The theory of cultural differences published by EdwardHall in 1976 assumes a strong linkage to exist between culture and communication. What kind of communication dominates in a given culture relates directly to the type of the culture or, to be more precise, to the role of social context in that culture. At that, social context is interpreted as the network of social expectations that determine a person's behaviour.
In some cultures most conversational information lies in the context. Hall calls them high-context cultures. In other cultures context carries relatively little information. Those are called low-context cultures. One of the unwritten rules governing communicative behaviour is to keep the amount of information exchanged in a conversation at an optimum level by avoiding information overload, i.e. interlocutors take it for granted that what is seen or known anyway need not be expressed in words.
Although both cultures share one and the same aim of communication viz., to change reality according one's desires, in cultures of different contextuality the ways to this aim do differ.
In high-context cultures, in which one's behaviour is to a great extent determined by social roles and expectations, a person is usually spoken to in order to motivate him or her to behave differently from what he or she would otherwise probably do. In such culture speaking is a real art, in which emphasis is laid on the emotional aspect. This is also what the listener expects to receive - an emotional message to persuade him. The interpretational limits of the message, however, are rather loose: both speaking and listening are regarded as sources of enjoyment. The speaker is expected to present an unhurried and relatively long talk, usually not to be interrupted by the partner. A turn of speaking usually represents a complete and finished deliverance. Questions are normally asked not in order to extract additional information, but to put the matter in a more philosophical perspective. The principal rule to be followed in high-context cultures is Don't interfere, let him speak!
In low-context cultures, however, the speaker expects to influence the partner to act in the speaker's interests by pointing out a number of options and providing enough information to enable him or her to take the desirable decision by himself. Here rational information prevails over social motivation. Emotional charge is delivered by surprise, that is created, first and foremost, by disclosing novel information. The more surprising turns the conversation takes, the higher the emotional charge achieved. To keep the emotional level high information flow and, consequently, speech has to be rapid. The listener, in his turn, is searching the text for new information and, in order to ensure the correctness of its perception, keeps asking specifying questions. This way the listener contributes to a quick and straightforward progression of the conversation. Ambivalence of interpretation is sought to be avoided. The speaker should give an unequivocal explanation of what he or she means. Come to the point! Say what you mean! Don't beat about the bush! - these are the basic rules of conversation to be applied in low-context cultures (v. alsoGudykunst 1988 p. 44).
In a nutshell, communication in the respective two types of culture could be characterized as follows:
In the case of intercultural communication the guessing of the cultural type and, respectively, the speech behavioural norms of the partner may present quite a problem. If a speaker uses a language foreign to him, he often tends to stick to those norms that are considered acceptable in his own culture. It should be noted that if those norms differ from those of the partner, the difference is not perceived as a linguistic error, but rather as a personal shortcoming of the speaker. On speech behaviour being interpreted on the basis of one's own cultural norms (v.Tiittula 1993)
A similar tendency can be observed interculturally. As every culture has people whose speech behaviour differs from the dominating one, such people are considered either ill-mannered or just stupid (v. alsoRusanen 1993). Misunderstanding should diminish, however, if the cultural aspects of speech behaviour are recognized.
On the basis of the dominating way of communicative behaviour, several cultures have been mapped in the high- and low-context contiinuum (Fig. 1). At the high-context end we find the Greek, Spanish, French, and most of the Asian cultures, whereas the low-context end seems to have attracted the US, German, Scandinavian, and Swiss cultures (v. Gudykunst 1988, Hall & Hall 1990, Victor 1992).
FIG. 1. Cultures at the opposite ends of the high- and low-context contiinuum.