during cross-cultural training programmes such
as Communicating across Cultures and managing international teams. Cultural
awareness training which focuses on one or more specific cultures like Doing
Business in India or Living and Working in China will also address these concepts.

When doing business in a high context culture such as Mexico, Japan or

the Middle East, you might encounter the following:

 Misunderstanding when exchanging information

 Impression of a lack of information

 Large amount of information is provided in a non-verbal manner, e.g.

gestures, pauses, facial expressions

 Emphasis on long term relationships and loyalty

 ‘Unwritten’ rules that are taken for granted but can easily be missed by

 Shorter contracts since less information are required.

High context cultures:

 Value traditions.
 Foster long-lasting relationships.
 Rely on non-verbal signs such as tone of voice, facial expressions, body language, and so
 Tend to be non-confrontational and more in-direct. Rejection is to be interpreted from non-
explicit communication.
 Require little explanation.
 Are more collectivistic. The identify lies with the group. Value group harmony.
 Have stronger boundaries, i.e. one belongs with a certain group.
 Are slow to change.

High Context

Indirect and implicit messages


High use of non-verbal communication

Low reliance on written communication

Use intuition and feelings to make decisions

Long-term relationships

Strong distinction between in-group and out-group