Special to CSMS Magazine
The anthropologist Edward Hall offers us another effective means of examining cultural similarities and differences in both perception and communication. He categorizes cultures as being either high or low context, depending on the degree to which meaning comes from the setting or from words being exchanged. The assumption underlying Hall’s classifications is that “one of the functions of cultures is to provide a highly selective screen between man and the outside world. In its many forms, culture therefore designates what we pay attention to and what we ignore.”
The word context needs to be understood if you are to appreciate the link between context and communication. Context can be defined as “the information that surrounds an event; it is inextricably bound up with the meaning of the event.” Although all cultures contain some characteristics of both high and low variables, most can be placed along a scale showing their ranking on this particular dimension. To call your attention to this fact, we have placed various cultures on a continuum rather than only using two rigid categories. The Halls define high and low context in the following manner:
A high context (HC) communication or message is one in which most of the information is already in the person, while very little is in the coded, explicitly transmitted part of the message. A low context (LC) communication is just the opposite; i.e., the mass of the information is vested in the explicit code.
In high-context cultures (Native Americans, Latin Americans, Japanese, Arab, Chinese, African Americans, and Korean), many of the meaning being exchanged during the encounter do not have to be communicated through words. One reason that meanings often do not have to be stated verbally in high-context cultures is that people are very homogenous. They have similar experiences, information networks, and the like. High-context cultures, because of tradition and history, change very over time. According to Hofstede, high-context cultures are “more often found in traditional cultures.”
These are cultures in which consistent messages have produced consistent responses to the environment. “As a result,” the Halls say, “for most normal transactions in daily life they do not require, nor do they expect, much in-depth, background information.” Because meaning is not necessarily contained in words, in high-context cultures information is provided through gestures and even silence. Space is also used to communicate in high contexts cultures. As Gannon points out, “Members of high-context societies tend to have less physical space between them when communicating than those in low-context societies.”
High-Context cultures tend to be aware of their surroundings and can express and interpret feelings without stating them. Anderson points out, “High-Context cultures are more reliant on, and tuned in to nonverbal communication.”
Meaning in high-context cultures is also conveyed “through status (age, sex, education, family background, title, affiliations) and through an individual’s informal friends and associates.” Because of all the subtle “messages” used by high-context cultures, members of these groups, according to Gudykunst, often “communicate in an indirect fashion.”
Note: Dr. Gyna Knight teaches Cross-Culture Studies at the University of Manitoba.