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?"
- Strong boundaries: group knows who is accepted as belonging and who is considered an "outsider"
- Less written and "formal" information and rules. Not as much verbally explicit communication,
- People "know" what the other person means. They read hidden "cues"
- A host of ties and connections with others
- Long lasting relationships
- Knowledge is situational, relational.
- Activities and decisions and activities based on interpersonal, face-to-face relationships.
- 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:
- Rule oriented: people play by clearly defined external rules (think American football!)
- Time is "linear": time, space, activities, relationships happen in sequence
- Knowledge and information is codified, public, external, and accessible to all
- Interpersonal relationships can be intense but short term
- Knowledge is meant to be shared: it is transferable
- Responsibilities are shared, work is task-centered.
- Decisions and activities are action oriented. What matters is getting something done.
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.