High-Context Communication

Anthropologist Edward T. Hall introduced the construct of high-context (HC) communication to describe the degree to which people rely on contextual factors rather than the explicit and transmitted part of the message to derive meaning in communication. In HC communication, people derive meaning from mutually shared information of the context that is associated with a communication event. HC communicators pay less attention to the explicit, communicated speech to gather information. HC communication involves indirect messages, less emphasis on verbal content, and heightened sensitivity to others. HC communicators gather meaning by inferring meaning from the person’s circumstances.

Hall proposed that the nervous system has developed an information-processing mechanism that can effectively cope with information overload through a culturally determined process called contexting. This process posits that individuals need to select only a portion of the total information available in an event to create meaning. The information that is not selected for processing but needed to create meaning is filled in by context. According to Hall, as contexting increases in a communication event, less information is needed from the explicit code to create meaning. While contexting requires time to develop, when it is accomplished, HC communication tends to be predictable, stable, and efficient.

Culture shapes the contexting process by socializing individuals to organize their past experiences according to a prescribed system of symbolic representations. This pattern of symbolic representations determines the cultural norms, rules, and expectations that guide how people communicate with one another. HC predominance is found in Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Latin American, African, Arabic, and Mediterranean cultures. Individuals within these cultures tend to be well-informed about others in their ingroup.

When a client says to the counselor, “You’ve been really helpful, but I don’t think I will need any more counseling,” a HC communicator would not interpret the statement at face value. The counselor may have observed that the client did not make eye contact while verbalizing his or her intent to end counseling and that the client identifies with a culture that discourages interpersonal confrontations. Based on HC communication, the counselor may hypothesize that the client is not satisfied with counseling and may ask the client questions about how therapy can be more helpful.

References:

  1. Gudykunst, W. B., & Ting-Toomey, S. (1988). Culture and interpersonal communication. Newbury Park, CA: Sage
  2. Hall, E. T. (1976). Beyond culture. Garden City, NY: Anchor Press.
  3. Hall, E. T., & Hall, M. R. (1990). Understanding cultural differences. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press.

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