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High- and Low-Context Cultures and Power Distances

Literature provides argument that cross-cultural communication is a complex matter. Edward Hall argued much of the human communication is non-verbal and always follows cultural and contextual patterns (Katz, 2006). Hall further argues that there are two key concepts: High-Context v Low-Context and Polychronic v Monochronic (Babel, n.d.).

High-Context communication assumes that the people we speak to are wise to the context in which our message is set and ideas are not spelled out in detail (Babel, n.d.). In high-context cultures such as Japan and China most of the information about the meaning of a message is contained in the context of the setting in which the message is given (Hackman & Johnson, 2000, p 300). Group members make assumption that they share common meanings and prefer indirect or covert messaging that relies heavily on nonverbal codes and understanding (Hackman & Johnson, 2000, p 300). Alternately, a low-context culture such as Germany or Great Britain embeds much more meaning in the words that make up their verbal messages and they speak much more directly to the message recipient. (Hackman & Johnson, 2000, p 301).

Another important attribute to consider in the development of a cross-cultural communication strategy might include what Hofstede defines as Power Distance or the extent to which the less powerful members of institutions and organizations within a country expect and accept that power is distributed unequally (Tamas, 2007). Hofstede argues that all societies are unequal and within high power-distance cultures, the inequality is considered to be a natural part of their world while in contrast, low power-distance cultures are uncomfortable with differences in wealth, status, power and privilege (Hackman & Johnson, 2000, p 302). Leaders can run into difficulties dealing with other cultures when power distances and nonverbal cues are ignored.


Katz, Lothar (2006). “Book Review: Edward T. Hall. The Silent Language.” Leadership Crossroads. Retrieved February 17, 2012 from

Babel (n.d.) “The Silent Language” Babel Language and Cultural Consultants Monthly Newsletter. Retrieved February 17, 2012 from

Hackman, Michael Z. and Johnson, Craig E. (2000). Leadership. A Communication Perspective. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press.

Tamas, Andy (2007). “Geert Hofstede’s Dimensions of Culture and Edward T. Hall’s Time Orientations.” Retrieved on February 17, 2012 from


Philip A Foster, MA is Founder/CEO of Maximum Change Inc. Elevating leaders and their organizations to the next level since 2005. Master Certified Coach, Philip A Foster, MA and his associates facilitate effective positive change by helping organizations, leaders and individuals in high demand — design and implement strategies that maximize focus and deliver results. Specializing in Organization and Strategic Leadership.

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