What’s In A Context?

High Context vs Low Context

Anthropologist Edward T. Hall wrote a book entitled Beyond Culture in 1976. It defined the concepts of low context and high context cultures. While I’m not an anthropologist, I find these concepts quite interesting and quite illuminating with regard to my own life experience.

Simply defined, high context cultures rely on non-verbal cues, mutually understood mores and mutually understood experiences to fill in the blanks, as opposed to lower context cultures, which rely on a more verbally explicit style of communications. This is not a binary of either high or low context, but more correctly a continuum into which all cultures fit at different points. Beyond that, degree of context may vary within a culture.

Everything I know about Midnight Cowboy

I’ve never seen the movie, but I’ve seen one clip from it many times. This is a scene where the character Ratso Rizzo (played by Dustin Hoffman) is almost hit by a cab, pounds on the bodywork and exclaims: “I’m walkin’ here!” It comes to mind, because I think it is a perfect demonstration of cultural context and, as I understand it, it was somewhat accidental. It was a real cab that had accidentally burst into the scene.

The driver didn’t care in the slightest about the problems of people making a movie, he had a fare to earn. The movie people were defending their interests, which amount to making a movie and not really caring about the cab driver’s problem. I have heard that Dustin Hoffman almost said “We’re filming a movie here!” but didn’t want to ruin the take. In the dramatic portrayal, the moment worked well, but the real-world setting, which involved the context of the movie makers and a cab driver in NYC, the point was illustrated just as well.

From low to high

In the opinion of this amateur anthropologist, New York City is one of the lowest context cultures imaginable. There are millions of people there and almost as many cultural paths that led them to New York. It would be impossible for a high context culture to exist there because there are very few cultural norms that would apply to everyone in New York City. It’s hard to let the rules fill in the blanks when there are so many sets of rules in one place.

Knowing only the United States, my experience with high context cultures is quite limited in comparison to what it would be in some parts of the world, but there are high context cultures in the U.S. as well. The southern U.S. is a higher context culture than the northern U.S. and I don’t think that it’s much of a risk to presume that it takes a while for people from the south or the north to understand the rules of the game when they make a major latitudinal move within the U.S.

A research group of one

I am a bit of an outlier with regard to all of this, because I was born, and spent my childhood in a northern tier state, moved to Colorado where I spent my adolescence, sent four years back in Minnesota (during my early 20s) went back to Colorado for nearly two decades, and ended up in Arizona. With regard to low context and high context cultures, that is a dizzying journey.

Minnesota is about as far north as it gets in the Lower 48, but has some characteristics of a high context culture. If you’ve ever read Garrison Keeler you will know that in the fifties and sixties, Minnesotans tended to be either Lutheran or Catholic but otherwise were culturally identical. OK, not really, but the exaggeration serves to illustrate the point. When I was in third grade, and such matters could be discussed in a civil manner, everyone in my class was asked to tell the national origins of their families and, as I recall, the most exotic was a girl of Italian ancestry. The rest of us were of Northern European origin, German stock comprising about 50% with the Swedish and British Isles making up nearly all the rest. This wasn’t some snooty restricted community with a gated entrance and a guard, it was a lower middle class neighborhood comprised mostly of blue collar workers that were living paycheck to paycheck.

Assuming that this was common in small-town Minnesota, it’s not hard to understand that a high context culture could exist. It wasn’t only our Northern European origins that bonded us; the exceptionally harsh winters were a common enemy and we all knew the rules when it came to sub zero temperatures. One picked up hitchhikers in such weather, one stopped to help when there was a flat tire and no one harshly questioned why an employee was late when the temps were -25  to -30. That blank could almost always be filled in by the word “weather” which carried with it the assumption of a dead battery or a frozen fuel line or frosted spark plugs, a cold weather oddity which required moving the car to an enclosed area, firing up a space heater and starting the car once the entire engine was above 32F and the frost on the plugs melted.

If someone asked why your car didn’t start muttering the word “weather” would fill in all the conversational blanks. It also explained head colds, chest colds, pneumonia, hypothermia, near-death experiences or lengthy hospital stays. If the weather was harsh at the time of the question a nod towards the nearest window or door would do the trick and you didn’t have to utter a syllable. In warmer months, this also explained problems due to thunderstorms, hail, tornados or spring floods and the nod worked in this instance as well, but only if there was a thunderstorm, hail, tornado or spring flood currently visible through the aperture; which was a safe bet in 1965 or 1967, years noted for severe storms.

High to low

My next stop was Denver, Colorado, and I spent the last five months of 9th grade in a place  with a  low context culture. The first school I attended served the Platte Valley, north of Denver proper, an area with a diverse population and little in the way of cultural homogeneity. I didn’t understand my new school mates and they didn’t understand me. The cultural devices the worked in Minnesota didn’t even merit a response in this environment and likewise, I failed to pick up on cultural cues that made sense to them.

