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Edward Hall’s Classification of High and Low Context Cultures


3.6 Edward Hall’s Classification of High and Low Context Cultures

Edward Hall’s classification of culture into High and low context was used as a theoretical basis for this research as it puts a communicative rather than a cognitive perspective on the research. Basically, a cognitive approach looks at values as comprising mental attitudes (what Hofstede calls ‘software of the mind’). However, when looking at communication, there are limits to the cognitive approach as, arguably, it does not place sufficient emphasis on culture as how people communicate with each other and the styles of communication used. Edward Hall, by defining culture as ‘context’, places emphasis on the communicative situation as the key to understanding culture.

Edward T. Hall is an Anthropologist who in 1976 developed a framework for intercultural communication. In his study, he categorised each country’s cultural values into two main groups: the High Context cultures and the Low Context cultures. According to Hall’s theory, cultures of the world can be divided into High and Low Context Cultures, in which the cultural values and modes of communication are different (Barber and Badre 1998). The main emphasis of this research was based on context which according to Edward Hall is the amount of information or the environment surrounding a communication event, which is required by the hearer/receiver to ‘de-code’ its full meaning. Context can include non-verbal communication, dress, space, arrangement of furniture, hierarchy, time and expectations of it. However, in this research, we identify that it can also be applied to web–based communication. “Context” has primarily been used in verbal communications to refer to “the fact that when communicating people take for granted how much the listener knows about the subject under discussion” (Okazaki 2004 p.83). It can also refer to things like choice of words, intonation, use of silence and pauses. Context covers the amount of contextual information required to interpret written words correctly. As it relates to this research, the implications of Hall’s theory on communication styles are mainly the difference in the way that each grouping communicates and the way that each grouping receives communicative messages.

The main reason for using Hall’s theoretical classifications on culture was that the researcher identified that the dimensional studies proposed by Hofstede do not adequately address the question of context of communication. Hall’s theories therefore provide a good background for the study of how cultural contexts affect communication styles. Because Hall’s research is not a quantitative study, it also does not rank different countries like Geert Hofstede’s study but instead, generally identifies Western/Northern

European cultures as low-context cultures. The cultures in the Eastern Mediterranean, Asia and Latin America are, on the other hand, identified as high-context cultures (Ahmed, Mouratidis and Preston 2009 p.49). High context cultures prefer an indirect style of communication. Therefore, in high context communication or messages, the information is either in the physical context or internalised in the person, while very little is in the coded, explicit, transmitted part of the message. Low context cultures on the other hand prefer direct styles of communication (Hall 1976 p.91). These communication styles are discussed in more depth in the following section. The following diagram shows how the countries have been presented with high context countries at one end and low context cultures at the other end:

High Context Cultures

Japan China Arab Countries Russia Greece Spain Italy England France North America Scandinavian Countries German-speaking Countries

Low Context Cultures

Figure 3: Edward Hall’s High and Low Context Culture Classification

Hall, E. and M. Hall 1990 (understanding cultural differences) cited in Würtz (2006 p.277).

3.6.1 Communication Style Preferences in High Context Cultures

High context communication is typically “characterised by the use of indirect and polite messages that employ a lot of symbols” (Gonzãlez-Trejo 2010 p. 484). In High Context cultures “most of the information is either in the physical context or internalised in the person, while very little is in the coded explicit, transmitted part of the message” (Okazaki 2004 p.83). Physical context as mentioned previously can include ‘where’ the communication is taking place and whether it is a formal setting or not. Internalisation in

this context relates to ‘who’ is speaking, for example, whether the communication is coming from a manager or a lower ranking employee. According to Hall’s classification, High Context cultures include countries such as Japan, China, Russia and the Arab countries. In High Context communication, the recipient of the message is expected to possess sufficient contextual information to ‘de-code’ the message correctly by themselves and therefore the speaker does not have to be explicit. A recipient without this contextual information, however, would not have this information, and thus may not understand the message. According to Gamsriegler (2005 p.4), “the reason for this is that their primary goal is to preserve and strengthen relationships by saving face and ensuring harmony”. This is because High Context cultures tend to be collectivist cultures, where the maintenance of group harmony is important.

Website users from High Context cultures are also typically “used to indirect, informal and non-verbal ways of communication creating emotions through pictures and entertainment” (Barber and Badre 1998). People communicating in this kind of culture are more concerned about not losing respect or “face” and more concerned about peaceful coexistence. According to Bargiela-Chiappini et al. (2013 p.232), “when considering ‘face’, the speaker’s need to be respected and liked, and the social recognition of the listener’s positive self-image, are salient in any type of communication, but particularly so in settings where participants may encounter potential conflict”. Based on contextual information in High Context communication, it is expected that “most information is known by the receiver and is contained in the setting so that textual information is minimum” (Ferreira 2002 p.7). High context communication tends to “rely heavily on an elaborate system of symbols, body language, intonations of speech and hidden, culturally based meanings” (Hurn and Tomalin 2013 p.21). Therefore, while communicating, the receiver will need to ‘read between the lines’ in order to fully understand the message that is being conveyed. This will be easier for people who share the context and are already socialised to expect this both in face to face communications and probably with website communication but might be harder for someone who belongs to another context to understand what the sender is saying.

3.6.2 Communication Style Preferences in Low Context Cultures

Low Context communication is “more direct and employs more facts and data, and tends to make comparisons between brands, companies” (Gonzãlez-Trejo 2010 p. 484). This therefore means that low context cultures speakers would say what they are thinking without adapting the message to the person to they are speaking to. According to Hurn and Tomalin (2013 p.7), the result of their communication may be transparent and clear but they may be perceived as being rude by individuals who are used to communicating in the high context culture. In low-context communication “the mass of the information is vested in the explicit code” and “tends to employ textual and analytical argumentation, facts and data” (Okazaki 2004 p.83). Communication in this context is succinct and sender oriented and the true intentions of the speaker are made known while communicating therefore there is no need for the listener to try and decode what the speaker is trying to say. The goal while communicating in this context is to ensure that the speaker fully understands what is being communicated to them. As a result of this, website users from low context cultures also prefer “an explicit, direct and verbal communication style providing first of all product information” (Barber and Badre 1998).

According to Gamsriegler (2005 p.3), “low-context systems tend to be more complex as the spoken word has to make up for what is missing in the context”. Ferreira (2002 p.8) also adds that in low context communication, “everything is expressed in a textual manner” which means that meaning resides more in the text than in, for instance, the layout or structure of a document or a website. This probably explains why there is a preference in this context for written communication. Low context communicators also “do not assume that everyone has most of the information they require and communication therefore needs to be more explicit” (Hurn and Tomalin p.22). Communication in this context is therefore usually clear and more detailed than communication in the high context cultures. Hall’s study “generally identifies Western/ Northern European cultures as low-context cultures” (Okazaki 2004 p.83) with countries in this group including the Scandinavian countries, the United States of America and countries in Europe.