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Meaning of Culture

Culture is a common concept but one which has often been misunderstood. A lot of attempts have been made to define culture but none of them has come up with a universal definition which can fit all contexts. Despite the lack of a precise definition, many people have an idea of what culture means. The only difficult thing has been creating a distinct definition. Informally, culture means the behavior and thought processes of people, especially those sharing a common language (Hall 84). It covers the following aspects of a distinct social group: customs, attitudes, body language, expectations and family roles. People may be speaking the same language and yet have different cultures as is the case for many English-speaking countries like the US.

The word culture may also be used to refer to artistic or intellectual activities, for example, salsa, art galleries, pop-songs, etc. In this case, the word culture is used by academics to distinguish between articles of high culture and those of low culture, e.g. salsa and pop songs. The latter meaning of culture is used rarely when dealing with inter-cultural communications.

How Cultural Background Influences Communication

A person’s cultural framework influences his or her style of communication. For instance, in Scandinavian, German and Swiss communities, communication takes place by way of overt verbal statements. In other words, communication is explicit and not implied. As a result, these communities are classified as low-context cultures. Other communities, for example, the Japanese and the Chinese, communicate using other aspects such as non-verbal communication and silence (Hall 65). These communities are categorized as high-context cultures and they use mostly implicit means of communication as opposed to open means. In this case, context, behavior, and body language are essential components of the communication.

Description of My Cultural Identity

I am an Asian by Origin. The Asian culture is very distinct from western cultures such that of the US, owing to the fact that Asian communities are high-context cultures while western communities are low-context cultures. I have observed that because of the differences in the nature of communication between the two cultures, it is very easy for a person from either culture to misunderstand the other. Therefore, a thorough understanding of how culture affects people’s way of communication and interpretation of messages is very important to ensure effectiveness and avoid conflicts in inter-cultural communication.

Features of High-Context and Low-Context Cultures

From the table above, it can be inferred that low-context cultures are more proactive rather than reactive. In contrast, high-context cultures tend to be reactive. Similarly, high-context cultures are more likely to conform to environmental conditions instead of looking into ways of overcoming the threat and challenges posed by the environment such as earthquakes and floods. Low-context cultures will usually have mechanisms in place for minimizing the threats and mitigating the effects of such natural events. On the whole, low-context communities tend to focus more on practicality and are individualistic while high-context communities are more group-oriented and spiritual.

Cultural Dimensions and their Effect on Communication

There are several cultural variables that distinguish low-context and a high-context community as far as communication is concerned. Some of the key variables are: collectivism versus individualism, and power distance.

Collectivism vs. Individualism

The collectivism vs. individualism variable is closely related to low-context and high-context cultural concepts. High-context communities are characterized by collectivism while low-context cultures are characterized by individualism. Collectivism is best demonstrated by cooperation and support of group members in the pursuit of common goals while individualism is manifested by competition among group members. High-context cultures usually put group interest first and individual interest second (Hofstede 30). A person’s family history affects how other people perceive him or her in this type of culture. In addition, personal achievements have little effect on one’s social status. Collectivist communities encourage networking among members and the establishment of strong interpersonal relationships. Low-context communities, on the other hand, tend to uphold individualism. A lot of importance is placed on personal achievements as opposed to those of the group and independence is a cherished value in these cultures. Significant individual principles for these cultures include time management, freedom, and challenges.

Collectivism/Individualism Case Scenario

I went to a multi-cultural school for my high school education. The students in our class usually were from many countries including America, Indonesia, Japan, and China. When a teacher asked questions on a topic of discussion, the American students were eager to participate and would raise their hands. In contrast, students from Asian countries did not like raising their hands and they seemed disinterested in class discussions. Later, I came to learn that Asian students did not like competition as they are used to cooperation. On the contrary, American students are used to a competitive and individualistic way of life and that is the reason they were very eager to participate in class discussions.

Power Distance

Power distance refers to the degree to which unequal distribution of power in a community is deemed as acceptable among members of the community. High power distance in a society is characterized by autocracy, hierarchical levels, and lines of authority. High power distance is usually seen in high-context communities (Hofstede 23). Low power distance communities, on the other hand, are epitomized by democratic leadership, equality values, and flat organization structures.

Power Distance Case Scenario

I have both American and Asian friends. During our conversations I have observed that Americans are very direct and they speak as if the conversation is between equals though we may be of different social status. My Asian friends, in contrast, revere those people whom they perceive to be of higher status than them. 


Culture has a very significant impact on people’s style of communication. Low-context cultures tend to be explicit in their communication while high-context cultures are implicit. Major cultural variables affecting communication include collectivist vs. individualistic dimension and power distance.

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