Hall added several important ideas to cross-cultural analysis. His first contribution was the idea that cultures could be put into broad categories that he called high context and low context cultures.
His is idea was that people show different characteristic styles of communication and relationship building depending on whether they grew up in a high or low context cultures. He defined a high context culture as one in which the cultural environment plays a strong role in creating and interpreting communications. In low context cultures the environment is less important and communications tend to be more explicit. The examples below will help to clarify the differences between high and low context cultures.
Characteristics of High Context Cultures
Relationships tend to be based on a deeper personal involvement between the parties and are on the whole longer lasting.
Communication tends to be indirect with the parties making use of shared cultural code to convey meaning. This can make communication faster and more economical. High context cultures often see a person’s ability to understand meaning without over-explanation as a sign of intelligence. Conversely, over-explanation may be seen as insulting or belittling as it implies that the other party lacks intelligence. This can lead to friction when high context and low context cultures communicate.
Non-verbal communication such as gestures and non-language sounds carry meaning that can help clarify the communicator’s intent. This signals often mean little to those from low context cultures.
There tends to be a high degree of reciprocal loyalty between superior and subordinate. Superiors often feel, and are seen to be, personally responsible for the actions of the subordinate.
High context cultures often prefer spoken agreements over written ones. Written agreements are often seen as a guide or an ideal to which the parties are travelling towards.
There tends to be a strong insider outsider culture. This may be difficult for foreigners, the ultimate outsiders, to break into.
High context cultures are often slow to change with the cultural patterns being deeply embedded into all aspects of life.
Characteristics of Low Context Cultures
Relationships in low context cultures tend not to have such personal involvement as in high context cultures. Relationships are often briefer.
Communication tends to be much more explicit. The communicator tends not to rely on inference to convey meaning. Often people from low context cultures fail to understand or even acknowledge non-verbal communication.
There is a preference for written agreements over spoken ones. These tend to be seen carrying legal weight and are only open for renegotiation in very special circumstances.
There is much less emphasis on insider-outsider groups.
High context cultures are open change and able to change much more rapidly.
Why are Hall’s Ideas on Context Relevant to International Managers?
International managers can benefit from an understanding of the concept of high and low context cultures in three main areas.
Firstly, in the field of managing overseas or foreign staff. An understanding of the concept can help a manager to better understand how to communicate with their staff and how the relationship between her and her subordinates.
Secondly, when negotiating with overseas counterparts she will benefit from understanding their communication style preferences and how they like to frame and implement agreements.
Thirdly, an understanding of Hall’s work will help her realize the importance of tailoring marketing communications to the preferences of the local culture.
Other Important Contributions
Hall made other important contributions to the field of cross-cultural research. He introduced the idea that cultures view time in different ways. This was an important influence on other researchers, most notably Hofstede and Trompenars & Hampden-Turner. He also explored the idea of space in a concept he dubbed proxemics.