Sunday, October 31, 2010

High and Low Context: Cultures and Situations

     Anthropologist Edward T. Hall presented two general concepts, high context (HC) and low context (LC), which describe broad-brush communication differences between societies.

     HC refers to societies or groups where people have close connections over a long period of time. Many aspects of cultural behaviors are not made explicit because most members know what to do and what to think from years of interaction with each other. Your family is likely a high context environment.

     LC refers to societies where people tend to have many connections but of shorter duration or for some specific reason. In these societies, cultural behaviors and beliefs often need to be spelled out explicitly so that those coming into the cultural environment know how to behave.

     While these terms are useful in classifying cultures we need to recognize that all societies contain both modes within them, again in an asymmetrical relation.  HC and LC can also describe situations and established social environments.

     For example, in the US small religious congregations, a party with friends, family gatherings, neighborhood restaurants with regular clientele, undergraduate on-campus friendships, and hosting a friend in your home overnight can be understood as HC situations and environments.  Likewise, large US airports, a large supermarket, a cafeteria, a convenience store, and staying in a motel are all LC environments [1].  Table 1 provides a list of contrasts.

Table 1:  Basic characteristics of High and Low Context Cultures

High Context
Low Context
  • Relationships depend on trust, build up slowly, and are stable.
  • One distinguishes between people inside and people outside one's circle.
  • How things get done depends on relationships with people and attention to group process.
  • One's identity is rooted in groups (family, work, culture
  • Social structure and authority are centralized; responsibility is at the top. Person at top works for the good of the group
  • Relationships begin and end quickly.
  • Many people can be inside one's circle; circle's boundary is not clear.
  • Things get done by following procedures and paying attention to the goal.
  • One's identity is rooted in oneself and one's accomplishments.
  • Social structure is decentralized; responsibility goes further down (is not concentrated at the top).
  • High use of nonverbal elements; voice tone, facial expression, gestures, and eye movement carry significant parts of conversation.         
  • Verbal message is implicit; context (situation, people, nonverbal elements) is more important than words.               
  • Verbal message is indirect; one talks around the point and embellishes it.                  
  • Communication is seen as an art form—a way of engaging someone.
  • Disagreement is personalized. One is sensitive to conflict expressed in another's nonverbal communication.
  • Conflict either must be solved before work can progress or must be avoided because it is personally threatening.
  • Low use of nonverbal elements. Message is carried more by words than by nonverbal means.
  • Verbal message is explicit. Context is less important than words.
  • Verbal message is direct; one spells things out exactly.
  • Communication is seen as a way of exchanging information, ideas, and opinions.
  • Disagreement is depersonalized. One withdraws from conflict with another and gets on with the task.
  • Focus is on rational solutions, not personal ones. One can be explicit about another's bothersome behavior.
  • Space is communal; people stand close to each other, share the same space. 
  • Space is compartmentalized and privately owned; privacy is important, so people are farther apart.
  • Polychronic
  • Everything has its own time. Time is not easily scheduled; needs of people may interfere with keeping to a set time. What is important is that activity gets done.
  • Change is slow. Things are rooted in the past; slow to change, and stable.
  • Time is a process; it belongs to others and to nature.    
  • Monochronic
  • Things are scheduled to be done at particular times, one thing at a time. What is important is that activity is done efficiently.
  • Change is fast. One can make change and see immediate results.
  • Time is a commodity to be spent or saved. One’s time is one’s own.
  • Knowledge is embedded in the situation; things are connected, synthesized, and global. Multiple sources of information are used. Thinking is deductive, proceeds from general to specific.       
  • Learning occurs by first observing others as they model or demonstrate and then practicing. 
  • Groups are preferred for learning and problem solving.
  • Accuracy is valued. How well something is learned is important.
  • Reality is fragmented and compartmentalized. One source of information is used to develop knowledge. Thinking is inductive, proceeds from specific to general. Focus is on detail.
  • Learning occurs by following explicit directions and explanations of others.
  • An individual orientation is preferred for learning and problem solving.
  • Speed is valued. How efficiently something is learned is important.
Thought Patterns
  • Truth will manifest itself through non-linear discovery processes and without having to employ rationality. 
  • Emphasis on logic and rationality, based on the belief that there is always an objective truth that can be reached through linear processes of discovery
Social perspective
  •  Collectivism emphasized
  • Individualism emphasized

