DO YOU HAVE a sense of the whole floating object or only the bit sticking above the water? When you’re talking to someone do you make assumptions about the flow of embedded (but unspoken) information or do you tend to only digest the words written or actually said?
Most of us likely fall somewhere between these two — depending on the circumstance and who you’re talking to. And, in general terms, it’s been pointed out that people from certain societies have tendencies that err towards either the subtly implicit or the direct and unambiguous.
That is to say that all the countries of the world float somewhere on a spectrum between the “high context” culture of Japan and the “low context” culture of the United States.
It’s a bit like the difference between Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, on the one hand, and the Titanic, on the other. Both are celebrated maritime movies: one’s a silent classic, groaning with subtext; the other has Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” as its theme song.
In a high-context culture, meaning and content is often internalised and not necessarily stated explicitly in communication. Instead there’s an implicit understanding between individuals because of shared knowledge, beliefs or culture.
In a low-context culture, on the other hand, the meaning of messages or communication is expected to be explicity stated or explained.
Low context culture tends to be individualist; high context culture tends to be collectivist.
Anglos, Germanics and Scandinavians are typically placed at the low context end. Countries in the Middle East, Asia, Africa and South America at the high.
A high context person might feel that a low context person is insulting their intelligence by being blunt or stating the bleedin’ obvious. Meanwhile a person from a low context culture might feel confused (or entirely oblivious) of the info the high context person has assumed is tacitly understood.
Wars have been started and working relationships and friendships have foundered in these waters.
Which is another way of saying that with a little sensitivity and mindfulness of cultural subtleties and sensibilities we’d be better equipped to chart a safe course through the icebergs of ordinary communication.
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