American Experience: Context, Context, Context.

One of my recent favorite blogs – Don’s Life (by Mary Beard) – has an interesting discussion of the cultural differences between Americans and Brits. However, I found this comment to the post to be most enlightening:

I lived in the UK for 11 years and especially enjoy helping Americans understand Brits and vice versa. To me, the most complicated aspect of the communication styles of our two cultures is what is called “low context/high context” – Americans are very low context, meaning they spell everything out, speak directly, say exactly what they mean, don’t imply much, don’t take clues from the environment/context (clues such as accent, dress, situation, utterances that carry a lot of meaning in one sound; that kind of thing). Brits are more high context (although nowhere near level of Asian cultures). This means that there is a lot of information conveyed in British communication beyond the actual words that are spoken or written. You have to read between the lines, interpret what is actually meant, evaluate everything based on a very fine and complex gradation of unspoken information (such as the examples I listed above – accent, etc.) Therefore, Americans seem to be a bit thick and clueless to Brits, and Brits seem to be really indirect and hard to figure out to Americans, and it’s not because either side is stupid or deliberately trying to lead the other astray. (Well, maybe the Brits are trying that a little bit… but that’s one of the “benefits” of being high context!)

Low context vs. high context then. It seems to be a real theory in studying culture, not just a nifty metaphor, apparently popularized by Edward Hall. I really need to read up on this, as I suspect many of my gauffes and faux-pas are caused by my “high context” culture…

13 thoughts on “American Experience: Context, Context, Context.

  1. czech out tocqueville’s analysis as to why americans speak simply and plainly (related to industry/preference for the practical and productive over the artistic and subtle).

  2. being an American in the UK with over a years worth of failed dating experience, much of it revolving around communication issues, I find this eerily accurate.

  3. god ”low context” what a P.C. perfect term for stupidity, and rampant pragmatism of the American Puritan,
    and ”high context”, what a niiiiiiiiiiiiiice term for British snobbery, cynicism and frigidity. The two certainly deserve each other! Sounds like the sort of pulp fiction that spawned ”emotional intelligence” some years ago.

  4. Do you mean PC as in “politically correct” or as in “parody center”? The link I give to that low/high is sort of popular explanation of cultural difficulties, so I wouldn’t defend the seriousness of it at all. It does sound a bit simplistic…

  5. I think this distinction is crucial for styles of writing as well, which explains some of the difficulties European philosophy has had in crossing the pond. Many of the obscurities in Derrida or Foucault are simply the result of an increasingly elaborate agglomeration of winks, nudges, and nods to a broad and deep pool of cultural references everyone is supposed to get. In Montaigne, each wink is spelled out and cited in glorious detail; in Nietzsche, a name or a phrase might give it away; in Derrida, a rhetorical flourish suggests that there was once a cultural reference there but it has become effaced through familiarity. When Americans try to imitate this, it just doesn’t work–unless they are T.S. Eliot or Ezra Pound, and then they have to pretend to be British all their lives.

    It’s like the old Russian joke:
    “On a late night train, the passengers are sitting around telling jokes. But since everyone’s heard every joke already, they are simply referenced by number. One guy says, ’33.’ Everyone giggles. Another says ’14.’ The car guffaws, one woman looks slightly offended. Suddenly a new person enters the car. ’57,’ he says. There is stony silence. ‘That’s a good joke,’ someone finally says, ‘but come on. You have to know how to tell it.”

  6. Thanks, Greg – this Russian joke itself is pretty “high context” don’t you think? Whatever “high context” means – how about his one?

    “A boy is walking down the street. Sees a horseshoe, picks it up, turns it over and oops there’s a horse on the other side…”

    By the way, I enjoyed your translations of Pasternak and others here. How would you translate something like Pasternak’s phrase “Быть знаменитым некрасиво”?

  7. Yeah, Russian culture is pretty high-context, but in a different way–more grounded in a kind of popular imagination that includes everything from jokes to songs to literature. It’s even more unconscious, I think, than European culture. Who says “Надо, Федя, надо,” and still thinks of the joke? Or “Россия–родина слонов”?

    I would translate that phrase something like “It is so homely to be famous[/It is not this that raises you up high].” Of course, that doesn’t get the nuances across, but that’s a perpetual problem, especially when it comes to Pasternak.

    Great blog, at any rate!

  8. The link I give to that low/high is sort of popular explanation of cultural difficulties

    CULTURAL DIFFERENCES, Mikhail – yet another politically correct SHIT term – what the authors are really talking about is the anxiety of the American burak / son of a whore confronted with his high class pimp’s scorn and snobbery, but on top of that, the dichotomy, instead of alleviating the conflict, merely extends it, in Po-Mo fashion, by retaining the low-high distinction while pretending to be ”explaining” it in democratic and egalitarian fashion.

    But then again, this joint IS all about perverse egalitarianism, isn’t it?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s