In Beyond Culture Hall made it clear that HC cultures were Dionysian and that LC cultures are Apollonian [2].
     The HC-LC concept is viewed as a spectrum and cultures have been placed along it such that their relative positions can be seen.  From HC to LC is the following list:  Brazilian, Indian, Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Arab cultures, Greek, Latin Americans, Spanish, Italian, Russian, Finnish, French, French Canadian, Australian, English Canadian, Irish, English, American, Scandinavian, and German [3].

     Japan usually represents HC cultures as it was the primary example that Hall used, and most business communication studies have also focused on Japan.  Likewise, the US has been the typical LC culture.  The list above actually divides HC and LC at the French Canadian and Australian transition. 

   The main point of this blog is to convince you that American culture has shifted along the spectrum to a “higher context” position.  We have not become like the Japanese or Native Americans; but in HC-LC terms, American culture in 2010 is more like the 1860s than the 1960s.  In fact, all the cultures on the list are in flux.  The Greeks of today may be HC but they are well known for their LC Apollonian past.  And never forget German Romanticism, a time when German order was less important.

1. I have paraphrased from  The author of this web site is Jennifer Beer, a consulting Anthropologist.  Beer states that “one can never say a culture is ‘high’ or ‘low’ because societies all contain both modes,” which clearly marks her as being well into the postmodern romantic mind set (Modernists classify everything).  To her, it is best to focus on whether or not the situation is high or low context.  What she is missing is the fractal nature of contexts and the scale of analysis.  Something can be LC within HC within LC such as a men’s latrine (LC) within a small community church (HC) within a commuter based suburb (LC).  A thorough fractal discussion will come later.

2. The Table is compiled from:  E. T. Hall Beyond Culture, New York: Doubleday, 1976; see pp. 124-125 for the Dionysian-Apollonian discussion; E. T. Hall, “Context and meaning” in L. A. Samovar & R. E. Porter (Eds.), Intercultural Communication: A Reader, 9th ed., pp. 34-43, Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Co., 2000; E. T. Hall & M. R. Hall, Understanding Cultural Differences, Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press Inc., 2000; and, Elizabeth W├╝rtz, “A cross-cultural analysis of websites from high-context cultures and low-context cultures,” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 11(1), article 13, 2005; essay found at

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Apollonian and Dionysian: A Visual Aid

     The two cultural patterns or cognitive narratives play out in many different ways.  Ruth Benedict identified the Puebloan cultures of North America as Apollonian while the rest of Native America was Dionysian [1]. 
     The basic Apollonian pattern is:  order, clarity, logic, moderation, and control.  The basic Dionysian pattern is:  spontaneity, passion, intuition, rebellion, and love of excess.  While a culture is a blend of both frames its artifacts often reveal which way the culture is leaning. In the yin and yang of sequences, the Dionysian often embellishes what the Apollonian has established as a standard.
      So let’s look at some classic Puebloan artifacts.  The Hopi are known for their beautiful polished silver items with simple geometric and angular patterns:

                                                               Hopi:  Man in Corn Maze

Hopi: Kachina Dancers

These are belt buckles, Man in Corn Maze and Kachina Dancers.  Symmetry is found in both but the Kachina buckle has five dancers instead of three pairs. The Corn Maize one is about as elaborate as the traditional Hopi wants to get. 
     The Navaho are neighbors to the Hopi. They are an Apachean group that did not live in pueblos and are part of the once semi sedentary tribes of the Southwest.  Here are two belt buckles:

