Edward Hall’s Context Prism

In search of more prisms that I can examine BRIC countries through (Gaurav blogged about Geert Hofstede, which gave us some interesting data points), I came across Edward Hall’s high- and low- context analysis.

Other sites already cover Hall’s theory pretty well, but basically he differentiated cultures based on an idea that some had high-context communication and others had low-context communication.

Scandinavians, for example, have low-context communications.  You can walk into any conversation with them and their dialogue will contain very direct messages that are self-encapsulated and contain most of the information you would need to make sense of it.

There are codified norms within the society that make the conversation rules-based and less personal.  It comes off as very direct and to the point.

Americans are low-context as well, and correspondingly, they are associated by other cultures as being very forceful and aggressive in their meetings with foreign businesspeople.  Low-context cultures have one-to-one conversations in isolation of external events, meaning that relationships can exist more often exclusively of one another (see this social network analysis diagram).  An example of this might be how Americans tend to move around a lot and therefore have mutually exclusive friend networks.

Cultures such as China can be classified as high-context.  Conversations are steeped in historical reference, poetry, family intermixing and community relationships.  A stranger would not be able to come in and understand many conversations.  In business, those who would come in and meet someone and immediately start conducting negotiations would be frowned upon; it is customary in high-context cultures to talk about family first and at length before moving on.

Quite frankly I think there’s a danger of stereotyping and reading too much into Hall’s analysis.  Do Chinese and Russians always wax philosophical?  Do Americans always act brashly and crudely in conversation?

It’s still one more way of thinking about how BRIC countries and the US differ.  Certainly there is a political history component which I have yet to research but suspect that might offer the best analysis.

But if low-context cultures have wider networks with more compartmentalized networks and more explicit expressions of meaning, it would mean they are more likely to adopt western-based social networking tools like Facebook, which values loose tie networks.

It would mean Chinese wouldn’t take to Facebook because it doesn’t reward cultural context.

But is this true?  Certainly in Japan, users prefer mobile-based networks because they tend to use cell phones and gaming consoles far more than desktops.  But that seems to be an example of technology changing cultural context rather than the other way around.  Can technology override culture in the long run?  Earlier Gaurav pointed out that Orkut, Google’s social networking site which is pretty much dead in the US, is extremely popular both in India and Brazil.

By the way, India, Russia, and Brazil are generally classified as high-context countries, in case you were curious.  China is just such a posterchild for high-context culture that I would single it out here.

And I looked up what social networking sites (SNSs) are most popular in China.  As of right now, it seems to be Qzone followed by 51.com.  Check them out and see how they differ from Myspace and Facebook.  And for that matter, Orkut.

I probably won’t be able to do an accurate and thorough study of how these sites differ from each other in such a way as to tie it to cultural context, since there isn’t much literature on it available.  I guess I could try to enlist help from regional experts.

Anyway, I found an interesting article that took a slightly different angle on the issue:  how web sites are designed differently based on cultural context (read “A Cross-Cultural Analysis of Websites from High-Context Cultures and Low-Context Cultures” by Elizabeth Wuertz).  It’s interesting because it takes screen captures of McDonalds’ front pages from around the world in 2005.  I think it may be easy to read too much into one data point per country, but it still shows how contextual rules might change what appeals most to customers.

The implication for this of course is that designers and marketers would work hand-in-hand to tailor products to cultures, since they will be on the front lines of the competitive consumer war.  Wuertz also uses elements of Geert Hofstede — the whole thing makes for a fascinating read.