High context and low context cultures: What this means for marketers
The way you communicate with a client in a business meeting is different to how you communicate with, say, a close friend at an open-air gig. Why? The answer, of course, is context. While we all understand that on a personal level, it also applies on a cultural level – and this is where context can be less commonly understood.
If you’re looking to reach international audiences with your content marketing, or advertise your product to global digital consumers, it’s essential to understand cultural differences in your target markets. One framework for understanding is high context and low context cultures.
What are high context and low context cultures?
In 1976, anthropologist Edward T Hall proposed that cultures could be divided into two categories – high context and low context – according to how important context is in communication.
In low context cultures, communication is viewed primarily as a way of exchanging information, ideas, and opinions. These cultures typically:
- Believe in the mantra ‘say what you mean, and mean what you say’
- Value the spoken or written word to communicate meaning
- Prefer direct, honest speech with explicit formulations and rules
- Strive for efficiency
- Consider detailed writing to be necessary and useful
- Value documents and legally-binding contracts
- Value clarity and being articulate
By contrast, in high context cultures, communication is primarily seen as an art form or a way of engaging someone. People pay attention not only to the message itself but also the context in which it’s delivered. These cultures typically:
- Prefer implicit, indirect communication
- Rely on non-verbal behaviours to convey meaning (such as facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language)
- Often consider situational factors to be more important than what is being said
- Value trust and relationships more than specified content – e.g. contracts are considered flexible as long as a trusted relationship is in place
Think about giving a presentation in a business setting. In a low context culture, the presenter might follow the format of ‘this is what I’m going to tell you, then I tell you, and then I tell you what I’ve told you’. This is because low context cultures value simplicity and clarity of message. But to an individual in a high context culture, this style of presentation might seem overly detailed, distrustful, and a waste of time due to the repetition. They might even perceive it as condescending.
Examples of high context and low context cultures
Generally, low context cultures are mainly found in North America and Western Europe, whereas most Asian, South American, and Middle Eastern countries are considered high-context cultures. Traditionally, the US has been viewed as the lowest context culture in the world, with Japan as the highest. The further apart two cultures are on the spectrum, the harder it will be for them to communicate effectively.
However, it’s important to note that cultures can’t be organised strictly into either high or low context cultures, since most fall between the extremes of the spectrum and can combine characteristics of both. Culture, especially in today’s globalised world, is too complex to be measured solely along one or two dimensions. When exploring how people from different cultures relate to other, it’s less about the absolute position of either culture on the scale and more about the relative position of the two cultures – since this shapes how people view each other.
Bear in mind too, that in large countries, there can be variations between regions. For example, while the US is very low context, traditionally this has been more the case in the North and less so in the South. And with rapid demographic change – for example, the increasing number of high context Spanish speakers from Central and South America in the US – the picture is evolving rather than static.
Tips for marketers
For international marketers, understanding where your audience sits on the low/high context spectrum will help you to tailor your message. As a rough rule of thumb, if your audience is low context, you tell the message. If your audience is high context, you show the message. Whereas low-context cultures generally prefer more words (to some extent), high-context cultures generally prefer more images.
In low context marketing:
- Ambiguity is disliked, so clear and simple landing pages with strong calls to action are desirable
- Clean, straightforward web or ad design is favoured
- Clear product shots are necessary
- Use clear, descriptive words to convey your message upfront
In high context marketing:
- Consumers are more comfortable with ambiguity, especially if there is some flair to it
- Ads are more colourful and animated
- Websites tend to be ‘busier’ with large images, greater use of animation, and more graphic and interactive elements
- Imagery may emphasise relationships or be more symbolic
- Product shots may feature more dramatic or creative angles
- Celebrity endorsements may carry more weight
Working across cultures
If your business requires you to work across cultures, then it helps to identify your own communication style and understand where you sit on the low/high context spectrum.
If you are from a low context culture and working with someone from a high context culture:
- Don’t rely on making literal sense of words
- Instead, try to interpret what is behind the message
- Listen carefully, observe body language, and reflect on intent
- Ask open ended questions(rather than yes/no questions) to uncover the underlying message
- Clarify your understanding rather than simply assuming you have understood each other
If you are from a high context culture and working with someone from a low context culture:
- Focus on the content of the message without looking for hidden meaning
- Ask questions to clarify if intent is not clear or the message sounds confusing
- When sending messages, be clear and explicit. Communicate your main points first and don’t wait till the end to state what you actually intend to convey
- People from low context cultures will appreciate you seeking clarity as opposed to keeping quiet and trying to find out later
- It’s a good idea to summarise the key takeaways both verbally and in writing
Use LIMEs to understand your target markets
Failure to understand your target markets can lead to mistakes, some of which can be costly and cause reputational embarrassment. The best way to understand your target markets is by using Local In-Market Experts, who can provide on-the-ground cultural, linguistic, and digital marketing nuances to guide you.
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To find out how Oban’s LIME network can help accelerate your brand’s international growth, please get in touch.
Oban International is the digital marketing agency specialising in international expansion.
Our LIME (Local In-Market Expert) Network provides up to date cultural input and insights from over 80 markets around the world, helping clients realise the best marketing opportunities and avoid the costliest mistakes.