Low-Context Communication

Anthropologist Edward T. Hall introduced the construct of low-context 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 low-context (LC) communication, people attend to the explicit, communicated speech to gather information. LC communicators place less emphasis on the context that surrounds the communication event than on the communication itself. LC communication may be adaptive when transactions occur in dynamic contexts that are rapidly changing. LC communication involves messages that tend to be direct, precise, and open. LC communicators tend to openly exchange information so that they can better predict each other’s behaviors. Finally, LC persons may be direct and open about disagreement.

Hall proposed that the nervous system has developed an information-processing mechanism whereby it can effectively cope with the information overload through a culturally determined process called contexting. This process posits that individuals need only to select 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 decreases in a communication event, more information is needed from the explicit code to create meaning.

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.

LC communication occurs to different degrees in all cultures but may predominate in certain cultures. LC predominance is found in the North American (i.e., U.S.), Australian, German, Swiss, Scandinavian, and other Northern European cultures. Individuals within these cultures tend to compartmentalize their personal and work relationships.

When a client says to the counselor, “You’ve been really helpful, but I don’t think I will need any more counseling,” an LC communicator may take the expression at face value and form an impression that the client benefited from counseling and is now ready to terminate. LC may be particularly beneficial in aspects of counseling that place importance on accurate and precise information, such as when conducting risk assessment, recording notes, and reporting diagnostic information to insurance companies.

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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