1.5 Cultural Characteristics and Communication

1.5 Cultural Characteristics and Communication

Learning Objectives

  1. Differentiate between Edward T. Hall’s low-context and highcontext cultures.
  2. Explain the importance of Geert Hofstede’s research in cultural
  3. Summarize the importance of Stella Ting-Toomey’s face and facework in interpersonal relationships.

In any major area of academic study, there are luminaries that one should understand. A luminary is an expert who sheds light on a subject and inspires and influences others’ work in that area. In this section, we’re going to examine three important luminaries that have helped shape our understanding of culture and intercultural communication: Edward T. Hall, Geert Hofstede, and Stella Ting-Toomey.

Edward T. Hall

One of the earliest researchers in the area of cultural differences and their importance to communication was a researcher by the name of Edward T. Hall. His book Beyond Culture is still considered one of the most influential books for the field of intercultural communication.17,18 According to Hall, all cultures incorporate both verbal and nonverbal elements into communication. In his 1959 book, The Silent Language, Hall states, “culture is communication and communication is culture.”19 In the previous chapter, we talked about the importance of nonverbal communication. We also mentioned that nonverbal communication isn’t exactly universal. Some gestures can mean wildly different things in different parts of the world. President George H. Bush once held up his hand in a “V” for Victory salute to an Australian audience only to find out later that this was the equivalent of the middle finger in the United States. President Nixon did the same thing existing an airplane in Brazil flashing his famous OK sign with his thumb and forefinger forming a circle, but this is the “middle finger” in that culture. Obviously, these two incidents have gone down in the annals of presidential history as cultural faux pas. Still, they illustrate the importance of knowing and understanding gestures in differing cultures because we do not all interpret nonverbal behavior the same way.

Low Context and High Context

One of Hall’s most essential contributions to the field of intercultural communication is the idea of low-context and high-context cultures. The terms “low-context culture” (LCC) and “high-context culture” (HCC) were created by Hall to describe how communication styles differ across cultures. In essence, “in LCC, meaning is expressed through explicit verbal messages, both written and oral. In HCC, on the other hand, intention or meaning can best be conveyed through implicit contexts, including gestures, social customs, silence, nuance, or tone of voice.” 20 Table 6.1 further explores the differences between low-context and high-context cultures. In Table 6.1, we broke down issues of context into three general categories: communication, cultural orientation, and business.

Table 6.1 Low-Context vs. High-Context Cultures
Low-Context High-Context
Type of Communication Explicit Communication Implicit Communication
Communication Focus Focus on Verbal Communication Focus on Nonverbal


Context of Message Less Meaningful Very Meaningful
Politeness Not Important Very Important
Approach to People Direct and Confrontational Indirect and Polite
Cultural Orientation
Emotions No Room for Emotions Emotions Have Importance
Approach to Time Monochromatic Polychromatic
Time Orientation Present-Future Past
In/Out-Groups Flexible and Transient Grouping


Strong Distinctions Between In and


Identity Based on Individual Based on Social System
Values Independence and Freedom Tradition and Social Rules/Norms
Work Style Individualistic Team-Oriented
Work Approach Task-Oriented Relationship-Oriented
Business Approach Competitive Cooperative
Learning Knowledge is Transferable Knowledge is Situational
Sales Orientation Hard Sell Soft Sell
View of Change Change over Tradition Tradition over Change
Images of 10 countries maps lined up starting with Switzerland ending with Japan indicating low context for Switzerland and high context for Japan.
Image by Jason S on Flickr

Geert Hofstede

Another very important researcher in the area of culture is a man by the name of Geert Hofstede. Starting in the 1970s, Geert became interested in how people from different cultures approach work. His interests ultimately culminated in his 1980 publication Culture’s Consequences: International Differences in Work-Related Values where he explained some basic cultural differences.22 Over the years, Geert has fine-tuned his theory of culture, and the most recent update to his theory occurred in 2010.23 In Geert’s research examining thousands of workers from around the globe, he has noticed a series of six cultural differences: low vs. high power distance, individualism vs. collectivism, masculinity vs. femininity, low vs. high uncertainty avoidance, long-term vs. short-term orientation, and indulgence vs. restraint. Let’s briefly look at each of these.

