Edward T. Hall’s High Context Low Context Theory on Chinese Culture

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Messages are transcended without much explanation or explicit descriptions because it is assumed that the receiver will understand. This is Edward T. Hall’s High Context theory. This is the Chinese culture. I am an immigrant from Hong Kong. Although I relocated to Toronto before I came to understand most of my teachings, I did not forget them. As one of the oldest civilizations in the world with almost four thousand years of history, the Chinese culture is most difficult to decipher but not impossible to comprehend. (Riel) ] The characters that construct the Chinese language are endless; and it is in the complexity of the language that ‘reading between the lines’ becomes a necessity, not an option. The values of the culture itself can also be seen as a direct result of this high context nature due to the strong beliefs in mutual beneficial relationships, face, and other ideas that are gravely important to being identified as a Chinese individual. Covert and overt messages can also interchangeably be described as indirect and direct messages.

As Hall explains, high-context cultures such as the Chinese transmit and receive messages in a nature where, “very little of the interpretation of the message is left to chance because people already know…the communicative behaviors will have a specific and particular message. ” [ (Myron W. Lustig, 2013) ] I interpret this explanation to stem largely from the Chinese language itself. I was raised to speak, read, and write Cantonese. It is required for an individual to familiarize with approximately two thousand characters in order to be considered literate in the language. (Cantonese. ca, 2013) ] In the 1950s a reform occurred giving birth to Simplified Chinese in order to promote a broader understanding of the language and aim at a higher literacy rate in China. The overwhelming statistics presented inevitably prove an individual must be very careful with words because you can only say or write so much to carry a point across. This is why one must not only be selective when transmitting a message in the Chinese culture, but receiving it as well.

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Due to the vast selection of words one can use, the tone chosen to emit the vowels and consonants must also be done delicately as each small detail may deteriorate or ultimately convey an entirely different meaning. It is next to impossible for anyone to hear the phrase “giving clock” in Chinese. It is also highly unlikely for the occurrence of someone giving a clock as a gift. The reason for the avoidance of such a small action is simply because the enunciation of the characters are exactly the same as “walking a dead person to his grave”. Threats are made the same way.

Often times, individuals or parties threaten rivals and enemies by using sincere verbal gestures and statements. The one defining variable is the tone used to carry the message, which is often lower pitched, louder, and accompanied by rude hand gestures. The Chinese culture can be very interesting to learn about due to the endless variations and forms a message can take. However, it is also a culture that demands individuals to tread carefully when conversing because the line between appraising someone and offending someone is far too thin. Ingroups and outgroups are easily detected within the Chinese culture.

This is so because the norms of the Chinese community are all widely known within the culture and those who choose to oppose it are ousted as soon as such misconduct is witnessed. The norms, or values that binds the actions of a Chinese individual can all be traced back to one key point – face. Face explains how carefully one treads when making a point in respect to the opposing party’s image. The way in which an individual is perceived is of utmost importance to the individual. Therefore, the Chinese culture demands that all actions be to either increase one’s ‘face’ or minimize the damage done to it.

In many low context cultures such as German or European, many thoughts are carried across clearly and concisely. If I ask whether or not an individual will attend an event I’m hosting, the answer in a low context culture is often limited to ‘yes’ or ‘no’. However, in a culture as high a context as the Chinese, the answer is most often a ‘maybe’. Even in a situation where I am most certain I will not attend an event, I will still give an uncertain reply in hopes that the host will not be offended by my absence and to restrict the damage my decision may make to the host’s image.

Another example would be to settling disputes privately and discreetly. If two large groups were in an argument, the leader of the groups would set aside and talk alone in order to resolve the situation while keeping the public embarrassment to a minimum. These are the norms. This is the invisible rule book that the Chinese culture often abides by and is what defines the ingroups from the outgroups. However, there are many who do not live by such standards and the ripple effect these actions cause are a tremendous impact to society. Hong Kong is independent and has been on its’ own for a while.

