High-context, Low-context

Broken links. Information current as of 11 July 2007. Pages gone. Entire sites gone except for the link on some search engine or referral page. That’s what I get on many of my searches for information on the internet. Or I receive 30 sales pitches with no factual result because Nefertiti has been co-opted by any number of tour agencies. All this despite we are now in the age of permalink.

I tend to be a “low context” person who often lives in “high context” places and situations, so I sometimes feel frustration when seeking information.

High-context and Low-context cultures are terms presented by anthropologist Edward T. Hall in his 1976 book Beyond Culture.

High-context cultures, typically relational, place value on personal relationships within close-knit communities. In high-context cultures speakers assume listeners share a common base of knowledge and views, and much is communicated indirectly or is understood implicitly.

Low-context cultures, on the other hand, are those in which explicitness is important and things are fully (perhaps concisely) spelled out. Considerable dependence is placed on what is actually said or written. In a low-context culture, the listener/reader is responsible for maintaining his or her knowledge and to remain connected to informal networks. The more diverse a population, the greater the need for explicitness.

Hence you and I might exchange a raised eyebrow and a smile, while a government might need a 30-page manual to convey the same idea.

French-Canadian culture is typically higher context than English-Canadian culture but lower context than say French, Spanish or Mexican cultures. Similarly an  individual from rural Maine in the U.S.A. may communicate more with a few words or the use of silence than a New Yorker who is linguistically very explicit.

As an American in the U.S.A., I am accustomed to spotting the sign for a drugstore from a distance, entering the store and then wandering aisles that are labeled. I find the aisle I need, often without asking anyone. I search the aisle to find the product I want. I pick up the product and read the label for the product’s use and ingredients.

As someone who grew up in a lower context culture I am more likely to try to work things out on my own and I sometimes feel there is a lack of self-service support or information. I tend to be reluctant to ask questions and take time to develop the relationships needed to accomplish the things that need to be done.

farmaciaIn San Miguel, I go to a farmacia, which may have no identifying sign on the building’s exterior. All the products are behind a counter and I must ask a clerk or pharmacist if they have a certain product and how it’s used. They may let me examine the package, but are likely to want to answer my questions. Nothing may be priced, so I have to ask.

Yesterday I went to Mega, a large store with food, pharmacy, clothing, hardware, and many other categories of products, all displayed as I’m accustomed NoB. It was very easy to see what products the store carried. While I want to support the farmacia and small tiendas, there was something comforting for this low-context person to shop in that hyper mercado.

Those accustomed to a low-context culture may feel the need to resort to tools such as the internet to obtain information. A high-context business may feel no need to present information on the internet:  after all, everyone knows where they are located. The low-context culturite may find a list of businesses, but no address is given, just a phone number; he or she may then feel frustrated because they must go one more step to obtain the desired information.


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