Localizing websites for high vs. low-context cultures

By Acclaro
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Localizing websites for high-context cultures

While broken buttons, mistranslations and culturally insensitive photos are obvious deal-breakers for visitors in any culture, other less obvious choices can have a dramatic impact on how engaging and trustworthy your site appears to international visitors. 

A lot of this depends on cultural context, high and low.

High-context and low-context cultures: Two distinct varieties of communication style

Originally identified by anthropologist Edward T. Hall, a founding pioneer of intercultural communication studies, different cultures can be broadly divided into two contrasting types of communication style: “high-context” cultures, and “low-context” cultures. The distinction hinges on how direct typical statements tend to be made within that culture.

In this cultural sense, “context” refers to certain subtle aspects in everyday conversation and linguistic interaction. In a low-context culture, speakers are expected to verbally state things in a direct, explicit way.

In contrast, people in a high-context culture share certain implicit, unspoken but understood norms in a way that’s indirect and subtle, while still having their intended meaning understood by the listener. In many cases, much of this meaning is conveyed paralinguistically or nonverbally, rather than in the semantics of the words themselves. 

This difference in communication style is important to keep in mind when adapting your website for international visitors.

Examples of high-context cultures

Japan, China, and many Arab countries are good examples of predominantly high-context cultures. These cultures and languages are marked by a high degree of shared commonality between individuals.

Some of the key features of high-context cultures include:

  • Collectivistic traits. High-context cultures typically place a stronger emphasis on group identity than on the individual. This lends itself to an unspoken but mutually understood sense of context that allows for language to be less direct.
  • Homogeneity. These cultures tend to have a relatively high degree of homogeneity, with the vast majority of people sharing the same language, similar upbringings and values, and other factors that are conducive to shared, unspoken implicit understanding that lends context to speech.
  • High degree of reliance on nonverbal factors to convey meaning. Nonverbal communication and body language carry significant meaning, which may not be explicitly present in the words that are spoken. 

Examples of low-context cultures

German-speaking, Scandinavian, and North American countries tend to have low-context cultures. (If you’re a US English speaker reading this, it probably means you have a low-context bias!)

When you’re part of a low-context culture, it’s important to remember the implications of high-context communication styles when localizing your website for regions and languages where verbal communication tends to be less direct.

Localizing your website for high-context cultures

Website localization for high-context cultures, like Japan or Arabic-speaking nations, brings more than just linguistic differences. It also means that you’ll want to consider some differences in website design as well, to communicate more effectively with those audiences. 

In terms of web usability, the following design tendencies are often common in high-context cultures:

  • High use of animation, especially in connection with images of moving people
  • Images promote values of a collectivist society
  • Featured images depict products and merchandise in use by individuals
  • Links promote an exploratory approach to website navigation; process oriented
  • Many sidebars and menus, with links opening in new browser windows

(From: Würtz, E. (2005). A Cross-Cultural Analysis of Websites from High-Context Cultures and Low-Context Cultures. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 11(1), article 13.)

What does effective high-context localization look like?

Let’s take a look at two high-context designs that have been very successful for franchise brands expanding overseas. First up, McDonald’s Thailand website. It might seem complex compared to the relatively toned-down U.S. version, but it’s a paragon of high-context design elements. Embedded video players, four different product boxes, community news, and main navigation hidden in a pull-down tab, this is a process-oriented, media-rich example of high-context localization.

Next, consider Rakuten Ichiba, the largest online marketplace in Japan, with over 40,000 sellers offering a wide range of products and services. The website incorporates several high-context elements to appeal to the cultural sensibilities of its target audience.

One of the key high-context elements is the use of visuals. In Japan, images and visuals are highly valued, and they are often used to convey information in a way that is more meaningful than words alone. Rakuten Ichiba’s homepage is designed with a large, visually striking banner that features high-quality images of popular products and seasonal promotions. 

Another high-context element on the Rakuten Ichiba website is the use of community features. In Japan, the concept of “uchi-soto” (insider vs. outsider) is highly valued, and people often prefer to do business with those they know and trust. Rakuten Ichiba has incorporated several community features into its website, such as customer reviews, seller ratings, and social media integration. These features help to build trust and establish a sense of community among buyers and sellers, which is an important cultural value in Japan.

The upshot? A low-context bias for less-cluttered, static, goal-oriented design with simplified navigational choices might be a major factor holding back the impact your brand has online in high-context markets. Translate websites with cultural context in mind.

Localization should consider whether the target audience is a high-context or low-context culture. High-context cultures rely on implicit, nonverbal communication and tend to emphasize group identity. Low-context cultures emphasize explicit, direct communication. 

Adapting website design and content to reflect the communication style of the target culture can improve user engagement and trust. Acclaro’s strategic approach to localization considers the distinction between high-context and low-context cultures and adapts its translation and localization accordingly. Contact us today to learn more

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