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8.3: Context Can Play a Role in Identifying Confirming and Disconfirming Responses

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    High- versus Low-Context Communication

    Anthropologist Edward T. Hall applied the concept of context to different cultures and how people communicated. He introduced the idea of high-context cultures and low-context cultures (Hall, 1976).

    So what is context and why is it important to interpersonal communication? The Department of State’s resource titled So You’re an American? A Guide to Answering Difficult Questions Abroad provides a good definition of context in communication between people from different cultures:

    Context literally means “with text”—it’s all of the information surrounding what is being said, from the setting to the people involved and their standing within a given culture. The context of any interpersonal exchange can impact much of what is said and meant. Cultural norms regarding context vary greatly. In many ways, these cultural differences related to context influence how people communicate. (Foreign Service Institute, n.d.)

    High-context communication typically occurs when, because of common history, a group of people have shared meanings, routines, and rituals. Because of this, communication tends to be indirect and implicit, and people rely on their intuition in interpreting what is being said and not said. Nonverbal behavior takes a central role in communication in high-context interactions.

    Low-context communication occurs when messages must be direct and explicit because there is a lack of shared meaning. Ideas are expressed by individuals verbally with a good amount of explanation and reasoning. Things must be stated in an articulate, unambiguous manner without relying on intuition because there is little or no perceived common history.

    In-Groups versus Out-Groups

    This idea of high-context and low-context communication can be used to discuss the characteristics of groups. An in-group is a social group that people identify with and feel that they belong to. Members share the interests, narratives, and language (both verbal and nonverbal) of the in-group. The members of an in-group would typically communicate with each other toward the high context end of the high-context and low-context continuum.

    An example of an in-group is Major League Baseball (MLB) fans. Members of the MLB fan in-group most likely know quite a bit about the history, statistics, language, and logos of the sport, especially for the team that they support and root for. One of our authors provides an example:

    I remember an informative speech that a student gave on the history of the San Francisco Giants in my public speaking class. They delivered a well-organized speech in which they did a great job of outlining and explaining the history of the team. Since I am a big fan of major league baseball, I understood all of the lingo and examples that they used in their speech. I was reminded that I was a member of the MLB fan in-group when several of the students in the audience asked “What is an ‘RBI’?” and “Could you explain what a ‘tablesetter’ and a ‘southpaw’ are?” I had understood what the speaker was referring to, but the students in the class who did not identify as major league baseball fans had no clue about what was being talked about when these terms were used. Those students were part of the out-group and did not share the same knowledge that the speaker and I had about baseball. The speaker and I both understood the high-context aspects of the informative speech. The students who were not baseball fans needed a more low-context approach to understand the speaker’s message and feel confirmed as audience members interested in learning more about the San Francisco Giants.

    The High Context–Low Context Communication Continuum

    As you can see, context plays a major role in our interpretation of the communication climate of a situation and whether we feel confirmed or disconfirmed by our conversation partner. High-context communication and low-context communication can be depicted at the opposite ends of a continuum, as shown in Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\). An accessible text version of the infographic is linked in the figure caption.

    An accessible text version of this graphic is linked in the caption.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): The High Context–Low Context Communication Continuum by Armeda C. Reitzel is licensed CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

    An accessible text version is provided here: High Context-Low Context Communication Continuum with Explanations

    How might a person from a high-context culture or in-group view the direct, explicit, detailed verbal communication style of someone using low-context communication? They might feel that the low-context person is talking down to them because they do not need all of that explanation or detailed instructions. They might think: “Why does that person think that I don’t get it? Do they think I can’t figure it out? Do they think that I am stupid? Do they not trust me?” These interpretations certainly lead to feelings of disconfirmation.

    A person from a low-context culture could also experience feelings of disconfirmation when interacting with someone who is from a high-context culture or in-group. They might view the high context communicator as evasive, ambiguous, deceitful, and maybe even dishonest. They might think: “Why is this person so vague in their responses? Are they being lazy or sneaky? Maybe they just don’t get it. I just don’t know what they want or need. Why don’t they get to the point?”

