Sunday, January 31, 2010

Cultural differences: High Context and Low Context

Culture consists of learned ways of acting, feeling and thinking, rather than biologically determined ways.
In my last post, I promised I'd mention the general terms "high context" and "low context" to categorize one specific area of cultural differences.

A high context society or group consists of members who have close connections over a long period of time. Because of these connections, many aspects of their behavior are not made explicit. Members, generally,  know what to do and what to think based on years of close interaction with each other. A good example of a high context environment might be your family. What are the characteristics of "high context?"

  1. Strong boundaries: group knows who is accepted as belonging and who is considered an "outsider"
  2. Less written and "formal" information and rules. Not as much verbally explicit communication,
  3. People "know" what the other person means. They read hidden "cues"
  4. A host of ties and connections with others
  5. Long lasting relationships
  6. Knowledge is situational, relational.
  7. Activities and decisions and activities based on interpersonal, face-to-face relationships.
  8. Sometimes an authority figure dominates

      Mexico and Latin America tend to be high context cultures. Some college dorms are high context.

      Now, let's take a look at a "low context" society or group of people.

      They are societies where people tend to have lots of short-duration connections. Sometimes the connections are based on pragmatic reasons. Behaviors and beliefs tend to be spelled out explicitly so that newcomers know how to behave. The letter of the law takes precedence over the spirit of the law. Here are some more characteristics:
      1. Rule oriented: people play by clearly defined external rules (think American football!)
      2. Time is "linear": time, space, activities, relationships happen in sequence
      3. Knowledge and information is codified, public, external, and accessible  to all
      4. Interpersonal relationships can be intense but short term
      5. Knowledge is meant to be shared: it is transferable
      6. Responsibilities are shared, work is task-centered. 
      7. Decisions and activities are action oriented. What matters is getting something done.
          The United States and most of northern Europe is low context. Think of the clearly posted signs and instructions in airports and train stations.

          The concepts of "high" and "low" intersect on a bell curve. Every group has a little of both. However, the distinction is useful to understand the extremes of the curve - this is where cultural differences reside. The distinctions are useful to understand how differing cultural points of view arise. That is, I think, what Fr. Alvaro Corcuera  meant in his recent letter to members of the Legion of Christ. The trick is to understand cultural differences are not problems to be solved. They are dilemmas which need to be reconciled.


          Anonymous said...

          from your 20 plus year experience as a Legionary of Christ, would you consider the Legion a High Context or a Low Context society?

          Jack Keogh said...

          The Legion is essentially a high context organization. In the same sense, the Jesuits, IBM and Michelin are high context.

          In high-context communication, only a part of information is expressed verbally. A great portion of a message is understood from the context: the person, his appearance and nonverbal behavior, personal history, the communicative situation, and the interaction process.

          These messages are often called metamessages. They are interpreted with the help of cues which carry cultural meanings. The Legion uses words like "integration","fidelity," fisonomia Legionaria" which have special, loaded meaning for "insiders." They use use and interpret more of the elements surrounding the message to develop their understanding of the message.

          Other traits of high context organizations:

          Strong awareness of who is accepted/belongs vs. "outsiders"

          Knowledge is situational, relational

          Conflict either must be solved before work can progress or must be avoided

          Thinking is deductive, proceeds from general to specific.

          High context cultures have a strong sense of tradition and history, and change little over time.

          Once the congregation began to expand beyond the confines of Mexico, the founder sought to make his guidelines explicit in the form of rules. A superficial observer might think that it is a "rule-oriented" group (explicit rules are characteristic of low-context).

          However, in my experience, the core is high-context: just think of the clear differentiation between "insiders" and "outsiders." Those who are not for us are "against us."

          Please do not think that one type of context is better than the other - and no one organization or person is ever entirely one or the other. I think the distinction can help people from different cultures gain a little more insight either into their experience of the Legion or their analysis of how the Legion is reacting to the astounding revelations about Fr. Maciel.

          Anonymous said...