High Context vs Low Context Communicators: Which One Are You?

Updated: Oct 16, 2020

Today I want to talk about High Context versus Low Context Communication. This concept is important to know and understand, because it is going to have a great effect on how couples and families communicate with one another. Frequently, differences in communication styles can lead to a lot of conflict within relationships as well as frequent arguing and misunderstanding. Surprisingly, I never learned about this concept in my graduate studies in psychology. I learned about this when I was trained to be a Mental Health Interpreter. (Yes! There's specialized training to be an interpreter for mental health appointments!) And I remember thinking to myself, "Why don't we learn about this as therapists?!?! This is good stuff to know!" I never got the answer to that question, but today, I frequently teach my clients about High and Low Context Communication. And today, I'm going to teach you!

What is "Low Context Communication"?

Low Context Communication can sometimes be referred to as Indirect Communication. Essentially low context communicators get right to the point, using very little metaphor, storytelling, or words to explain the concepts or message they are trying to get across. They speak directly with fewer words. In effect, Low Context Communication can be illustrated like this:

Low context communicators tend to be brief in their communications. They are most likely to be men (though not always), and typically come from more individualistic cultures, such as the United States and Germany. We can also see some ties to language. Individuals that speak languages that stem from Anglo Saxon, as well as it's Germanic cousins, are more likely to be low context communicators.

What is "High Context Communication"?

High Context Communication is simply using more words to get your point across. It doesn’t mean that the person is “beating around the bush." It just means that these individuals tend to use storytelling, metaphor, and examples to express themselves. High context communicators will explain their point in many different ways and provide numerous examples. High Context Communication can be illustrated like this:

Typically, groups of people who engage in High Context Communication are women (though not all), individuals coming from collectivist cultures (such as Spain, Mexico, and Japan), and folks whose language is driven from Latin, such as Spanish, Italian, and French.

High Context vs Low Context Communication in Romantic Relationships

Have you ever started talking to someone and thought to yourself, "Man when is this person going to get to the point?" Or perhaps you thought someone was being very brisk in their communication with you, thinking, "Geeze! What's their problem? Why are they being so rude!"

Whether you use High Context or Low Context Communication, it can greatly affect how your communications are received by the people around you. If you are a high context communicator and you are speaking with another high context communicator, you are going to have less trouble in communicating your point. This is because both of you speak in the same way. The same is true if you are a low context communicator and you’re speaking with someone else who is a low context communicator.

Trouble tends to arise when you are speaking with someone who has a different communication styles than you. For example, in my own marriage, my husband is a low context communicator. I am a high context communicator. In the early stages of our relationship, when we would begin discussing something, the conversation would take a turn and begun an argument. And it was all because of the fact that we had different communication styles.

Frequently, I would be trying to explain something to my husband, and being a high context communication, I would tell him one way, then provide an example, then potentially use a metaphor, and then provide another example. My husband would become annoyed with me, frequently cutting me off to try and get me to go straight to the point. I would then get angry because I felt as though he was not wanting to hear my point view and wasn't listening to what I had to say. Our conversations often escalated in this way. Then, I learned about High Context and Low Context Communication. I began to understand that we communicated differently, and we had to learn to meet in the middle in some way.

This led to open conversation between the two of us. I shared with him that, when I communicate, my stories, examples, metaphors, etc., were simply the way I express myself. He shared that he often interpreted my lengthy explanations as me thinking he was stupid. This is when I realized that it was not an issue of him not wanting to listen to me, and he realized then that I did not think he was stupid. This was just an issue of different communication styles. As you might guess, our conversation led to a better understanding of each other, and we have worked to align ourselves in our communication as much as possible.

Does my story sound familiar to you at all? Have you ever caught yourself having arguments with your spouse about how you communicate with one another? Consider taking some time to identify if your arguments stem from a difference in communication styles. If they do, it might be helpful to open the conversation up with your partner about High and Low Context Communication.