    High- and Low-Context Communication Interactions

    As you can see, context can be a powerful factor affecting how people feel about an interpersonal interaction. In reality, most of us go back and forth between low-context and high-context communication all day long in our interpersonal interactions. Think about Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\), which shows a few examples of high-context and low-context culture (an accessible text version is linked in the figure caption). Then think about different examples of communication interactions that you have had today and consider where you might plot them along the high context–low context continuum.

    An accessible text version of this filled-in graphic is linked in the figure caption.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): The High-Context and Low-Context Continuum with Examples by Armeda C. Reitzel is licensed CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

    An accessible text version is provided here: High-Context and Low-Context Continuum with Examples

    Here is an example for you to think about as you reflect on your communication interactions. Let’s say your professor tells you to: “Write an essay about communication climate,” and that’s all they say. For many students, that may be considered very vague, ambiguous communication because no details or direct instructions were given for guidance. The directive could be interpreted as a disconfirming response by those students because they do not know what the expectations are nor how they will be graded. On the other hand, let’s say that some of the students in the class have taken multiple classes from that professor and know what the expectations are because of their previous experiences. They know the number of pages required, how to organize the five-paragraph essay, how much description and analysis to go into, how many specific sources to cite in APA 7 Style, etc. They already have a good idea of what the professor is looking for in a paper on communication climate without the professor having to go into details about their one-sentence direction: “Write an essay about communication climate.” For these students, they understand the implicit high-context directive. It would not be seen as a disconfirming response to them.

    As stated earlier, high-context communication involves shared communication norms within an in-group because of familiarity and a common history. Think about some in-groups you belong to: your work group, different circles of friends, and your family. Because of shared experiences, you may even develop your own jargon or slang. This can certainly happen within a family. Families often have their own words and phrases for things that would confuse someone outside of that household. One of our professors provides this example:

    Our minister’s wife came over to babysit my very young daughter one evening. When I returned home, the minister’s wife was very concerned about something that my daughter kept repeating over and over during the evening: “Fire. Fire. Fire.” I was confused that the minister’s wife did not understand what she was saying. Why? Because I knew that my daughter had not been saying "fire." She had been saying “fier” as in “pacifier,” her word for her pacifier. My daughter’s communication was clear to me because we all understood what she meant within our family culture, but to someone outside of the family, her communication was unclear. Being a Communication professor, I reflected on this incident because it was a great example of how high-context communication within a family could lead to a misunderstanding by someone outside of the family. After that, I gave my babysitters a list of words and phrases that my daughter might say that were particular to our family communication patterns. I used a low-context way of informing our babysitters about our high-context family communication style. That low-context glossary of my family’s vocabulary seemed to do the trick!

    High-and-Low Context Activity

    Let’s explore high- and low-context communication within an in-group and between an in-group and an out-group.

    Diagonal line with "high context" labeled at the top and "low context" at the bottom, with bubbles to fill in on either side

    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): The High-Context and Low-Context Continuum Fill in by Armeda C. Reitzel is licensed CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

    Reflection Activity

    Now that we have gone over high and low context, let’s explore them a bit further and consider the ways in which our identities and culture influence our daily communication. Over the next few days/week, pay attention to your communication interactions and note the differences between how you communicate with members of your in-group versus out-group members.

    • Bring to mind one group you identify with (Dodgers fans versus Cubs fans, Bruins versus Trojans, marching band, musical theater, engineers, accountants, Red Cross volunteers, student government members) and write it down in your first journal entry. Next, provide examples of high-context communication within your group when you interact with each other as compared to using low-context communication when interacting with others outside of your group.
    • Using Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\), plot your examples of high- and low-context communication along the continuum.
    • Pay attention to the different contexts you use with people you have relationships with. Describe how you use high and/or low context in your interactions within three different relationships.