High-context cultures and Low-context cultures

Having expanded on what I mean by glocal Christianity, I would now like to explain the differences between high-context cultures and low-context cultures and explore what this means for discipleship in globalized locales.

But first, what the heck are high-context and low-context cultures? The term comes from anthropologist Edward T. Hall’s theory of cross cultural communication, which has been summarized by others as follows:

High-context cultures (including much of the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and South America) are relational, collectivist, intuitive, and contemplative.  This means that people in these cultures emphasize interpersonal relationships.  Developing trust is an important first step to any business transaction.  According to Hall, these cultures are collectivist, preferring group harmony and consensus to individual achievement.  And people in these cultures are less governed by reason than by intuition or feelings.  Words are not so important as context, which might include the speaker’s tone of voice, facial expression, gestures, posture—and even the person’s family history and status.  A Japanese manager explained his culture’s communication style to an American:  “We are a homogeneous people and don’t have to speak as much as you do here.  When we say one word, we understand ten, but here you have to say ten to understand one.”  High-context communication tends to be more indirect and more formal.  Flowery language, humility, and elaborate apologies are typical.

Low-context cultures (including North America and much of Western Europe) are logical, linear, individualistic, and action-oriented.  People from low-context cultures value logic, facts, and directness.  Solving a problem means lining up the facts and evaluating one after another.  Decisions are based on fact rather than intuition.  Discussions end with actions.  And communicators are expected to be straightforward, concise, and efficient in telling what action is expected.  To be absolutely clear, they strive to use precise words and intend them to be taken literally.  Explicit contracts conclude negotiations.  This is very different from communicators in high-context cultures who depend less on language precision and legal documents.  High-context business people may even distrust contracts and be offended by the lack of trust they suggest.

So western Sydney, where I live, is what you’d call an extremely low-context culture. It’s heterogeneous and pluralistic, both culturally and religiously and economically, and if you want to be understood you need to communicate fairly clearly and succinctly. You would have seen me mention ‘context’ many times on this blog? It’s typical of low-context communicators to clarify context rather than assume it.

But, and here’s the confusing bit, while my local community can be extremely low-context on the large scale, it can be extremely high-context on the small scale. Why? Because many of my neighbours are immigrants from places like rural India and rural Sudan, which are high-context cultures. So, while communication between families can be low-context, communication within families can be high-context. Friends can be a mixture of both. This can make Christian community very interesting.

Now, some of the people I disciple come from esoteric backgrounds and I have friends interstate and overseas who also disciple people from esoteric backgrounds, in places like Nimbin and Salem. So you’d think we’d disciple in similar ways. But you’d be wrong. Why? Because, relatively speaking, they’re discipling in higher-context cultures than myself.

You see, in a place like Nimbin and Salem, where NeoPaganism is extremely popular, there is more than enough people sharing a common background for higher-context group communication to occur. So you can share symbols and stories, so you actually dream of contextualized church in places like that. Not so here. Here, yes, I may have a former occultist or two in a group, but at the same time I also may have former Hindus and secular Aussies. Being a former occultist myself I can communicate to former occultists in highly contextualized ways when speaking one-to-one, but in a group situation that opportunity evaporates.

So for me, when I’m talking church contextualization, I’m not talking messianic Paganism or messianic Hinduism in some highly contextualized way like some missional Christians do. Rather, when I’m talking church contextualization, I’m talking about diversifying for a diverse environment. I’m talking about esoteric types feeling welcome, not because they find churches with people like them in them, but because they find churches where everyone is the same in being different in some way. It’s the irony of diversity. When everyone is different, no one is.

This, then, explains why I emphasize the importance of one-to-one discipleship (or personal mentoring if you’d prefer that word). Because for me, as a glocal or polycultural Christian, high-context communication is largely limited to personal conversations, not group discussions.

4 Comments

  1. After reading that, I am left with the impression that what Hall refers to as “low-context” I would describe as “modern”. Low-context cultures are charactrerised by modernity, or one of the characteristics of modernity is what Hall calls “low-context”.
    But I think Hall gets it wring in his use of the term “collective”. Both individualism and collectivism are essentially modern, and to the extent that Hall describes high-context cultures as “collective”, I think he is being misleading. A better word might be “communitarian”.

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  2. So how do you structure church services to minister to such a highly diverse body of believers? And after having read Symbol and Ceremony by Zahmer, I’m curious about how you incorporate symbols and stories into both the church services and one-on-one discipleship. In any case, it all sounds very challenging but very interesting.

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  3. Scott, to answer your first question, we don’t, at least not in the way you may be thinking. Trying to dream up a service that would appeal to Aussies and Indians, Indoneisans and Africans, charismatics and contemplatives, evangelicals and activists, metalheads and easy listeners, kids and retirees, cultural creatives and soccer mums, contemporry worshippers and grunge litergists … that would speak to them symbolically and culturally … it’s enough to do your head in. There is no way you’ll ever please everyone (culturally at least) and you’d be fighting people all the way (hey, it took us years just to open up the food options for Sunday lunches). Moreover, to spend energy trying to please everyone would reinforce exactly what I don’t want to reinforce: the overwealming, energy sucking dominance of the Sunday service in the life of contemporary churches and their leadership. Moreover, not being the pastor or the worship ministry leader, my influence is minimal in this area.
    What I find far more productive is this:
    Firstly, an emphasis on Christ as the basis of belonging, irrespective of cultural preference.
    Secondly, and related to this, an emphasis on story over style in worship. I can cope if my aesthetic needs aren’t met in a service provided there’s substance to what is sung and spoken. Music is not a unifying force in our iPod society, so we shouldn’t expect it to function as one, but lyrical faithfulness is another matter entirely. Challenge the me-ism in music and preaching, relax about personal tastes. Same goes for ritual enactment if you’re liturgically inclined.
    Thirdly, leaving Sunday services alone doesn’t preclude the possibility of alternative services. I find alternative services are most sustainable if organised on a seasonal basis, in line with litergical calandar. We find our tenebrae and all saints eve services appeal to cultural creatives. We find our Tamil/English carols services appeal to Indians and Sri Lankans.
    Fourthly, and most importantly, is 1:1 discipleship. This is where cultural symbols and stories can most effectively be used in a high context manner. For instance, amongst tarot readers we have used the Christian symbols in tarot cards as conversation starters, drawing out the Christocentric implications.

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