In retrospect, I would say that this was an extremely low context culture, because there really wasn’t any single culture in operation. People banded together by religion and perhaps by certain socioeconomic categories. There were quite a few truck farms in the area and there was a degree of cultural cohesion among the farm families, which turned out to be my salvation. My older sister, married and living a few miles north of us, happened to know some of the truck farm families so I was able to drop a few names and gain a degree of acceptance from the children of those families. I stuck close to those kids and survived to the end of the school year, by which time my parents had bought a home in a pleasant Denver suburb.

Our new home was in a modest, but very good neighborhood. The culture was low context, but at least discernible. There was racial diversity, but I cannot recall any examples of racial tension. It was very much a live and let live situation and quite possibly the place where I fit in best at any time in my life. It wasn’t perfect, but the cultural rules were simple and little was assumed. Verbal communication was the order of the day.

More moving

In my early adult years, my parents moved back to Minnesota and I tagged along, establishing a home in Minneapolis. After eight years in Denver, the high context culture of Minnesota seemed a bit of a tight fit. In just a few years I found myself feeling culturally smothered so I hightailed back to to Colorado. It was still a comfortable fit and to this day I consider Colorado to be home. It is far from perfect, but I’ve felt more comfortable there than I do anywhere else. I never understood this, until I became familiar with the concepts of high context and low context cultures.

Time and unforeseen circumstance landed me in Arizona which I see much more as Deep South than I do the Olde West. In high context cultures, people tend to stand closer together than they do in low context cultures and I’v noticed this in Arizona. My sense of personal space is calibrated to Coloradan cultural mores and encompasses a bit more territory than is the custom in AZ. For the time being, I am stuck here, but I’ve found a unique workaround.

I work in a very high context culture, but I am an outsider to that culture. However, I am valued because I serve as an interpreter of sorts, making the low context culture of the technical world comprehensible to a high context culture. Strangely, in this particular case, being an outsider from a low context culture has proven to be an asset.

High context mini cultures

It is quite possible to define most people as being members of more than one culture. For example, a physician may have a cultural identity among physicians (which would probably be high context) and another cultural identity in a religious group (also high context) but live in a low context part of the world.

Another example would be life in New York City, which is low context, but there are many neighborhoods in NYC and these can be high context mini-cultures, based upon ethnic background, religious identity or some other unifying force. Greenwich Village, for example,  has existed as a Bohemian enclave in Manhattan since the 19th century. I would suggest that it is a high context mini-culture, bonded by a sense of being separate from the cultural environment surrounding “The Village.”

High context culture and movies

It is interesting that movies created in various cultures can have multi-layered meanings, based upon the degree to which the viewer understands the culture which produced the movie. For example, I have heard that the movie Napoleon Dynamite has greater significance to the Mormon community, because their cultural context fills in gaps that the dialogue doesn’t cover. There is no intent to deceive, it’s simply that there is more than one form of communication in play and within the cultural context of the producers there is no reason to explain. Either way, I find it a delightful movie, even if I may not be seeing everything that an LDS viewer might.

Another example is the 1980 movie, the Jazz singer. I watched it when it came out and enjoyed it. I find the story of a man’s struggle between his faith and his art to be compelling, not to mention that the movie featured some great music. Thirty-six years later, I watched it again and saw much more. The difference was life experience and a greater understanding of Jewish religion and culture that I’ve developed over the years.

When I first saw the movie, I was not aware of the Jewish custom of having a mezuzah, a small parchment with Torah verses in a decorative case on the doorpost of their home. In the 1980 production of The Jazz Singer, the protagonist’s father, Cantor Rabinovich, pauses to take note of the doorpost when he visits his son’s California home for the first time. I’m certain that I saw those frames when I first watched the movie, but until I was aware of the mezuzah it had no meaning to me.

I also recall a scene where the lead character and his new (non Jewish) wife are performing some sort of ceremony. I had always thought that they were pantomiming a wedding ceremony, perhaps while waiting for Jess’ divorce to become final. I now realize that this portrays shabbat, the sabbath observed by Jewish people starting on Friday, just before sunset. To observant Jewish families, this is a time of ritual and of family togetherness. Candles are burned, blessings are offered and meals are shared together as a family.

When I first saw the movie I thought it was about passion and acting out the religious aspect of a marriage ceremony as a speed bump on the way to the bedroom. Now I understand it to be much, much more significant, because it portrays the protagonist bringing his new love into the most sacred part of his family life; the observance of shabbat. Such is the power of context.



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