Note that their patterns are much more embellished, have a little more passion, and the splash of turquoise and coral adds a touch of nature.  The second one gets a little closer to gaudy IMHO. 
     All the tribes of the Southwest have been forced into the American economy and many tribal members make a living by selling their arts and crafts to tourists.  So it is not a surprise that some artists have moved to making that which sells well.  Thus, today some Hopi are making gaudier items and some Navaho have mimicked the more moderate Puebloan themes. This blending of styles across the region has troubled some who rebel against it and try to maintain the patterns of their culture. 
     The Eye Dazzler is one style that started in the 1880s in Navaho textiles but is now common across the region in several media. The style has a base of Apollonian and is very embellished, or if you will, it is Apollonian on steroids—remembering the love of excess in the Dionysian. This stuff is sensory overload, hence Dionysian intoxication.  Here is a Zuni (Puebloan) belt buckle in the Eye Dazzler style.

      Here is a 2008 book cover with a nice eye dazzler on it.  It is about complexity theory and economics.

      And next we have contemporary Romanticism in the form of The Eye Dazzler Textile Design Studio in London and New York.  Here is one image full of sensory overload; note the far left bear with its Southwest motif.  Click here to see their slide show.
     Yes, we live in a Dionysian age, and it is bedazzling.

1. Ruth Benedict, Patterns of Culture, 1934. Benedict was basing most of her analysis on studies done in the 1920s and general observations from across the continent.  The archaeological record clearly demonstrates that many Apollonian patterns existed in the past; just identify artifacts with strong symmetry such as Folsom, Plano and Hopewell points.  Artifact types that seem sloppy, irregular or expedient are Dionysian. Guess I’ll have to do another essay on this.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Dionysus Apollo

     In an earlier essay I pointed out that Anthropologists have classified cultures into two broad types, Dionysian and Apollonian, also called, respectfully, high and low context cultures [1].  I further pointed out that cultures can change from one version to the other over long periods of time, and gave an example of American culture and its transformations.  The types are best understood as asymmetrical dualities.  Dionysian cultures will have embedded within them Apollonian patterns that support and/or contradict the dominant patterns.  In Apollonian cultures the reverse is present.  The reason for this is that cultures are complex wholes comprised of many sub patterns, narratives, and complex metaphors most which are also Dionysian and Apollonian asymmetrical dualities.
     A correlation of these cultural patterns is with the human brain and its lateralization of function, also known as right brain/left brain asymmetry [2].  As is commonly known, the left brain hemisphere is the seat of logical, sequential, analytical, objective reasoning that looks at parts of wholes.  In contemporary Western cultures these processes are generally lumped together as “rationalism.”  The right hemisphere provides synthesizing, subjective, random, and holistic reasoning that is generally considered “intuitive.”  Psychologist Robert Ornstein describes the right hemisphere as providing the Context of life while the left gives us its Text [3].  While these items have often been contrasted as opposites or as an either/or pairing, scientists have discovered that human cognition is not so neatly structured; in fact, it seems rather messy as every idea or thought is layered with impulses that emanate from both hemispheres. 

     This shouldn’t be too surprising as healthy people live their lives as whole creatures, not partial ones.  For example, the popular Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) offers sixteen personality types based on combinations of four pairings of qualities:  Introversion-Extroversion, Sensing-Intuition, Thinking-Feeling, and Judging-Perceiving.  Each pair is viewed as the extremes of a continuum and a score is placed along that continuum with emphasis in one direction.  The midpoint of each continuum is scored zero and, for example, a score of 25 Introversion means a person leans that direction rather than toward Extroversion.  This is another asymmetrical dualistic relationship.  An introverted person may occasionally express extroverted qualities, and vice versa.  A personality type is a combination of four traits such as INTP (Introversion Intuition Thinking Perceiving).  And, such a person would be quite different than an ESFJ but not exactly opposite due to the way the variables interact and the scores given to each pairing.  The important idea is that the MBTI stresses the wholeness of a personality and acceptance of fluidity along the continuums (although rigid Js will interpret the types as separate fixed categories, as if they were literal descriptions of human nature). 