Low vs. High Power Distance

The first of Geert Hofstede’s original dimensions of national cultures was power distance, or the degree to which those people and organizations with less power within a culture accept and expect that power is unequally distributed within their culture. To determine power differences within a culture, Hofstede originally was able to examine cultural value survey data that had been collected by IBM. Over the years, Hofstede and his fellow researchers have regularly collected additional data from around the world to make his conceptualization of six cultural differences one of the most widely studied concepts of culture. When it comes to power distances, these differences often manifest themselves in many ways within a singular culture: class, education, occupations, and health care. With class, many cultures have three clear segments low, middle, and upper. However, the concepts of what is low, middle, and upper can have very large differences. For example, the median income for the average U.S. household is $51,100.24 When discussing household incomes, we use the median (middlemost number) because it’s the most accurate representation of income. According to a 2013 report from the U.S. Census department (using income data from 2012), here is how income inequality in the U.S. looks:

Households in the lowest quintile had incomes of $20,599 or less in 2012. Households in the second quintile had incomes between $20,600 and $39,764, those in the third quintile had incomes between $39,765 and $64,582, and those in the fourth quintile had incomes between $64,583 and $104,096. Households in the highest quintile had incomes of $104,097 or more. The top 5 percent had incomes of $191,157 or more.25

However, income is just one indicator of power distance within a culture. Others are who gets educated and what type of education they receive, who gets health care and what type, and what types of occupations do those with power have versus those who do not have power. According to Hofstede’s most recent data, the five countries with the highest power distances are Malaysia, Slovakia, Guatemala, Panama, and the Philippines. 26 The five countries with the lowest power distances are Austria, Israel, Denmark, New Zealand, and Switzerland (German-speaking part). Notice that the U.S. does not make it into the top five or the bottom five. According to Hofstede’s data, the U.S. is 16th from the bottom of power distance, so we are in the bottom third with regards to power distance. When it comes down to it, despite the issues we have in our country, the power disparity is not nearly as significant as it is in many other parts of our world.

Individualism vs. Collectivism

The United States is number one in individualism, according to Hofstede’s data. 27 Americans are considered individualistic. In other words, we think about ourselves as individuals rather than the collective group. Most Asian countries are considered collectivistic cultures because these cultures tend to be group-focused. Collectivistic cultures tend to think about actions that might affect the entire group rather than specific members of the group.

In an individualistic culture, there is a belief that you can do what you want and follow your passions. In an individualistic culture, if someone asked what you do for a living, they would answer by saying their profession or occupation. However, in collectivistic cultures, a person would answer in terms of the group, organization, and/or corporation that they serve. Moreover, in a collectivistic culture, there is a belief that you should do what benefits the group. In other words, collectivistic cultures focus on how the group can grow and be productive.

Masculinity vs. Femininity

The notion of masculinity and femininity are often misconstrued to be tied to their biological sex counterparts, female and male. For understanding culture, Hofstede acknowledges that this distinction ultimately has a lot to do with work goals.28 On the masculine end of the spectrum, individuals tend to be focused on items like earnings, recognition, advancement, and challenge. Hofstede also refers to these tendencies as being more assertive. Femininity, on the other hand, involves characteristics like having a good working relationship with one’s manager and coworkers, cooperating with people at work, and security (both job and familial). Hofstede refers to this as being more relationally oriented. Admittedly, in Hofstede’s research, there does tend to be a difference between females and males on these characteristics (females tend to be more relationally oriented and males more assertive), which is why Hofstede went with the terms masculinity and femininity in the first place. Ultimately, we can define these types of cultures in the following way:

A society is called masculine when emotional gender roles are clearly distinct: men are supposed to be assertive, tough, and focused on material success, whereas women are supposed to be more modest, tender, and concerned with quality of life.

