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Low-context culture is a term used by anthropologist Edward T. Hall in 1976 to describe a communication style that relies heavily on explicit and direct language.

Learn more about low-context cultures from examples and test your knowledge with a quiz.

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Definition of Low-Context Culture

Anthropologist Edward T. Hall was the first to discuss and define a low-context culture. In his 1976 book titled Beyond Culture, Hall described a low-context culture as a culture that communicates information in a direct manner that relies mainly on words. Low-context cultures do not rely on contextual elements (i.

e., the speaker’s tone of voice or body language) to communicate information. They take a more direct and explicit approach. This is in contrast to a high-context culture, which relies heavily on implicit messages and contextual cues (i.e.

, the situation and the speaker’s tone of voice) to relay information being communicated.Members of low-context cultures have many relationships that last for a short amount of time or exist for a specific reason. Following procedures and keeping sight of the goal are important in accomplishing any transaction. The cultural rules and norms need to be spelled out so that people who are not familiar with the culture know what the expectations are.

Communication is expected to be straightforward and precise, and the use of words must effectively convey the entire message.

Individualism in Low-Context Cultures

Low-context cultures are individualistic. This means that individual achievements are valued higher than group accomplishments. Members of low-context cultures are independent of one another and are expected to look out for themselves, with the exception of family. Privacy and having personal space is also valued.

Characteristics of Low-Context Cultures

Some common characteristics of low-context cultures include:

  • Emphasis on logic and facts
  • Facts are more important than intuition in the decision-making process
  • Words are more important than body language
  • Verbal messages are explicit, direct, and concise
  • Tasks or goals are more important than relationships
  • Most knowledge is above the waterline. This means knowledge is explicit, visible, and can be easily conveyed to others
  • Primary method of learning is by following other people’s explicit directions and explanations
  • Decisions and actions focus on the goal and dividing responsibilities

Examples of low-context cultures include:

  • The United States of America
  • Canada
  • Germany
  • Switzerland

We have all been placed in situations that are considered low-context.

For example, if you have ever been to an airport and ridden a plane, then you have experience with a low-context culture. There are explicit rules as to what forms of identification you need to get on the plane, how much your luggage can weigh, what kind of screenings you must go through before you get on the plane, etc. Getting passengers safely to and from their destinations is the primary goal of airlines, and the checkpoints, screenings, and rules are geared toward this goal.

Lesson Summary

Low-context cultures are those that communicate information in direct, explicit, and precise ways. This is in contrast to high-context cultures, which communicate in ways that are implicit and rely heavily on nonverbal language. Low-context cultures are individualistic, value tasks over relationships, and have members that form several short-term relationships.

The United States of America is a country that has a low-context culture.

Learning Outcomes

When you are finished, you should be able to:

  • Explain the difference between low-context and high-context cultures
  • List the characteristics of low-context cultures
  • Recall the focus on the individual in low-context cultures
  • Name some countries with low-context cultures
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