High-Context and Low-Context Cultures


Style Matters has a unique feature of cultural flexibility, achieved by inviting users to choose their preferred set of instructions. With Instruction Set A, you answer the questions "in general", that is, as you would typically respond to a conflict. With Instruction Set B, you choose one conflict or a type of conflict, and answer all the questions with that choice in mind. Interesting cultural dynamics lie behind this choice, as described below. 

What difference does it make?

Low context culture conflict resolution

Low Context people feel free to assert their own goals, expectations, and values without much attention to role, status, or duty. Consider the perspective of the knight above as compared with that of the chess piece below.

In his 1976 book Beyond Culture, anthropologist Edward T. Hall suggested that some cultures are "Low Context" and others are "High Context". People deal quite differently with conflict in these cultures.

Low Context cultures are individualistic, and people feel free to assert themselves without much attention to the context. Anyone can express their personal preferences to anyone else with little regard to age, status, roles, duties, or customs. If this sounds like your life, when you take the Style Matters inventory, Instructions A will probably work better for you.

On the other hand, if you live or work in a collectivist or High Context culture, chances are that you have a clear sense that it is important to think carefully about certain things before expressing preferences or making demands on others. In High Context cultures, duty, role, obligation, and expectations of others influence many things, including who can speak out in conflict and with how much assertiveness. Thus, for people accustomed to collectivist patterns, specific information about the context must be known, in particular who the actors are, their status and duties relative to each other, before considering questions about “what to do” in conflict. If this sounds like your life, Instructions B will work better for you, since they guide you to select one specific conflict or kind of relationship and hold it in mind as you take the inventory.

Many people operate in mixed settings, so either instruction set could work. Welcome to the complexities of modernity! You can learn more about the differences between the two modes below, as well as the cultures/regions of the world often associated with each. If you are taking the inventory and remain undecided, you cannot go wrong with Instructions B. They work for everyone, regardless of background, so long as you remember that for all who use Instructions B, the picture of yourself they yield may not fit in circumstances other than the one you chose to think about.

Individualist or Low Context Culture

People from individualist/low context cultures (like mainstream North America, western and northern Europe, and their derivatives) assume freedom to make choices with little reference to roles, customs, group expectations, or others in the surroundings. They are concerned with: What do I want? What does my opponent want? What should I do now? Individuals in dispute think, “I am in a conflict” and respond accordingly.

Collectivist or High Context Culture

People from collectivist/high context cultural backgrounds (like Southern Europe, Latin America, Asia, Middle East, Africa, and aboriginal cultures) are more likely to think “we have a conflict” and "we" includes not just those in the conflict but others around them. The status of the individuals relative to each other as well as the implications of anything they say or do for those around them must be considered.

High context conflict resolution

People in High Context cultures may feel guided in conflict or decisionmaking by an unseen "hand" of social expectations that requires them to consider the entire context. A good person should think not only about what he or she wants. One should also be guided by duty, obligation, and roles in deciding how to respond.

This larger context offers both constraints and resources. Many things influence whether people are free to express a wish or viewpoint to others and if so, how strongly. Key influencing factors may include: age, gender, and status; roles, connections, duty, and obligation to uphold customs.

In collectivist settings, there are powerful expectations for all about what is proper conduct, regardless to personal preferences or conflict styles. No matter what your personal style preference, for example, your opinions are less likely to be challenged if you are from the wealthiest family in such a community, or are an elder in your tribe or the PhD with the most published books in your university. And from the other side of this conflict, you are unlikely to feel free to assert yourself with such a person if your status is near the bottom in such a group. Of course, it is true that roles and status also influence conflict styles in individualist settings, but they do so far more in collectivist settings.

Many Have Experience with Both But Prefer One

Modern people have at least some experience with both modes, irrespective of where we live. In airports and commercial centers in big cities everywhere in the world, many people operate in individualist/low context mode. Who they are, their past, their social status, and their duties to others are mostly neither known nor considered in such settings. People do their business, say what they need, and pass on. In cultures that are largely collectivist, these represent what anthropologist Jennifer Beer calls pockets of individualist behavor in collectivist environments.

Similarly, there are pockets of collectivist behavior in individualist environments. Family gatherings, small religious congregations, cliques of old buddies, neighborhood restaurants with a local clientele are settings where all know each, know “the rules” and the "pecking order", and generally behave accordingly.

But despite our experience with both settings, most of us are more comfortable in one than the other, and we tend to assume that others function the same way we do. This assumption, of course, sets us up for misunderstanding.

Suggestions for Insightful Conversations

In taking this inventory, we invite you to choose the instructions that work best for you in answering the questions. We want the questions to feel appropriate to your reality. If you don't interact with people from cultural backgrounds different than your own, you can choose the instructions that feel right for you and forget about collectivist vs. individualist cultures.

But most people today relate to others from a variety of cultural backgrounds. If this is true for you, you will benefit by understanding how people different than yourself respond to conflict. Watch those around you or ask them questions about how they they deal with conflict, like:

  • When you have a conflict with someone, what factors do you consider in deciding whether to speak up or not?
  • If you had a conflict in your home community with someone who is 20 years older than you, would you feel free to express your opinion? Why/Why not?
  • Do you deal with conflict the same way at work as at home? If they are different, how are they different and why?
  • How did people in your parents' communities deal with differences/conflict when they were younger?
  • How did/do your parents deal with conflict? What did they teach you is important when you are in a conflict?
  • What would you wish to teach children about conflict?
  • Are you ever surprised by how people from a cultural background different from your own respond to conflict? What, specifically, surprises you? How does that differ from the way you were taught to deal with conflict? What do you like about the way people in your culture deal with conflict? Is there anything you admire in the way another culture deals with it

Response to Conflict is a Mirror of Values

These questions will open conversations that can teach a great deal about the differences between individualist and collectivist cultures. And in fact they will take you well beyond that topic if you listen well and reflect deeply. What people think should be done in response to conflict reflects many of the most important values that human beings hold. Conversation about conflict very easily becomes a conversation about life and values.

It is true that conflict can destroy, but it is also true that conflict - and reflecting on what we choose to do about it - can bring hope and possibilities for transformation. Engaging others in exploring this energized terrain is a wonderful way to experience the richness and the paradoxical character of our humanity.