Low-context and High-context Communication Styles

Our interpersonal communication involves both

  • content—an informative message that we want to say to another person, and
  • context—why and how we say the message to another person.

The context in which we say something can be more important than the content that we want to deliver. People can be receptive to our message in one context but not in another. Sometimes, context can tell people more than the content of messages.

Here I’ll talk about low-context and high-context styles of communication.

What Is Low-context Versus High-context Communication?

One of the major differences that many cross-cultural studies have highlighted is the importance, sensitivity, and dependency of people in different societies on the context of verbal and nonverbal communication. A question of interest is whether the content or context of a message is more important for people in their communication.

What is More Important, the Content or the Context of the Message?

On the one hand, in the low-context-dependent style of communication, people believe that the content of a message is more important than its context. Therefore, they prefer to be clear, open, and explicit in their messages. They leave little room for implicit assumptions. They say everything that they want to say, leaving little in the way of hidden or unspoken contextual messages.

On the other hand, in the high-context-dependent style of communication, the content of a message is less important than its context. Therefore, they tend to be more implicit and less explicit in their messages and contextual expressions. They tell more than they say. The recipient just needs to be able to decode unspoken messages (Karandashev, 2021).

Individual Differences in Orientation toward the Content and Context of Communication

People have different orientations toward the content or context of messages in their communication, depending on their individual and cultural differences. All people pay attention to both content and context, yet to a different degree.

Some individuals are more content-oriented and less context-dependent. For them, analytical, rational thinking and logical, systematic reasoning based on arguments and evidence are the priorities in communication. They prefer to avoid or abandon any preconceptions and beliefs when they are speaking and listening. They believe in universal meaning, rational understanding, objective knowledge, and real truth.

Other individuals are less content-oriented and more context-dependent. For them, the context of the situation and the presence of others play an important role, sometimes overshadowing the content of the message itself. They strongly rely on the beliefs and opinions of others, especially those from their in-group. They are sensitive to the emotional tone and manner in which a communicator speaks. They believe in relative meaning, intuitive understanding, subjective knowledge, and the nonexistence of real truth.

Styles of Communication toward In-group and Out-group Members

People and cultures vary in the way they interact with members of their in-group compared to those from their out-group. The context of in-group relations versus out-group relations can influence their communication styles.

People in collectivistic Eastern cultures with a high value of in-group embeddedness tend to show different attitudes and behaviors toward others from their own in-group than towards others from their out-group (Smith & Bond, 1999). People in collectivistic cultures are less interested in establishing personal and specific friendships with others due to their natural embeddedness in pre-existing kin relations and reluctance to establish such relations with out-group individuals (Karandashev, 2021).

On the other hand, people in individualistic Western cultures have high values of autonomy and equality. So, they tend to demonstrate the same attitudes and behaviors directed toward others from their in-groups and out-groups. They are universalistic in their social views. And, therefore, tend to apply the same standards of communication to all (Smith & Bond, 1999). They are more interested in establishing personal and specific friendships.

Sensory Processes Involved in Low- and High-Context Communication Styles

Communication styles also differ in the ways people rely on visual, auditory, kinesthetic, tactile, thermal, and olfactory perceptions in their interpersonal interactions (Karandashev et al., 2019). For instance, Germans and Americans, as low-context dependent communicators, rely on auditory screening, while high-context dependent communicators, such as Italians and Spanish, tend to reject auditory screening and thrive on being open to interruptions and in tune with what is going on around them.