Recognizing High and Low Context Cultures

NCI’s director Holly Madill shares her thoughts on the differences between low and high context cultures with Diane Doberneck

Along our journeys to learn, unlearn, and relearn societal norms that contribute to biases and prejudice about difference, we are exposed to new information. Sadly, I just encountered new learning that I found very insightful: cultural context.  
High and low context cultures were a concept that emerged from anthropology in the 1950s and became more prevalent starting in the 1990s. While a lot of resources are in the realm of international relations and business, there are some valuable high and low context culture lessons to glean for community engagement. 
The fact that different communities express their culture (relationship to time, communication patterns, verbal and nonverbal communication, definitions of trust, emphasis on task or relationship, emphasis on individuality or collectivism, social structure and more) differently came as no surprise to me, but some of the communication nuances did.  
Low context cultures like in the United States, England, and Germany, communicate linearly, precisely, and explicitly, and there are tightly defined agendas and timeframes in our meetings. Low context cultures emphasize individuality and tasks. In high context cultures like Native American tribes, Japan, China, and Arabic countries, communication is curvilinear, and often what is left unsaid is just as important than what is, and there is more flexibility with time and looser schedules. What is important to the collective is more important than individual thoughts and preferences. Relationships, and preserving good relationships, is more valuable than achieving tasks quickly. I grossly paraphrase multiple sources here for brevity and you can read more at the three links below
But as I reflect on cultural context, I can’t help but think about its relationship to engagement and public participation, and of course, charrettes. I’ve been wondering how the charrette’s rather prescriptive schedule can accommodate various cultures in both high and low contexts.  
As I think it through, the structure of a charrette, although lower context culture by nature, can provide the framework for lots of opportunity to provide different experiences for participation for both high and low context cultures. There are lots of touchpoints within a charrette, with room for creativity. Understanding the preferences of both low and high context cultures challenges us to think creatively about making engagement choices that are more inclusive.  
We spend a lot of time in NCI’s courses talking about preparing for charrettes: getting to know the community, understanding its culture, building authentic relationships, and then planning opportunities for meaningful engagement.  
Understanding the differences between low and high context cultures can be a crucial step in helping us plan charrettes that offer multiple touchpoints within communities in ways that are meaningful and bridge these culture differences. For example, asynchronous on-line voting may appeal to charrette participants from low context cultures but leave high context culture participants feeling disconnected from the process. More of an in-person, dialogue approach might be a better fit for high context culture participants. Thinking through how participants from low and high context cultures define trust has implications for what safe participatory spaces are and requires consideration of planning a constructive charrette.
If you are interested in learning how to provide space for participants from both low and high context cultures in your community engagement work, NCI’s Complete Charette System Certificate training can help, and we’d welcome your ideas. Click here for more information to join the next public, synchronous, online class in November or contact Holly Madill to learn more about private training for your organization. 

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