However, it still keeps close ties to the Republic of China due to the close proximity of their lands and the various similarities in culture. Recently, however, arguments are arising between those from China and those who reside in Hong Kong. The reason for this is simply because in the last twenty years, China immigrants receiving residential benefits have skyrocketed. The number of immigrants are as of 2009, 22339, which is a substantially increased total in comparison to 16451 in 1986. China immigrants consist largely of females who have married Hong Kong males or illegal immigrants who have overstayed or been smuggled. (Luo, 2011) ] The result is that these individuals, legal or illegal, have dominated regions of Hong Kong and have received compensations and benefits for doing so. As a society, the local citizens feel as if they have been stripped of what is rightfully theirs. As a society, Hong Kong feels that it is losing ‘face’ because the government is giving away the subsidies funded by hard earned taxpayers’ money. The culture in certain parts of China is also widely different in comparison to that of Hong Kong. The two neighboring groups of people share vastly opposite views on manners, etiquettes and lifestyles.

Therefore, this situation has become one in which the local residents of Hong Kong are attempting to oust the China immigrants as outgroups due to a conflict of interest and polar opposite views on acceptable behavior. Chinese people adapt to the ever-changing times. This is most evident in technological advancements and the fact that Hong Kong has become a central point for globalization and international business. However, a large part of the Chinese culture stems from ancient periods where dynasties ruled. These beliefs and teachings have changed very little over the course of centuries.

This is best proven in the short, four lettered exchange of wishes that is so popular in the Chinese culture. These sayings can often be heard being exchanged during holidays, festivals, New Years, birthdays or simply anytime one individual wants to bid another good health. These exchanges originated in third century B. C. and have surprisingly not aged at all. [ (Cantonese. ca, 2013) ] The wordings are still predominantly exactly the same. In this sense, the Chinese culture acts in the present but thinks in the past in regards to time.

Families also have a tendency to teach the children of the next generation in these four lettered sayings. Some of these sayings, although short and limited to four characters, can contain a moral; others have stories responsible for their origins. An upside to constantly teaching in four letter syllables is because they are easy to remember. Once you can recall these characters, you naturally remember the story behind them. The Chinese culture tends to see itself as, “the continuum of history with less emphasis on the present time. ” [ (Cantonese. a, 2013) ] As a Chinese individual, I also see myself as a link to an extensive line of ancestral relations and commonly use teachings from the past because I agree with these words of wisdom as well as respect them. Many of the understandings attained from a conversation involving the Chinese language is not attained on the surface of things. Meanings are interpreted with previous knowledge and it is commonly understood that this sort of knowledge goes without saying. This is most noticeably the result of the immense selection of characters in the language.

The fact that short sayings have widely interpretable significance also accounts for a large portion of the culture’s communication. Due to the heavy emphasis on ancestral teachings and sayings, it is also clear that the culture’s perspective of time is in the past despite the recent economic breakthroughs. As an individual originally from this community, these cultural values are a constant reminder of where I’m from. The language may be almost too sensitive when it comes time to choosing how to word your statement. But it is in this process that one must be accurate, vigilant, and respectful of people.

Cantonese.ca. (2013). About Cantonese. From Learn Cantonese: http://cantonese.ca/intro.php Luo, L. (2011, May 18). Dispute over new immigrants from the mainland, Hong Kong is unhappy? Retrieved 2013, from China Hush: http://www.chinahush.com/2011/05/18/dispute-over-new-immigrants-from-the-mainland-hong-kong-is-unhappy/ Myron W. Lustig, J. K. (2013). Intercultural Competence (Seventh ed.). (K. Bowers, Ed.) New Jersey, U.S.: Pearson. Riel, B. (n.d.). The Cultural Context China. (Eaton Consulting Group) From http://www.international-mobility.com/uk/interculturel/china.php

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Edward T. Hall’s High Context Low Context Theory on Chinese Culture. (2016, Dec 11). Retrieved from


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