 A society is called feminine when emotional gender roles overlap: both men and women are supposed to be modest, tender, and concerned with quality of life [emphasis in original]. 29

The top five most masculine countries are Slovakia, Japan, Hungary, Austria, and Venezuela (the U.S. is number 19 out of 76); whereas, feminine countries are represented by Sweden, Norway, Latvia,

Netherlands, and Denmark. As you can imagine, depending on the type of culture you live in, you will have wildly different social interactions with other people. There’s also a massive difference in the approach to marriage. In masculine cultures, women are the caretakers of the home, while men are to be healthy and wealthy. As such, women are placed in a subservient position to their husbands and are often identified socially by their husbands. For example, an invitation to a party would be addressed to “Mr. and Mrs. John Smith.” In feminine cultures, men and women are upheld to the same standards, and their relationships should be based on mutual friendship.

Low vs. High Uncertainty Avoidance

The next category identified by Hofstede involves the concept of uncertainty avoidance. 30 Life is full of uncertainty. We cannot escape it; however, some people are more prone to becoming fearful in situations that are ambiguous or unknown. Uncertainty avoidance then involves the extent to which cultures as a whole are fearful of ambiguous and unknown situations. People in cultures with high uncertainty avoidance can view this ambiguity and lack of knowledge as threatening, which is one reason why people in these cultures tend to have higher levels of anxiety and neuroticism as a whole. In fact, within the latest edition of the book examining these characteristics, Hofstede and his colleagues title the chapter on uncertainty avoidance as “What is Different is Dangerous,” calling out the threat factor people in high uncertainty avoidance cultures feel. 31 Cultures at the high end of uncertainty avoidance include Greece, Portugal, Guatemala, Uruguay, and Belgium Flemish; whereas, cultures at the low end of uncertainty avoidance include Singapore, Jamaica, Denmark, Sweden, and Hong Kong. The United States ranks 64th out of 76 countries analyzed (Singapore was number 76). From an interpersonal perspective, people from high uncertainty avoidant cultures are going to have a lot more anxiety associated with interactions involving people from other cultures. Furthermore, there tend to be higher levels of prejudice and higher levels of ideological, political, and religious fundamentalism, which does not allow for any kind of debate.

Long-Term vs. Short-Term Orientation

In addition to the previous characteristics, Hofstede noticed a fifth characteristic of cultures that he deemed long-term and short-term orientation. Long-term orientation focuses on the future and not the present or the past. As such, there is a focus on both persistence and thrift. The emphasis on endurance is vital because being persistent today will help you in the future. The goal is to work hard now, so you can have the payoff later. The same is true of thrift. We want to conserve our resources and under-spend to build that financial cushion for the future. Short-term oriented cultures, on the other hand, tend to focus on both the past and the present. In these cultures, there tends to be high respect for the past and the various traditions that have made that culture great. Additionally, there is a strong emphasis on “saving face,” which we will discuss more in the next section, fulfilling one’s obligations today, and enjoying one’s leisure time. At the long-term end of the spectrum are countries like China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Japan; whereas, countries like Pakistan, Czech Republic, Nigeria, Spain, and the Philippines are examples of short-term. The United States ranked 31 out of 39, with Pakistan being number 39.

Interpersonally, long-term oriented countries were more satisfied with their contributions to “Being attentive to daily human relations, deepening human bonds in family, neighborhood and friends or acquaintances” when compared to their short-term counterparts. 32

Indulgence vs. Restraint

The final characteristic of cultures is a new one first reported on in the 2010 edition of Cultures and Organizations. 33 The sixth cultural characteristic is called indulgence vs. restraint, which examines issues of happiness and wellbeing. According to Hofstede and his coauthors, “Indulgence stands for a tendency to allow relatively free gratification of basic and natural human desires related to enjoying life and having fun. Its opposite pole, restraint, reflects a conviction that such gratification needs to be curbed and regulated by strict social norms.” 34 The top five on the Indulgence end are Venezuela, Mexico, Puerto Rico, El Salvador, and Nigeria, whereas those on the restraint end are Pakistan, Egypt, Latvia, Ukraine, and Albania. The U.S. is towards the indulgence end of the spectrum and ranks at #15 along with Canada and the Netherlands. Some interesting findings associated with indulgence include experiencing higher levels of positive emotions and remembering those emotions for more extended periods. Furthermore, individuals from more indulgent cultures tend to be more optimistic, while their restrained counterparts tend to be more cynical. People in more indulgent countries are going to be happier than their restrained counterparts, and people within indulgent cultures show lower rates of cardiovascular problems commonly associated with stress. Finally, individuals from indulgent cultures tend to be more extraverted and outgoing as a whole, whereas individuals from restrained cultures tend to be more neurotic. From years of research examining both extraversion and neuroticism, we know that extraverted individuals have more successful interpersonal relationships than those who are highly neurotic. Ultimately, research examining these differences has shown that people from indulgent countries are more open to other cultures, more satisfied with their lives, and are more likely to communicate with friends and family members via the Internet while interacting with more people from other cultures via the Internet as well.


