High Context Versus Low Context – the Communication Style of Your Story

22 Jun

by Julie Eshbaugh


In 1976, Anthropologist Edward T. Hall published a book titled BEYOND CULTURE.  Through this book, Hall popularized a theory of two main styles of communication.  He called these contrasting styles “high context” and “low context.”  Essentially, Hall taught that certain cultures communicated more through inference and implied ideas (high-context communication,) while others communicated with more explicit and detailed information (low-context communication.)  Though Hall was interested in the broad differences between cultures, the ideas of “high context” and “low context” can apply to any social situation.  For us as writers, analyzing the setting of a scene and deciding if it takes place in a high-context or low-context situation offers an additional method to add realism to dialogue and tension to communication.

In general terms, “high context” refers to societies or settings that have long-established, deep connections. Because of the depth of connection between the members of the group, a lot of communication is understood through implication and less communication is stated explicitly.  Your family would most likely be a good example of a high context group. Other examples of high context situations might be a party of close friends, a small church congregation, a neighborhood diner with a very regular clientele, or a formal restaurant where the rules of behavior are understood without having to be spelled out.

An example of a high-context culture in a work of fiction would be China in Amy Tan’s THE JOY LUCK CLUB, especially as it exists in the memories of the mothers.

Conversely, a “low context” group or setting would be one where people tend to have a lot of connections but each connection might serve a specific purpose and last a shorter duration of time. Rules of interaction will vary more in a low context situation.  Expectations of behavior will be less inferred by the situation and more explicitly spelled out.   Examples of low context settings would include a cafeteria, a metropolitan airport, a hospital, or a large supermarket.

In the example used above of THE JOY LUCK CLUB, the United States that the daughters are a part of is a low-context culture.

Anthropologists will often describe an entire society as “high context” or “low context.” For example, Asian and Arab cultures are generally considered high context cultures, while the US, Canada, and Western European cultures are generally considered more low context cultures. But as writers, we should look at each situation and setting individually and decide if communication in that setting would be more implicit or explicit.

Here are a few examples of how high context or low context can impact communication.

First, imagine a scene in which a teenage girl brings home her report card to the father who has played a dominant role in her upbringing:

Alice creeps through the back door, hoping to get to her room unnoticed.  The door hasn’t even closed completely when she feels the hand on her shoulder.

She turns and slumps. Her gaze falls on her father’s feet as she stares at the floor.  Reaching into her pocket, she pulls out the wrinkled envelope and slips it into his hand.

Motionless, she waits while he opens the envelope and peruses the contents.

After a few long minutes, he folds the paper neatly and clears his throat. Without looking up, Alice heads for her room, where she will wait to be summoned when her mother gets home.

Now, imagine a similar scene – a girl handing a man a letter – but now the characters are strangers, and the girl works behind the counter of a large hotel:

Alice sorts the mail and messages by room number behind the registration desk – a phone message from a limo company, a dry cleaning receipt, a newspaper. The usual. But then she discovers the small pink envelope, with its frilly feminine script, and distinct scent of perfume. “Mr. Thomas Henry” is neatly written across the front of the envelope. There is a stamp, but no return address.

“Excuse me.” The voice belongs to a man standing at the desk.  Alice turns to face him and nods. “Do I have any mail? Thomas Henry, room 134.”

“Uh,” Alice stammers. “This came for you.” She hands him the mysterious pink correspondence.

“Wait, what?” The man, so polished in his jacket and tie, seems flustered. “Did this come by mail?  Or was it dropped off in person?” His manner is intense, and Alice shrinks back.

“I can’t say for sure, Sir,” she says. “I only sort the mail. Mr. Jones, the concierge, brings it to the desk.  His podium is in the front lobby. He may be able to help you.”

“Thanks,” Mr. Henry grunts. He pauses a moment to smooth a hand over the front of his pristine jacket.  One moment more and he is once again perfectly composed. “Could you just point me toward the front lobby, please, Miss?”

The first conversation takes place in a high context situation. The relationship between the characters makes explicit communication unnecessary. The second takes place in a low context situation. Though some information is implied, information is mainly shared through clear words and gestures.

Analyzing the settings of your scenes can help you decide if your characters would be exchanging information implicitly (high context situations) or more explicitly (low context situations.)

