Pedagogica: Do unto others...

Many of us were brought up with some equivalent to what, in my neighborhood, was called "The Golden Rule." Basically, it ran, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." For me that included respecting your diversity and expecting that you would respect mine. 'Nuff said for me. 

Maybe it was a quirk of language or some low context uncertainty that required this maxim to be spelled out further. Some folks insisted that it be replaced with a "Platinum Rule", namely, "Do unto others as they would have you do unto them." Hmm. I thought that inclusion of difference was plain from the start in the traditional version, otherwise it would have no meaning whatever. This sort of irked me and continues to do so, even though the platinum phrase seems to be on the way to being retired to the old chestnut farm. For me, hearing it immediately generates a frame of politically correct oneupspersonship–my bias, (and my politically correct neologism) if you will. 

This stimulates another question, however, that I continue to struggle with, namely, how what has traditionally been described in terms of high and low context in intercultural studies is becoming a pressing practical question in everyday multicultural collaboration. We tend to be quick to point out to travelers and expats that they may encounter situations in which they don't get the message or assume the wrong message, because they don't share the context. So, we spend time supposedly helping low context people with labels like “direct” and “indirect” to help them explore and perhaps knowingly, though sometimes ethnocentrically, forgive others for so cautiously communicating. At the same time, we encourage high context folks to accept the low contexters without labeling them as rude, not very smart. or anal-retentive.

Being a history buff, I keep wondering about how, over time, contextual distinctions and extremes developed. I would love to see some real research on this – thesis topic seekers take note! My guesses include my hunch that the individualism generated by the Protestant sense of individual salvation may be at play in the story of Europe's high and low context regions, which seem rather consistently divided linguistically along post-Reformation lines. Or, did the strengthening of the vernacular and the invention of literary media contribute to these demarcations? A which-came-first, chicken-or-egg dilemma! 

When it comes to the relatively low context status of my native USA, my surmise is that the enormous diversity of European immigrants and the isolation of the frontier may have made it extremely important to spell out in detail one's meanings to communicate effectively (and do so with a smile for safety – "American smile too much"). If so, will this mean that today's enormously diverse global organizations and teams need to do the same thing–accept the lowered context with a smile, or is that a neo-colonialist assumption on my part? At this point I'm not sure what to tell my students, other than to share and explore the dilemma that I have expressed in this post.

There are lots of clear explanations in intercultural literature of the dynamics high and low context, extrapolating the insights of Edward Hall who brought the importance of this distinction to our attention. High and low context speech, direct and indirect expression can both suffer by being isolated, labeled and adjudged as such. They are not standalone phenomena, but reflections of other cultural values, narratives about behavior that first apply to relationships and thus affect communication. To cite a recent post of Joseph Shaules, “Hall believed that the discovery of unconscious culture marked a next step in human social evolution. He didn't believe that communication technology naturally creates intercultural understanding. As he predicted, increased intercultural contact is as likely to produce conflict as understanding--and that conflict is rooted in fundamental elements of cognition, emotion and identity.”

On the practical level, however, we are more and more thrust into situations where our collaboration requires that this be dealt with, resolved. Does this mean that one approach needs to be adopted or adapted to, for example, by a highly diverse global team? New technology is beginning to give us richer and richer communication media; yet it is still a far cry from face-to-face. The question is whether such teams need to consciously create a part of their own "third culture" that sets standards and a fresh context for communication. This is neither easy to answer nor implement. Also, should the teleconference become a perfect virtual reality will that not make the context more real as well, as we will no longer be able to blame the tech for fuzziness?

How do we speak unto others as we would have them speak unto us?

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