On Edward Hall’s Context of Cultures: High and Low which basically classifies societies on the basis of interaction, communication, relationships. High-context cultures tend to rely more on context: references, old relationships, community. A lot is unsaid. What is said is flowery, indirect. Low-context cultures have open, direct communications, based on specific rules that are accessible to everyone. Commonly, China, India, Brazil, Japan have been talked of as high-context and the US and Germany are examples of low-context societies.
This website comes with a neat little test to help you figure out whether you function better in high-context situations or low-context ones. I’m not sure how accurate the test is but it is fun.
Ruchir Sharma talks about India and Brazil as high-context cultures in his book Breakout Nations.
“High-context societies believe deeply in tradition, history and favoring the in-group, whether it is one’s family or business circle, and thus they are vulnerable to corruption. If this description sounds questionable to businessmen or tourists who know Brazil and India as open, familiar and straightforward, that is because they’ve experienced only the low-context facade adopted by the outward-facing elites who need to deal in a clear way with foreigners. Everyone is welcome at Brazil’s Carnival or an Indian wedding, and they may even be made to feel like an insider, but the reality is that it takes decades to become a real part of these cultures.”
I think of times I’ve tried to ‘explicate’ India to foreigners. At one time, I worked as a ‘cultural fluent’ for a consumer research firm called Iconoculture. My job consisted of decoding Indians, categorized into tidy market segments of course, our particular triggers and responses. To them, India was a vast and mysterious place with its intricate coded meanings and these needed translation.
In classes at UCLA, I found myself saying, ‘No, I can’t put that in the screenplay; that would never happen in India’–and a moment later–felt the discomfort of generalizing, of ‘speaking for’. The question of representation. But ‘outward-facing elites’ are often those who get heard, those who get to speak. At night, I’d stay up late, replaying conversations in my head. What had I left out? What had I mis-conveyed? Sins of omission.
Once, I hosted ‘Indian night’ at our place, aware of the ridiculous inadequacy of any such endeavor. I cooked Punjabi-ish food. There had been vague discussions about watching a Hindi movie. I couldn’t choose one. What would be appropriate, encompassing, enough? Personal faves didn’t make it. Lootera was too period, Queen too atypical, Kahaani too much of a genre movie. Finally, I decided to show a montage of trailers. Bits and pieces of upcoming Hindi films, collated to add up to something like a ‘fair’ picture. Of course, it wasn’t. I didn’t include a single Khan movie (the upcoming ones just didn’t appeal to me). It was at best a representation–in fragments–of my taste in Hindi films.
From this article: For Indians, the purpose of communication is to maintain harmony and forge relationships but we’re moving towards an LC culture, largely because of technology, trade, travel and television. Indians are more verbose and dialogue-oriented than other high-context societies like the Japanese, Chinese or Koreans, which also makes this move easier.
And another view on this whole thing and the danger of stereotyping.
The month has passed in a haze of allergens, family and paperwork. All the plans I made about personal growth/writing seem to be heading into the sea. I’ve declared it our ‘Indian Holiday’ and am curling up for movies and fatness. It’s so hot that staying upright in a chair seems effortful. Plus I’m strung out and struggling to breathe after Bangalore allergies.
Gills and dry land.
The week has been a blur. Water shortage. Vague plans for Bangkok abandoned. Heat. I want to shower more often but can’t because water comes only at certain hours. I want to write but don’t because I’ve lost some faith and am lazy in the heat, like a stupefied dog. I wait. I sleep a lot.