Research Spotlight

In 2017, Daniel H. Mansson and Aldís G. Sigurðardóttir set out to examine the concept of trait affection in relation to Hofstede’s theoretical framework.

“Affectionate communication is conceptualized as a person’s use of intentional and overt communicative behaviors to convey feelings of closeness, care, and fondness in the form of verbal statements, nonverbal behaviors, and social support.”35

For this study, the researchers studied 606 participants in four different countries: Denmark, Iceland, Poland, and the United States.

When it came to trait affection given, the United States participants reported giving more affection than any of the three other countries. The other countries did not differ from each other with regard to trait affection given.

When it came to trait affection received, all four groups differed from one another. The order of affection received was (in order of the most trait affection received) United States, Denmark, Poland, and Iceland.

Finally, the researchers examined affection given and received with regards to Hofstede’s work. “The results also indicated that trait affection given was significantly associated with the individualism-collectivism, masculinity-femininity, and uncertainty avoidance dimensions of cultures. Similarly, trait affection received was significantly associated with the individualism-collectivism and uncertainty avoidance dimensions of cultures.” 36

Mansson, D. H., & Sigurðardóttir, A. G. (2017). Trait affection given and received: A test of Hofstede’s theoretical framework. Journal of Intercultural Communication Research, 46(2), 161-172. https://doi.org/10.1080/17475759.2017.1292944

What is Face?

The concept of face is one that is not the easiest to define nor completely understand. Originally, the concept of face is not a Western even though the idea of “saving face” is pretty common in every day talk today. According to Hsien Chin Hu, the concept of face stems from two distinct Chinese words, lien and mien-tzu.45 Lien “represents the confidence of society in the integrity of ego’s moral character, the loss of which makes it impossible for him to function properly within the community. Lien is both a social sanction for enforcing moral standards and an internalized sanction.”46 On the other hand, mien-tzu “stands for the kind of prestige that is emphasized in this country [America]: a reputation achieved through getting on in life, through success and ostentation.”47 However, David Yau-fai Ho argues that face is more complicated than just lien and mien-tzu, so he provided the following definition:

Face is the respectability and/or deference which a person can claim for himself from others, by virtue of the relative position he occupies in his social network and the degree to which he is judged to have functioned adequately in that position as well as acceptably in his general conduct; the face extended to a person by others is a function of the degree of congruence between judgments of his total condition in life, including his actions as well as those of people closely associated with him, and the social expectations that others have placed upon him. In terms of two interacting parties, face is the reciprocated compliance, respect, and/or deference that each party expects from, and extends to, the other party.48

More simplistically, face is essentially “a person’s reputation and feelings of prestige within multiple spheres, including the workplace, the family, personal friends, and society at large.”49 For our purposes, we can generally break face down into general categories: face gaining and face losing. Face gaining refers to the strategies a person might use to build their reputation and feelings of prestige (e.g., talking about accomplishments, active social media presence), whereas face losing refers to those behaviors someone engages in that can harm their reputation or feelings of prestige (e.g., getting caught in a lie, failing).


Key Takeaways

  • Low-context cultures are cultures where the emphasis is placed on the words that come out of an individual’s mouth. High-context cultures, on the other hand, are cultures where understanding a message is dependent on the cultural context and a communicator’s nonverbal behavior.
  • Geert Hofstede’s research created a taxonomy for understanding and differentiating cultures. Geert’s taxonomy was originally based on data collected by IBM, and he found that cultures could be differentiated by power distance, individualism/collectivism, masculinity vs. femininity, uncertainty avoidance, long-term vs. short- term orientation, and indulgence vs. restraint.
  • Face is the standing or position a person has in the eyes of others. During an interpersonal interaction, individuals strive to create a positive version of their face for the other person.



