Wednesday, July 1, 2009

High Context/Low Context

My ex-wife used to accuse me of being unable to enter a store without striking up a conversation with a salesperson or clerk. I never saw reason to deny the accusation. I've always delighted in the chit-chat, jokes, and wise-ass comments that can turn a business exchange into something more than business. Just because I'm buying a soda doesn't mean I can't have a little fun, right? Routine, in my view, should never be routine.

I've always blamed this behavior on my Cuban heritage. For Cubans, nothing is routine. The morning coffee, a shoe-shine, store excursion, or bus ride are all opportunities to indulge in the playful shit-giving Cubans call jodiendo - from the verb, joder. This word, literally "to fuck," is pejorative in most Spanish-speaking countries, but in Cuba it has a more light-hearted connotation: to tease, to mess with someone's head, to take the piss out of someone, as the British would say. So before proceeding further, let's all practice our declensions, shall we?: yo jodo, tu jodes, el/ella/usted jode, nosotros jodemos...

Here in Vietnam, despite my rudimentary language skills, I've recently taken to jodiendo with people on the street, and so far it's been going over quite well. Favorite targets: the ubiquitous xe om drivers that wait on every street corner for someone like me to pass by, so they can yell out, "Hello, motobike?!" Just to mess with their heads, I've recently started responding by asking them, in Vietnamese, "Okay, where ya going?" The question throws them for a loop - aren't I the one who's supposed to be going somewhere? But after a moment, they get the joke and respond with a smile or a chuckle. They know I'm jodiendo, and most of them seem to appreciate it.

The success of this behavior underscores a feeling I've had since I landed in Vietnam. I believe I understand Vietnam better when I approach the country as a Cuban than as a representative of the US. There are probably many reasons for this, but I think it comes down to the idea that Cuba and Vietnam both represent what anthropologist Edward T. Hall, in his 1976 book Beyond Culture, calls "high-context" cultures. 

Broadly speaking, high-context cultures, according to Hall's framework, have a strong "in-group" identity. They are more family-bound, and less permeable to outsiders. Because they operate on the basis of face-to-face interactions, rules tend to be situational, and many "understandings" are left unspoken. By comparison, low-context cultures tend to prize individualism over group identity, and are more likely to operate on the basis of explicitly-stated rules. In the marketplace, low-context people want to get down to business. High-context cultures take time to contextualize the business in some kind of social framework (see my comments on bargaining). Germany and the US fall toward the "low-context" side of the continuum; much of Asia, Latin America, Africa and the Middle East would fall on the "high-context" side.

These are broad strokes, and in truth no culture is entirely "high" or "low." Within a low-context culture are numerous sub-groups that rely strongly on shared social "in-group" knowledge, just as there are times when high-context cultures favor efficiency. And of course, there are people who do not fit their native-cultures' stereotypical roles. But as a broad-brush way of looking at things, I think Hall's framework has some value.

The idea that Vietnam operates on the basis of deep "in-group" identity is evidenced by the language. Grammatically, everyone in the country is family. The proper pronouns for addressing people older than you translate to things like, "uncle," "grandmother," and "older brother," while one is expected to address most juniors as "younger sibling," and so on. If this doesn't speak to a "high-context" paradigm, I don't know what does.

The point is, I believe my identification with one high-context culture helps me to "get" what another high-context culture is up to. Among Hanoians I see a physicality, humor, and manner of interacting that remind me more of the Caribbean than the dominant Anglo culture of the U.S. I understand there's a web of in-group knowledge I haven't been exposed to. But without knowing all the social rules, I intuit that the best way to ingratiate myself to the people around me is to do things like chit-chat while I'm at the store, joke around, be a bit of a wise-ass, joder

Of course, this behavior comes naturally to me. It's just a context thing, baby - it would take you awhile to understand it.


  1. My grandfather was an Italian jodedor without knowing it. He loved the old "I scream for ice-cream" jingle, but he didn't quite catch the ice part...He'd always laugh and say "hey hey...I a'scream, you'a scream hahaa, we all'a scream....for...forrrrr I SCREAM!! HAHAHA. You know its funny if you're serving it and you're laughing first and loudest.

  2. When have you approached anything as an American? I'm looking here for clues through our shared experiences and can't find any.
    (boom boom)