     Another important observation about the MBTI is that the traits generally break into right and left brain hemisphere descriptions (Table 1).  The left hemisphere is associated with the Introversion, Sensing, Thinking, and Judging qualities, and, the right hemisphere with the qualities of Extroversion, Intuition, Feeling, and Perceiving.  By combining the qualities in the way that it does MBTI personality types always reflect the yin and yang unity of a person.  Even the two types ISTJ and ENFP are not always heavy handed extremists.  The former has their “irrational” moments and behaviors, and, the later can excel at logic and analysis [4]. 

Table 1:  Myers Briggs traits and brain lateralization
Left Hemisphere
Right Hemisphere
Introversion:  Inwardly directed energy needed for focused reflection; stability from attending to enduring ideas; a natural tendency to think and work alone
Extraversion:  Outwardly directed energy needed to move into action; responsiveness to what is going on in the environment; a natural inclination to converse and to network
Sensing: A mastery of the facts; knowledge of what materials and resources are available; appreciation of knowing and doing what works
Intuition: Insight and attention to meanings; a grasp of what is possible and what the trends are; appreciation of doing what hasn’t been tried before
Thinking: Analysis of the pros and cons of situations, even when they have a personal stake; an ability to analyze and solve problems; want to discover the “truth” and naturally notice logical inconsistencies
Feeling: Knowledge of what is important to people and adhere to that in the face of opposition; the ability to build relationships and to be persuasive; desire to uncover the greatest good in a situation and notice when people may be harmed
Judging: Organization, planning, and follow through on projects; push to get things settled and decided; appreciation of well-organized efficiency
Perceiving: Quickly and flexibly responding to the needs of the moment; strive to keep things open so new information may be gathered; appreciation of the need for spontaneity and exploration

     Paradoxically, what is also true about MBTI types is that they don’t match up well with hemisphere dominance.  For example, an INTP is supposed to have Thinking as a dominant trait; however, this does not mean that the left hemisphere is directing most of that person’s cognitive processes.  The problem is:  we know there is lateralization of brain function, and, that psychological and cultural patterns tend to come in dualities that correlate well with the lateralization of brain function.  What is not known is how we go from the tangible biochemistry actions into the intangible “mind.”  In the end, MBTI may not tell us anything about neurology or cognitive processes, and maybe we shouldn’t expect them to. 

     Continuing with the patterns of personality and culture, let’s look at what creative geniuses are like.  While studying creativity and innovation within the fine arts, Economist David Galenson identified two types of innovators, Conceptual Innovators and Experimental Innovators.  Table 2 offers some quotes from various artists discussed in his book.  Conceptual Innovators are young geniuses whose work communicates discoveries and ideas.  They are deductive, plan their work carefully, have clear ideas in mind, work quickly to complete a project, and know when they are done.  Conceptual innovators peak early in their careers, before age 35, and their later work is less inspiring.  Conceptual painters regard experimental types as mere artisans, lacking in intelligence.  Conceptual innovators are “rationalists” who disregard other forms of thought as being useless; they view themselves as exceptional. 

Table 2: Quotes from various artists reflecting rational and intuitive perspectives. 

Conceptual Innovators--Rationalists
Pablo Picasso I don’t seek, I find
Andre Derain We painted with theories, ideas
Robert Smithson An object to me is the product of a thought
T.  S.  Elliot Poetry is not a turning lose of emotion, but an escape from emotion
Experimental Innovators--Intuitives
Paul Cezanne I seek in painting
Georgia O’Keeffe Great artists don’t just happen
Auguste Rodin The only principle in art is to copy what you see
Robert Frost No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader

     Experimental innovators become Old Masters; they work inductively; planning is unimportant because they make their important decisions while working; they stop a project only when they cannot see how to continue it;  they view their enterprise as research, they need to accumulate personal knowledge and require that their techniques emerge from careful study;  they distrust theoretical propositions as facile and unsubstantiated; they work at an incremental slow pace; they have total absorption in the pursuit of ambitious, vague, and elusive goals, and they are frustrated with self perceived lack of success, and fear they may not live long enough to attain their realization.  Their career is an evolution.  Their best work is done later in life, usually after age 40.  Experimental painters consider conceptualists as intellectual tricksters, lacking in artistic ability and integrity.  Old Masters are intuitive thinkers who have learned to appreciate and integrate other types of thought [5]. 

