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High Context Culture: What Does It Mean and How to Adapt

Posted by Glassdoor Team

Career Advice Experts

Last Updated June 29, 2021

Guide Overview

What is a high context culture?What is a low context culture?How do high and low context cultures work?Examples of high and low context culturesHow to adjust to a new communication style in the workplace

Guide Overview

An overview of high context culture 

A high context culture may look very different to a person who is familiar with a low context communication style. A person's culture shapes their beliefs, as well as the way they express themselves through communication. One of the biggest differences between cultures is the method by which we communicate. Communication is crucial in all aspects of life, especially in the workplace. The way that we communicate varies with differences that include the amount of information given or how direct we are when communicating.

Understanding these differences and learning to recognize the characteristics of high and low-context culture communication styles is important. It is the first step toward effective, productive communication in the workplace.

What is a high context culture?

In high context cultures, communication and messages are implied, rather than directly spoken. People may need a strong cultural understanding to understand what is being communicated. High context cultures are most often found in workplaces that follow a collectivist society.

High context communication styles are common among people who have already developed a working relationship because they have already learned how each person communicates and expresses themselves. This means that communication may include nonverbal, unwritten messages and it is not uncommon for employees to consider relationships or feelings when making decisions.

Learn more: Why Personal Connections Matter & Can Get You Hired

What is a low context culture?

In low context cultures, communication styles tend to be explicit. This means that communication is clear and direct, with minimal inference. Low context culture helps everyone understand the meaning or expectations because it is free of references or cultural interpretations. You will most often find low context communication styles in individualistic cultures, sometimes leading to a reputation of being outspoken.

Low context communication exchanges information through direct messages, leaving little that needs to be deciphered. There are never any hidden messages present and you can always return to the written communication for clarification.

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How do high and low context cultures work?

You will likely notice many differences in the workplaces between high and low context cultures. Whereas one workplace may focus on strict schedules and the transfer of direct messages, another may value relationships and nonverbal communication.

You can expect the following in a low context culture:

  • Work-related messages tend to be clear and direct.
  • Communication and work styles tend to follow a monochronic schedule.
  • Nonverbal communication can be considered noncommittal.
  • Most forms of communication are verified or concluded in a written format.
  • Team members are more likely to turn to statistics or data to make decisions.
  • Employees place a high priority on schedules.
  • Work relationships tend to be open, short-term, and vary among teams and departments.
  • Projects tend to be structured by goals.
  • Knowledge is available to the public or all team members present.
  • Communication tends to be shorter and more to the point.
  • Work styles tend to be task-orientated.

This is in comparison to a high context work environment. You can expect the following in a high context culture:

  • Being aware of nonverbal behaviors is important when developing relationships in the workplace.
  • Words are often taken at face value.
  • Questions may be more direct or personal in nature in order to deepen the relationship.
  • Communication and work styles tend to follow a polychronic schedule.
  • Conversations are usually in-person versus written.
  • An employee’s feelings may be used when making decisions.
  • Employees place a high priority on relationships in the workplace, sometimes over their schedules.
  • Work relationships tend to be categorized as either in-group or out-group, referring to the level of information that is shared with others.
  • There is a strong awareness in the group of who is considered in or out of the group.
  • Workplace decisions are often made in-person, usually under the direction of an authority figure or leader.
  • Relationships take longer to build, but tend to last long-term.
  • The completion of projects requires building and maintaining relationships.

Adjusting to a different work culture can be difficult once you have become accustomed to a certain style. However, understanding the characteristics and values that make up one style of communication can help you work with teams from all over the world.

Learn more: What’s Your Communication Style?

Examples of high and low context cultures

It can be helpful to consider a few examples of high and low context cultures. Traditionally, Western cultures are known for being more individualistic or communicating with a low context style. More collectivistic cultures, including in Japan, China, France, and Spain are known for communicating in a high context style.

However, Instead of defining high and low context cultures by countries or even large groups of people, it is best to use them when referring to a specific team or a collection of employees. This is because the culture of someone shapes their thoughts and beliefs, meaning just because someone lives in an individualistic or collectivistic society does not mean that they follow the same communication styles. It is important to keep in mind that while a society as a whole may shift toward one style of communication, most people do use both styles in the workplace.

People’s communication styles may vary, depending on the current situation. For example, an employee who feels accepted and understood by their employer is more likely to refer to low context communication styles, versus an employee who has less of a developed relationship. Also, one team member may communicate with another team member they have known longer using a low context style, switching to a high context communication style with newer team members.

You may work with communication styles of all types in the workplace. Here are a few examples:

  • You are working with a team from your employer’s office in Japan. They tend to communicate in a high context manner, whereas you are conditioned to a low context communication style.
  • You are working on a project with a client from Germany. While you both tend to communicate in a low context style, you still notice subtle differences including some team members being more direct in written communication or lengthy meetings due to other team members clarifying each point in the presentation.
  • While working on a project with a team member based out of France, you feel like they are holding back important details on the project. Your coworker who works in your home office in the U.S. shares even less information with the team in France. You learn that each employee follows an in-group mindset, where they only share close information with coworkers in which they have developed a relationship.
  • You’re sent to China to oversee a project. While there, you find it difficult to understand the nonverbal communication styles of your coworkers. You request each step to be documented, but find that the process of written communication is less structured.

As you can see, miscommunications can occur not only between high and low context communication styles but even within the same communication style. These differences can affect professional relationships, how employees interact with other team members, and how an employee learns.

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How to adjust to a new communication style in the workplace

As more companies turn to a multicultural work environment, it is important to consider differences among cultures, especially when it comes to communication styles. You can learn to bridge the gap between high context and low context communication styles with the following steps:

  1. Learn to recognize communication gaps: Different communication styles can affect the working relationship. However, learning to recognize and bring awareness to these differences is the first step in overcoming this challenge.
  2. Evaluate your communication style: It can be helpful to know whether your communication style is primarily high or low context.
  3. Learn to identify challenges while being culturally sensitive: In a diverse work environment, you may need to learn to recognize these differences in communication styles so you can adjust to new teams and work situations. Cultural sensitivity or cross-cultural training programs can be helpful in recognizing cultural differences in the workplace.
  4. Continue working toward development: Adjusting to new cultures and communication styles is a big change. It can take a lot of awareness with ongoing development. 

Whether you work for an employer that employs diverse employees with different communication styles, or you frequently conduct meetings with clients who come from different cultures, learning to adjust to different communication styles is a good skill. These tips can help you more effectively collaborate with other team members from different cultures. Understanding the different communication styles and coming up with ways to overcome them can help you unite a diverse workplace, rather than divide them.

Learning to develop communication skills that relate to both low and high context teams can be a challenge, but is important in preventing conflict and increasing productivity. This skill can also help you develop your skills as a team member or leader, promoting the inclusion of all employees, regardless of their communication style.


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