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Low-Context and High-Context at the Oscars

By Mari D. González

The Oscars’ controversial comment by Sean Penn when presenting Alejandro González Iñárritu is a great example on how communication between members of Low-context and High-context groups causes misinterpretation.

According to anthropologist and intercultural communication pioneer, Edward T. Hall, North European and North American macro-cultures would be defined as “Low-context” because their communication preference is characterized by explicit verbal messages. Hall further explains that in Low-context, “Effective verbal communication is expected to be direct and unambiguous.” On the other hand, societies from the rest of the world including Latin America, Asia, and Arab countries utilize “High-context” communication in which, “most of the information is part of the context or internalized in the person; very little is made explicit (Hall, as cited by de Mooij, 2014). In these countries, people are programmed to read context and meaning between words.

Low-context communication is related to an individualistic identity in which people are “I” conscious and express private opinions publicly. Conversely, in High-context or collectivist societies expressing personal opinions and disregarding group of reference’s perceptions is not recommended. There is a risk of making them feel humiliated or what Asians call “losing face.”

In collectivist cultures, personal identity is related to and not separate from that of the group of reference as in “we.” An offense to a person of that group is an offense to all members who identify with that in-group. Hence, a perceived offense to Iñárritu could be perceived as an offense to those who identify as Mexicans because their individual identity is not separate from that of the group of reference as it is for members of individualistic cultures.