Discussion and Contrast of High- and Low-Context Cultures as Defined by E.T. Hall

Term Paper, 2014

12 Pages, Grade: 1,7



1. Introduction

2. Definition of culture and communication
2.1 Culture according to Merriam-Webster
2.2 Communication according to Merriam-Webster

3. E.T. Hall's high- and low-context model

4. Impact of high- and low-context cultures in international business

5. Resulting issues in international business
5.1 Contracts, negotiations, decision making and bureaucracy
5.2 Deference

6. Conclusion

1. Introduction

There is no better arena for observing culture and communication in action than business, where both reveal themselves in situations where there is much at stake and their resources are most needed. It is in business, a collaborative activity often taking place across global distances, where practices are shaped by deeply held cultural attitudes. One of the single most useful concepts for understanding cultural differences in business communication is Edward T. Hall’s distinction of low-context and high-context cultures.

The objective of this assignment is to describe Edward T. Hall's model1 of high- and low-context cultures and discuss the impact they have on cross-cultural business activities.

2. Definition of culture and communication

In order to create a better understanding of the terms used in this paper, a short definition will be given. Merriam-Webster is an American company publishing dictionaries. As one of the most acknowledged and respected sources in the literary world, Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary has served to provide definitions of the terms culture and communication, as they are used in this assignment.

2.1 Culture according to Merriam and Webster

Culture is defined as “the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group; the characteristic features of everyday existence (as diversions or a way of life) shared by people in a place or time“, [as well as] „the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization“.2

2.2 Communication according to Merriam-Webster

Merriam-Webster defines the term communication as “the act or process of using words, sounds, signs, or behaviors to express or exchange information or to express your ideas, thoughts, feelings, etc., to someone”.3

3. E.T. Hall's high- and low-context model

Anthropologist and cross-cultural researcher Edward T. Hall first discussed the topic of high- and low-context culture in his book titled “Beyond culture”, published in 1976. His model is best understood as reflecting a more fundamental distinction between rule-based and relationship-based cultures, which is in turn grounded in different conceptions of human nature. The discussion begins by explaining Hall's model and proceeds by exploring the difficuilties varying communicational styles may cause in cross-cultural business.

In Beyond culture, Hall stresses that,, (...) the future depends on man's being able to transcend the limits of individual cultures. To do so, however, he must first recognise and accept the multiple hidden dimensions of unconscious culture, because every culture has it's own hidden, unique form of unconcious culture“.4

High-context cultures, as described by Hall, are those in which the rules of communication are primarily transmitted through the use of contextual elements (body language, tone of voice) and are not explicitly stated. Members of high-context are usually very relationship-oriented, which results in a deeper interest and close connection with other people for an extended period of time.5

As a result of these years of interacting with one another, the members of high- context cultures know what the rules are, how to think, and how to behave. People from low-context cultures may find dealing with members of high- context cultures difficult, because they do not understand the culture's unwritten rules.

Meaningful information in conversations is relayed predominantly through paralinguistic features, such as facial expressions or the tone of voice. Sometimes, these „little things“ are way more important than the words actually spoken. In direct contrast, in low-context cultures information is communicated heavily through language and rules which are explicitly spelled out. Individuals communicating with one another rely on what is said, rather than on how it is said.

Another noticeable difference pointed out by Hall in his model is the physical proximity of individuals during a conversation. While people coming from high- context cultures prefer standing close to their discussion partners, members of low-context cultures may experience a feeling of discomfort when others enter their private sphere unbidden and try to keep their distance. In business dealings, however, paralinguistic expressions like taking an involuntary step backwards to preserve one's own space during a discussion, can interpreted as rude and have an unpleasant effect on business relationships.

Placing the emphasis on interpersonal relationships, Hall describes members of high-context cultures as group-orientated, with a preference for solving problems and learning in groups. In contrast, "low-context cultures typically value individualism over collectivism and group harmony“.6

4. Impact of high-and low-context cultures in international business

“Management and communication scholars have consistently argued that the success of managers on international assignments depends largely on effective cross-cultural communication.“7

Effective handling of the cultural interface is a critical source of a companies' competitive advantage. Business partners from different cultural backgrounds therefore have to develop a fine perception for their environment and aquire a sufficient degree of factual knowledge about the values and cultural codes of their foreign counterparts, in order to appropriately handle situations where context-cultural differences may complicate workplace issues.

Specific examples can be observed in areas where teamwork is required and cooperation between foreign employees and domestic nationals is crucial to achieve common organisational goals and hence guarantee business success. What to do if they don't get along with each other? Emphasising the need for joint work, sensitising people to their differences, both contextual and cultural in general, and thereby trying to develop appreciation and understanding amongst team memebers can become a challenging task for a manager. "Management and communication scholars concur that in today’s global business environment, more and more managers and directors should be required to understand and appreciate people who are coming from different cultures and nationalities. (...) International management skills are needed for the increasing scope of global trades and investments for the next several decades.“8 By achieving a better understanding for the individual needs of employees resulting from varying cultural backgrounds, managers and directors will discover entirely new approaches to intercultural leadership and be able to resolve problems among their team members more effectively.

Another significant difference between high- and low-context cultures in business life is the realtionship between employees and their employers. In some countries with high-context cultures, like Japan for example, both sides cultivate a sort of paternalistic relationship. „When a man joins a company, he does not just that - joins himself to the corporate body - and there is even a ceremony marking the occasion“.9 Employees in this case may well have the same job for more or less all their lives, regardless of the quality of their work. Expectations arising from such devoted relationships can seriously complicate dealings with Western firms, as managers may struggle with motivating employees who believe the quality of work is no criteria for either keeping their job or the amount of financial compensation they receive for it. In Western countries like Germany and the UK, hard work is supposed to be the primary basis for promoting employees and determining an adequate salaray. In China and Japan, on the other hand, a person’s age is the most important determinant in promoting workers. How are companies supposed to resolve the difficulties arising from evaluating a foreign employee each by their own measures?


1 Edward T. Hall, Beyond culture“ 1976

2 http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/culture

3 http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/communication

4 Edward T. Hall, "Beyondcuiture“, 1976, page 2.

5 (http://www.helsinki.fi/~tella/nishimuranevgitella299.pdf), Shoji Nishimura, Anne Nevgi, Seppo Telia, Communication Style and Cultural Features in High/Low Context Communication Cultures: A Case Study ofFinland, Japan and India, page 785.

6 (httpwww.helsinki.fi~tellanishimuranevgitella299.pdf), Triandis, Brislin, Hui, 1988, as cited in Pryor Butler & Boehringer, 2005, page 248.

7 (www.ccsenet.org/ijbm), International journal of Business and Management, Vol. 7, No. 16; 2012,page 131.

8 Compare source 6, (www.ccsenet.org/ijbm), International journal of Business and Management, Vol. 7, No. 16; 2012,page 131.

9 Edward T. Hall, Beyond culture, 1976, page 64.

Excerpt out of 12 pages


Discussion and Contrast of High- and Low-Context Cultures as Defined by E.T. Hall
AKAD University of Applied Sciences Stuttgart
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
Edward T. Hall, Culture, Intercultural Communication, High and Low context cultures
Quote paper
Kathy Brandt (Author), 2014, Discussion and Contrast of High- and Low-Context Cultures as Defined by E.T. Hall, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/1005598


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