Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Low-context cultures

I talked to someone who took a grad psychology course in communicating with strangers. Apparently the textbooks say that America and Europe are low-context cultures, where people mean what they say and say what they mean. Other parts of the world are high-context cultures, where people try to communicate things that may be contrary to the plain meaning of their words.

We have a word for when someone says one thing and means another. It is called "irony". But it occurs so rarely in American speech that most people think that the word "irony" means something else.

Americans and Europeans also have different modes of communication. Americans deal in facts, and emphasize empirical realities to justify what they say. Europeans have their minds made up about various ideas, and ignore any facts that might get in the way.

Part of the difference is explained by American individualism.

This communication theory is supposed to explain why American have difficulty understanding the speech and behavior of foreigners -- we don't have the context to make sense of it. I am not sure whether the theory predicts that foreigners can understand Americans or not. I would think that it would be much easier to understand a low-context statement because the words have their plain meaning. But apparently many people in other countries have a lot of trouble with facts and plain language statements, and they just automatically translate everything that they hear into relativized meanings which are subject to their own personal prejudices.

No comments: