Living in a "High Context" Culture

Hours from the tarmac, surrounded by mud huts, a respectable African man travels the road, dressed in a full three-piece suit, despite the sun. A wealthy American boards a flight to an exotic international resort wearing tennis shoes and a sweatsuit.

Thanks to friend (and distant relation) David Durham for introducing me to the concept of cultural context, specifically high and low context cultures. The general idea is that cultures can be scaled according to the quantity of context. The "low context" cultures (e.g. Americans, English-speaking Canadians, and Australians) often exist in places where there has been more racial diversity with a lot of immigration. "High context" cultures (e.g. most of East Asia, the Arab world, and most "traditional" cultures like African tribal groups) have generations of relatively undisturbed homogeneity. There are a few notable areas where this concept has been useful in my understanding of my surroundings here.

Communication. This is the big one. We are often told here that being "direct" (as we understand "direct") in communication can be offensive or counterproductive. A drastic (but not uncommon) example. A patient wants to refuse medical service that you deem necessary, potentially even life-saving. In the US, a formal statement is signed, and you want to hear directly from the patient that they understand that they could suffer harm, even die, from not following this advice. Such a mode of action would be very frowned upon here. Such things are not spoken of so directly. Perhaps, "if you don't want to follow this, then anything could happen. It would be in God's hands" would be more appropriate. (Maybe, I'm still learning.) The point is, that the words used can be indirect, because the cultural context speaks for you. The communication takes places nevertheless, but those of us visiting from outside may not be able to understand it.

Formality. I was at a board meeting, composed of about six people, all of whom have likely been friends for over a decade. The chair of the board was absent at the beginning, and they nominated a new chair for the interim. From that moment on, no one addressed her as anything but "Madame Chairwoman". Even friends often call each other "Dr. so and so", even when they also are a doctor. The clothing example given above is also in this category. Being an informal person even by US standards, this has been difficult for me, and I'm sure I'm still viewed as very informal, but I'm beginning to actually enjoy this as endearing in a way. All of these formalities serve to build the high context culture in which communication takes place.

Friendships. The nature of "high context" culture usually means that friendships go deep instead of wide. Personal relationships are more defined, and when personal friendship is established, the bond (and its responsibilities) is strong. Think of the societal structures of a Jane Austen novel.

For me, this is more than mere conversational fodder or thought candy (those I take no issue with either of those ideas). This structure has been helpful for me to see aspects of Kenyan culture different from my own, and to realize that any frustrations that I have may not be related to the merits of either culture, but rather the struggles intrinsic to a "low context" person in a "high context" culture, or vice versa.

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