What are you talking about? image

What are you talking about?

I’ve been preparing some teaching on culture that I have to do in a couple of weeks. Culture is something we live in, but can be oblivious to. You’ve heard the story: There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, "Morning, boys, how's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, "What the hell is water?"

A book I’ve found especially helpful in my preparation is Erin Meyer’s The Culture Map. One grid Meyer provides for understanding different cultures is that of low-context and high-context cultures. Among other benefits, having this grid explained opened my eyes to why my South African raised, American educated colleague and I so often irritate one another (despite our very close friendship!).

In low-context cultures the mantra is, “Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, tell them what you’ve told them.” Low-context cultures tend to have a short history and been shaped by people from many other cultures. The US is the prime example of this.

By contrast high-context cultures are far more subtle in communication. Japan is the prime example of a low-context culture, with an expectation that people will “read the air.” High-context cultures tend to have been culturally homogenous for a long time.

The difference between high- and low-context cultures is like the difference between a couple who have just got together and a couple who have been married for 60 years. The long-married couple won’t need to explain everything to each other in the way the younger couple will. Most of the time shared history will be sufficient to provide layers of nuance and meaning to single words and simple gestures. When translated into cross-cultural encounters this means that to someone from a low-context culture those from high-context cultures can appear secretive or unable to communicate effectively (“Why doesn’t she just say it straight?”); while those from high-context cultures can find people from low-context cultures condescending and patronizing (“Why is he stating the obvious?”).

Meyer gives the example of a Spaniard and a Chinese in conversation:

Mr Diaz: It looks like some of us are going to have to be here on Sunday to host the client visit.
Mr Chen: I see.
Mr Diaz: Can you join us on Sunday?
Mr Chen: Yes, I think so.
Mr Diaz: That would be a great help.
Mr Chen: Yes, Sunday is an important day.
Mr Diaz: In what way?
Mr Chen: It’s my daughter’s birthday.
Mr Diaz: How nice. I hope you enjoy it.
Mr Chen: Thank you. I appreciate your understanding.

At the end of this exchange Mr Diaz is quite certain Mr Chen has said he is coming; but Mr Chen is quite certain he has communicated he is definitely not coming.

What is interesting about this example is that Spain is a relatively high-context culture – more so than the UK, and far more than the US. But relative to China it is low-context. Counterintuitively, Meyer claims that the greatest likelihood of misunderstanding arises between two people from high-context cultures with very different roots, as in this case.

We Brits are more ‘mid-table’ than the Americans or Chinese, but that only means we are equally perplexing to both! In an Asian context it is likely that a Brit will come across as far too brash and opinionated, but when we are talking with those from lower-context cultures we are not nearly explicit enough. I experienced an example of this recently when leading a conference, at which worship was being led by a South African. She wanted to do a song that was new to most of the people there, and asked me if that was ok. I replied that yes, of course, that was fine. She responded that she couldn’t tell if I was joking or not. High-context, low-context.

I think my South African/American colleague and I will continue to irritate one another at times – Why does he have to keep jumping into the conversation? Why doesn’t he explain what he actually means? – but understanding our different cultural models certainly makes the irritations easier to handle. Now we can simply both blame one another for being culturally inept!

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