     While Galenson is focused on the pattern he has discovered and does not use the concepts I am using his book is helpful for two reasons.  First, in one package we get to see how individuals can lean extremely left or right hemisphere in their process of creating a product.  Obviously, the two approaches to creativity are Apollonian (Conceptualists) and Dionysian (Experimentalists).  What is not so obvious, and leads us back to our MBTI paradox, is the second reason to like the book—Galenson provides plenty of evidence that the product does not have to be the same type as the process.  Over the last several hundred years, both types of innovators are found in every century regardless of cultural milieu (Romanticism or Modernism).  A conceptual innovator can produce Romantic art and experimental innovators can produce Modernistic art.  In other words, the product may not reveal the cognitive process from which it was created but it does reflect the cultural milieu in which it was made.  And to drive this point home with some irony, the Grand Old Master of modernist science, Albert Einstein, was an intuitive experimentalist whose career was an evolution of increasing brilliance in an age of “rationalism”.  But then, conceptual innovators are not likely to get lifetime awards such as Einstein’s Person of the Century [6]. 

     Looking beyond geniuses to every day common people we see that the asymmetrical dualities are not so well distinguishable.  In today’s American Protestantism there is a basic theological distinction between fundamentalism and liberalism.  Fundamentalists typically believe that the bible is the literal word of god.  The book is full of rules to live by and it is the Text of life.  This is a narrowly defined left hemispheric view of the world.  Fundamentalists are also currently known for their evangelicalisms because many of them enhance their Christianity with ecstatic behaviors and values, adding a visceral right hemispheric layer to their beliefs.  Liberal Protestants, on the other hand, view the bible as a book of metaphors and interesting stories that help give meaning to life.  It gives Context to life, a right hemisphere perspective. Additionally, liberal Protestants are often allied with or engaged in science, and are able to reconcile religion and science.  Thus, both religious groups use their whole brains but in different ways and combinations.  These same patterns also seem to apply to conservative and liberal Catholics and Jews.

     Switching to politics we find that duality holds there as well.  Cognitive Scientist George Lakoff [7] has studied the thought patterns of Americans for thirty years and he was one of the first to recognize that metaphorical patterns make up most of our thinking.  Cognitive scientists have discovered that thoughts typically start with primary metaphors that can be combined into complex metaphors that are again combined into broad based narratives that frame our ideas and opinions.

     In the US conservatives currently embrace a complex metaphor that centers on the metaphor of authority.  The key values are the need for a hierarchy of authority, obedience to authorities, personal discipline, personal responsibility, and a need for order.  Enlightenment rationalism is also a cornerstone concept. Conservatives also view family life as being part of a Strict Father conception with the father being a moral role model; this is extended then to all leadership positions such as the president and CEOs.  This is a remnant of Modernism.

     Progressives are described as focusing on the complex metaphor of empathy, together with the responsibility and strength to act out of empathy. The family model is based on equality between parents who create a nurturing and protective home.  By extension, government is to provide empowerment to it citizens and basic protections that go beyond police and military, such as the protection of unemployment insurance.  Progressives believe in a caring and nurturing environment; these are contemporary Dionysian values.  Aligned with progressives are neoliberals who often have similar goals but are wedded to Enlightenment rationalism.  In this category are people such as economist Paul Krugman who calls himself a progressive but also continues to promote rational man theories in economics.