  1. Compare and contrast two countries and their levels of context. Why do you think context is such an important cultural characteristic?
  2. Think about a co-cultural group that you belong to. Think through Geert Hofstede’s six categories used to evaluate differing cultures and apply Hofstede’s ideas to your co-culture. Does your co-culture differ from the dominant culture?
  3. Imagine you’re having an interaction with an individual from India. During the middle of the conversation, you have a feeling that your interactional partner is losing face. What could you do at that point to help rebuild that person’s face? Why would you want to do this at all?



17                            Hall, E. T. (1977). Beyond culture. Anchor Press.

18                           Rogers, E. M., Hart, W. B., & Mike, Y. (2002). Edward T. Hall and the history of intercultural communi- cation: The United States and Japan. Keio Communication Review (24): 3–26. http://www.mediacom.keio.ac.jp/ publication/pdf2002/review24/2.pdf

19                           Hall, E. T. (1981). The Silent Language. Anchor Books. (Reprint of The Silent Language by E. T. Hall, 1959, Doubleday; pg. 186.

20                           Nam, K. A. (2015). High-context and low-context communication. In J. M. Bennett (Ed.), The SAGE encyclopedia of intercultural competence (pp. 377-381). Sage; pg. 378.

21                           Rösch M., Segler K. G. (1987). Communication with Japanese. Management International Review, 27(4), 56–67.

22                            Hofstede, G. (1980). Culture’s consequences: International differences in work-related values. Sage.

23                           Hofstede, G., Hofstede, G. J., & Minkov, M. (2010). Cultures and organizations: Software of the mind (3rd ed.). McGraw-Hill.

24                          DeNavas-Walt, C., Proctor, B. D., & Smith, J. C. (2013). U.S. census bureau current population reports, P60-245: Income, poverty, and health insurance coverage in the United States: 2012. U.S. Government Printing Office.

25                           Ibid. pg. 9.

26                           Hofstede, G., Hofstede, G. J., & Minkov, M. (2010). Cultures and organizations: Software of the mind (3rd ed.). McGraw-Hill.

27 Ibid

28 Ibid

29  Hofstede, , & Hofstede, G. J. (2005). Cultures and organizations: Software of the mind (2nd ed.). Mc- Graw-Hill; pg. 120.

30 Ibid

31 Ibid

32 Hofstede, , & Hofstede, G. J. (2005). Cultures and organizations: Software of the mind (2nd ed.). Mc- Graw-Hill; pg. 230.

33 Hofstede, , Hofstede, G. J., & Minkov, M. (2010). Cultures and organizations: Software of the mind (3rd ed.). McGraw-Hill.

34 Ibid Kindle Locations 4809-4811.

35 Mansson, D. H., & Sigurðardóttir, A. G. (2017). Trait affection given and received: A test of Hofstede’s theoretical Journal of Intercultural Communication Research, 46(2), 161-172. https://doi.org/10.1080/ 17475759.2017.1292944; pgs. 163-164.

36 Mansson, D. H., & Sigurðardóttir, A. G. (2017). Trait affection given and received: A test of Hofstede’s theoretical Journal of Intercultural Communication Research, 46(2), 161-172. https://doi.org/10.1080/ 17475759.2017.1292944; pg. 168.

45 Hu, (1944). The Chinese concepts of “face.” American Anthropologist, 46(1), 45-64. www.jstor.org/sta- ble/662926

46 Ibid; pg. 45.

47 Ibid.; pg. 45.

48 Ho, Y.-f. (1976). On the concept of face. American Journal of Sociology, 81(4), 867-884. www.jstor.org/ stable/2777600

49 Upton-McLaughlin, (2013). Gaining and losing face in China. The China Culture Corner. Retrieved from https://chinaculturecorner.com/2013/10/10/face-in-chinese-business/; para. 2.

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Adapted from Interpersonal Communication: A Mindful Approach to Relationships, 2020 by Jason S. Wrench, Narsissra M. Punyanunt-Carter, & Katherine S. Thweatt. This chapter only licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial- ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) United States License.


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