A number of readers ask me the significance of the word Context in my book Contextual Selling. Generally speaking American, European cultures are considered to be low context cultures whereas the Asian cultures like Japanese, Chinese, Indian are considered as high-context cultures.
Social Psychologist Richard Nisbett says that the orientation towards independence (low-context) or interdependence ( high-context ) actually decides the cognitive processes of thinking, decision making etc. In one of his experiments, a group of American and Japanese people were shown images which consisted of a big fish and a number of small fish with sea weeds around. The Americans were able to recollect the big fish; the Japanese more of the small fish and the seaweeds. That background of any situation can be termed as the context.
In the low-context cultures your communication has to be clear and to the point. People are individualistic and perceive themselves as being unique, self-made and autonomous. The communication is understood at a binary level yes/no, black/white 0-1 etc. In a business meeting involving Americans/Germans, you talk business and come to the point straight. If he does not want to buy your product he may say , “ Sorry I do not want to buy your product.” On the contrary, in Asian cultures, there are shades of grey between black and white. Remember, when an Indian client tells you, “we shall get in touch with you”. You need not necessarily take him at face value. The meanings can vary from: you may go now, I do not like the product/your demeanour, I am busy, I have already bought it from your competitor etc. That means one need to read between the lines in Asian culture. You not only have to hear what your customer says but also what his body language conveys. In case there is a divergence between his body language and the words; better believe the body language.
Independence is the hallmark of low-context, In high context culture there is equal (sometimes more) emphasis on other people’s opinion, the interdependence. Now do you know why we value others’ opinion more than us? And why most of the career options for students get narrowed down to engineering and medicine. If it is matrimony, then the bride has to fair and lovely no matter whether the groom is pitch dark.
Hazel Rose Markus, another social psychologist carried out an experiment at the San Francisco international airport. He had kept four blue and one orange pens at a counter to fill up the immigrations form. The US/Europeans picked up the orange pen which was distinct. The Asians picked up the Blue which was more common.
Thomas Talhelm, a psychologist from University of Virginia has made an interesting hypothesis in his article in Science in May 2014. He says the culture whether having high or low context is linked to farming of rice and wheat.
Rice which is mainly grown in Asia needs complex irrigation system, standing water which needs to be drained out every season. One farmer’s use of water may affect the other’s farm which gives rise to an interdependent paradigm. Wheat on the other hand, generally requires only rainfall and needs half the effort of that growing of rice. It also needs less of coordination and cooperation. ( Remember the giant mechanized wheat farms in the US?)
To test his hypothesis of wheat and rice corresponding to Independence and interdependence mindsets, he carried out an experiment in China. Wheat is grown in the northern side of Yangtze river, whereas rice is a major crop on the southern side. Talhelm asked the two groups to identify two common items from bus, train and a rail track. The people from north identified bus and train which are modes of transport ( low context) whereas people from the south side identified rail and rail track having commonality. ( High-context) when asked to draw pictures of self and others the farmers from north showed a big picture of self vis-à-vis small picture of others. Whereas for the rice growers of south, it was the other way round. May be this is the way our context, our environment conditions our thinking. I do not know whether the South Indian and the North Indian orientation has anything to do with the above hypothesis. ( with inputs from an article originally published in NYT by Mr. T.M. Luhrmann)