High and low context cultures

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A sculpture of Zhu Ge Liang诸葛亮 at the Gardens by the Bay, Singapore.

Zhuge Liang is iconised in the historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, as a wise chief strategist of Liu Bei. The military strategy book “36 strategems”, contains many of his “cunning” military strategies in using minimal resources.

How Zhu GeLiang 诸葛亮 came to work for Liu Bei was dramatised in a story “3 visits to the humble straw abode” 三顾茅庐”. Zhu was a recluse who rose above petty politics. Legend goes that he could read weather conditions and wind direction, an important skill considering that wind direction can affect the flight of warships and arrows.

Liu Bei and his 2 sworn brothers Zhang Fei and Guan Yu decided to visit Zhu Ge Liang at his home in 卧龙岗 wolonggang or hidden dragan ridge。 When they travelled to his home, they saw a small boy sweeping the door who told them that Zhu was not at home.

On their second visit, they saw a youth studying and upon enquiring found that Zhu was away. Liu Bei left a letter for Zhu explaining the purpose of his visit.

On their third visit, the three men were told that Zhu was at home but sleeping. Zhang Fei, the general, wanted to wake Zhu up. But Liu Bei decided to wait. By nightfall, Zhu finally woke up.

Touched by their sincerity, Zhu agreed to work for Liu Bei.

In Chinese culture, there is no mention of the persuasive words or vision by Liu Bei that moved Zhu Ge Liang.

China, and Japan belonged to what is known as High Context Cultures (高背景文化). Here the setting, status and non verbal behaviour matter more than actual words spoken. Men of Liu Bei, Zhang Fei and Guan Yu’s stature could easily have sent Ambassadors to persuade Zhu. But Liu Bei himself came to visit Zhu. Relationship and trust are important factors.

In low context cultures, words convey facts and information and are more important in communication.

High and Low context cultures is a theory proposed by anthropologist Edward Hall.

However, is the distinction so clear between high and low context cultures? Story-tellers would imply that even in low context cultures, tone of voice and “pauses” convey meaning. Pauses – are important in conveying or emphasing a word. More is not necessarily better.

Sarcastic tone of voice vs appreciative tone.

声调变化 Change in tone can convey sincerity.

Punctuation can change the meaning of a word.

“A woman without her man is nothing”

(1) “A woman, without her man, is nothing.”

Or

(2) “A woman: without her, man is nothing.”

Indirect cultures
According to Managing across cultures by Charlene Solomon and Michael Schell, in indirect cultures, the background context is very important. It isn’t what people talk about that is important but how it is said.

People tend to be indirect. Listeners are expected to interpret statements to infer what the speaker is saying.

Speaking eloquently but indirectly is a prized art. In some societies, the idea of saving face is an essential part of information exchange. In indirect cultures, direct statements may be seen as rude.

In direct cultures or low context, people look for content not what surrounds the content. They expect all the information they need is contained in the words they use. People are direct and expect to be taken at their word.

Clarity of communicating in words is paramount. Simplicity is admired and language may be punctuated (with vulgarity) for effect.

Unlike indirect societies where saving face is essential, here saving face is not important. sometimes openly challenging someone you disagree is admired.

In a globalised world where cultures meet , our differences in perception in communication can cause misunderstandings. Lets give each other the benefit of the doubt.

Do you have similar instances in your culture where non verbal convey more than the verbal?

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