If your characters are long acquainted and have an intimate understanding of each other, then an argument about the quality of a meal may really be about finances or betrayal. If your characters are new or casual acquaintances, an argument about a meal is probably just that – an argument about a meal.

Another way that high context and low context situations can impact your writing occurs when the characters start out strangers and become a close-knit group. As a situation evolves from low context to high context, so does the style of communication. The television show LOST, in which a group of strangers on an airliner become a tight group of plane-crash survivors, is an example in which communication would take on the style of a high context society over the course of a story.

To close this post, I want to leave you with an example of the incredible impact one line of high context dialogue can have in conveying the relationship between characters.  Although I no longer remember the movie, (maybe SHE’S HAVING A BABY?) I will never forget this brief exchange of dialogue spoken over the phone between a husband and wife:

HIM: “Meet me at that place by that thing where we went that time.”

HER: “Okay.”

So much of what you need to know about the relationship between those two characters is tucked into that one line of dialogue!

What do you think of high context versus low context? Do you consider this concept when you are writing dialogue?  Do you analyze your setting before you decide what should be said or left unsaid between your characters?  I look forward to your comments!


Julie Eshbaugh is represented by Natalie Fischer of the Bradford Literary Agency. You can read her blog here and find her on Twitter here.


15 Responses to “High Context Versus Low Context – the Communication Style of Your Story”

  1. Aya Tsintziras June 22, 2011 at 8:23 AM #

    Hey Julie! Great post. I LOVE that you cited LOST as an example!

    • Julie Eshbaugh June 22, 2011 at 8:05 PM #

      Hey Aya! Ah, LOST… I think I will use that show as an example every chance I get! 🙂

  2. Karen June 22, 2011 at 10:22 AM #

    Thanks for the incredibly informative post! I think I understood the concept of high-low context, but writing without having a name for the technique made it difficult to explain to my critics. Today, most of my writing effort is invested in conscious, purposeful writing (whereas before it was very stream-of-consciousness and haphazard). Reading LTWF has changed my techniques for the better and hopefully I can share good news with you ladies soon. Huzzah!

    • Julie Eshbaugh June 22, 2011 at 8:11 PM #

      Hey Karen! I’m so glad you feel that reading LTWF is helping you become a better writer. Contributing to LTWF has definitely improved my writing. I look forward to the day you share your good news! 🙂

  3. Rowenna June 22, 2011 at 10:53 AM #

    Great post! Keeping this is mind can help a writer reveal a lot about the culture and relationships between characters. And I love that last line of dialogue! So funny…because I have a group of friends that’s so close that’s how we often communicate. “Would you pass me that thing for the stuff?” “Sure.” “Ooohh, we should sing that song!” *group starts singing* And then we start laughing that we understood one another!

    • Julie Eshbaugh June 22, 2011 at 8:13 PM #

      Hi Rowenna! I love your examples of your high context communications with your friends. I wish I could steal them for my own writing!!! 😉 Thanks for the comment!

  4. Kat Zhang June 22, 2011 at 6:56 PM #

    Love this post, Julie! This is a great way to subtly paint the relationship between two characters 🙂

    • Julie Eshbaugh June 22, 2011 at 8:08 PM #

      Hi Kat – Yes, I completely agree. Once I learned about high context communication, I realized that my characters were talking too explicitly, considering the closeness of their relationships. Revisions to follow! 🙂

  5. cgmason June 26, 2011 at 8:54 AM #

    Interesting post Julie! I’d never really thought about it before. I will be moving to Japan this July for a year, and in many of my pre-departure orientations, they have warned us about how a lot of communication in the Japanese society is ambiguous implications rather then just straight up saying something. Apparently it’s like a code that you just have to get used to. People rarely just say what they mean. This is because Japanese society is a very close-knit, group-minded, high-context society. Very interesting 🙂

  6. hasmawati October 20, 2011 at 1:02 AM #

    which one is the best low or high if you want to doing business ?

  7. Suzanne January 6, 2012 at 4:24 AM #

    the movie is Broadcast News 😉

    • Julie Eshbaugh January 8, 2012 at 7:38 PM #

      OMGosh, Suzanne, thanks so much! 🙂

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