How Low & High-Context Cultures Influence Communication

How Low & High-Context Cultures Influence Communication

By: Dr. Anuja Patel

Communication is perhaps the single most important aspect of any type of relationship, be it personal or professional. But what makes communication so challenging for us is the way it differs based on our upbringing, family, and culture. One way to understand the cultural differences in communication is through the low to high-context spectrum.

Low-context communication is often seen in Western, more individualistic cultures (i.e., U.S., Australia, some European countries) where communication is direct, to the point, and one doesn’t have to guess the meaning or intention behind what is being said. For example, a low-context communicator can say, “I am unhappy with this outcome and I wish we could have done better,” and the recipient of this message would know exactly what is being said.

High-context communication, on the other hand, is frequently seen in Eastern, more collectivistic cultures (i.e., Asian, Latin American, Middle Eastern countries) where the use of nonverbal and implied messages are heavily relied upon. The intent of the message or communication isn’t conveyed directly and left for the recipient to interpret based on the context of the situation. For example, parents with a high-context communication style might complain about the decreased frequency in which you visit or call them. But, listen to the tone and the context in which they are complaining and you might find that what they are trying to say is that they miss you!

These two styles of communication fall on a spectrum and individuals, for example, with low-context communication can utilize high-context communication based on situations (such as in court rooms). But, of course, there’s (unfortunate) room for miscommunication and conflict when a couple are on different ends of this spectrum or when an immigrant family utilizes high-context communication with their first-generation children. I notice this often with my clients who eagerly seek verbal validation and explicit love from their parents, but are often disappointed that it is not expressed directly.

So now that you’re familiar with the different communication styles, let’s look at ways to address the conflicts when they arise.

First, it’s important to have self-awareness of your own communication style and determine if your partner or family are on similar ends of the spectrum as you. As most things in life, balance is the key.

A person from a low-context culture communicating with a person from a high-context culture: 

  • Look for nonverbal cues (tone, body language) to understand the meaning behind the verbal message
  • Know that the message most likely isn’t as literal as it sounds
  • Ask open ended questions to further understand the true meaning of what they are trying to communicate

A person from high-context culture communicating with a person from low-context culture: 

  • Focus on the verbal message and not in seeking the hidden meaning behind the communication
  • Be clear in asking/stating what you want
  • Ask clarifying questions if you are unsure what is being communicated
  • Summarize/rephrase what you interpreted

Although the differences may seem insurmountable, they aren’t impossible to overcome. It’s important to keep in mind that people have different communication styles that are shaped by their experiences. The more you understand those differences, the easier it is to overcome them. If you are experiencing communication conflicts in your relationship or if you are just interested in exploring your communication style, reach out to Dr. Anuja Patel for a free 15 minute phone consultation at anujapatel.psyd@gmail.com.

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