Tuesday, February 19, 2008

A Mix of Low Context and High Context Communication

This past week in my Law, Literature & Film class we read a novel titled, “Donald Duk,” a story of an American-Chinese boy growing up in San Francisco’s Chinatown. The boy’s father owns and operates a restaurant, but as I have already written about my Unified Food Theory in a prior blog post, I will not expand on that facet of the story in this essay. I found the story in this book somewhat difficult to follow. It is not that the writing is bad, because it is not. I am chalking up my difficulties to the communication differences between high context and low context cultures.

Anthropologist Edward Hall theorized that low context cultures (found in North America and Western Europe) are “logical, linear, individualistic and action-oriented.” On the other hand, high context cultures (found in the Middle East, Asia, Africa and South America) are “relational, collectivist, intuitive and contemplative.”

Apparently, the United States falls somewhat in the middle of a low-context and high context culture, possibly due to the mix of cultures in our society. On one end of the scale, you have the Germans or the Dutch who are blunt to the point of rudeness. I had a difficult time with this when I spent a month in Amsterdam last summer. I often had to remind myself that people were not being rude, just direct.

I had a similarly difficult time understanding the novel. It was written in this odd style where, if I were to use an analogy, would be a lot like a movie that fades in and out of dream sequences and alternately breaks into song or dance in the middle of action scenes. I got the overall gist of the story, which was this young boy’s journey from hating his Chinese heritage to being willing to learn about it and stand up against the prejudice he encounters. Interestingly enough, the story itself was an illustration of these two communication styles.

As an example of high-context communication, after Donald steals a model airplane that his father has built and destroyed it, he confesses. His father does not reprimand him directly, but rather launches into a long story that does not seem to have any relationship to his son’s confession. At the very end, he ties it together to his disappointment in his son with one devastating sentence, which leaves Donald “whapped dizzy.” Another example is the novel’s use of Donald’s dreams to reveal Chinese immigrant’s history.

On the other hand, exemplifying low-context communication, the father, when curbing his children’s behavior commands directly in English, “Be cool!” This is a very direct and to-the-point statement that would probably be considered very rude in high-context cultures. A second example of low-context communication is how Donald and his friend, Arthur, head to the library to verify the history revealed in his dreams. So, the book illustrates both norms as it explores Donald’s life as a Chinese-American growing up in a predominately Chinese neighborhood.

Overall, the novel has merit in its overall theme, but I am not sure I would recommend it for pleasure reading; simply because I think my low-context brain needs the message delivered more plainly.

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