     Lakoff is, of course, describing the ideal conservative and ideal progressive narratives.  He states that these are basically two world views that operate together in our culture.  It is also possible for an individual to have both operating within their own set of values.  Often the activation of one narrative inhibits the other from activating.  Thus a person who believes that big government should stay out of their life (conservative narrative) may also be happily receiving social security checks and using medical services from the Veterans Administration (progressive programs) without seeing the behaviors and values as contradictory.  Lakoff calls this biconceptualism and considers it a normal part of cognition.  I’m not sure we need another term such as biconceptualism.  It could also be tri or multi.  The important idea is that people keep different narratives and metaphors in their heads and that when one activates others may be inhibited.  People’s ideas, thoughts, and values need not be consistent or congruent within themselves.  Expecting them to be so is ignorant rationalism.

     So, now we see that Dionysian and Apollonian patterns are found throughout our culture, blended within individuals and across religion and politics.  I’ll discuss economics at length later. 

Apollo was the Greek god of truth, light, and order; Dionysus, the god of fertility, passion, spontaneity, and rebellion. Apollo and Dionysus represent polarities of the human personality: the logical, orderly side, and the intuitive, spontaneous side… Inside each of us…Apollo and Dionysus wage a war for dominance, with the two sides vying with one another for dominance in various aspects of our personal lives, including activities as simple as walking. The obvious solution is to strive for a balance between these two mighty forces, a struggle made more difficult by the fact that these opposing elements also manifest themselves in institutions such as religion and education [8].

Today, Dionysian patterns dominate US culture and most of the Western World; but it is not a strong dominance.  Conservatives and neoliberals continue to embrace their metaphor of rationalism.  Over time, what is progressive will become conservative.  When that happens, rationalism will be an archaic idea.   

1.  Anthropologists actually prefer to use the terms high and low context cultures.  I find the earlier terms handy and will continue to use them. 
2.  I am going to skip the “correlation is not causation” discussion at this point because the linkages between neurology, cognition, and culture are not well understood.  Further, as this question drives much of the ongoing research, I anticipate that more information will be forthcoming.  My only comment to researchers is to not obsess too much over causality.  Understanding cause and effect relations (A causes B) is important.  Also important are reciprocal relations (A and B create each other) and reflexivity (the mechanism that mediates the other two processes).  Most science over the last hundred years has focused on causality, or, one third of life.  Now, in a new Dionysian era, we are going to discover that the other two thirds are equally rewarding.  Imagine science beyond causality.

3.  Robert Ornstein, The Right Mind, Harcourt, Brace & Co, San Diego, CA, 1997. 
4.  For this MBTI discussion I have used concepts from The Myers & Briggs Foundation webpage http://www.  myersbriggs.  org/; my Table 1 is a modification of their table at http://www.  myersbriggs.  org/my-mbti-personality-type/mbti-basics/all-types-are-equal.  asp.  MBTI is based on Carl Jung’s concepts (Psychological Types, 1921) that exemplify the Romantic science used very early in the 20th century.  As modernism strengthened in the 20th century and overtook the culture, scientists often denigrated the MBTI as being bad psychology, or they redefined it as rigid “real” statistical categories.  Now, in a new romantic era, MBTI can reassert itself as being about the flow of a personality.

5.  David W.  Galenson, Old Masters and Young Geniuses:  The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity, Princeton University Press, 2006.  The quotes in Table 2 are scattered throughout the book. 

6.  On December 31, 1999, Time magazine recognized Albert Einstein as the Person of the Century, the twentieth century. 

7.  George Lakoff, The Political Mind:  A Cognitive Scientist’s Guide to Your Brain and Its Politics, Penguin Books, New York, with new Preface, 2009.  My discussion does not use the terms democrats and republicans because neither one is a fixed category.  In American history both parties have pushed authoritarian and empathetic narratives.  In my opinion, Lakoff describes how the two parties have typically been contrasted since the Reagan administration.  

8. Quote taken from that is part of a companion website for the humanities text book The Art of Being Human, Seventh Edition, Longman, 2002, by Richard Paul Janaro and Thelma C. Altshuler.