I was talking to my Cultural Anthropology class about high context versus low context communication. A nice source of information about High Context versus Low Context cultures is “The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business” by Erin Meyer.
In terms of communication, high context can apply not only to certain countries and cultures, but also to sub-cultures and micro-cultures.
The example of this I used was:
“ECO the 4A16 ASAP”
Most people would not understand this statement. But one can slowly expand it from a bit of high context communication to low context.
- ECO the 4A16 ASAP
- ECO the 4A16 as soon as possible.
- (Create an) Engineering Change Order (for) the 4A16 as soon as possible.
- Create the paperwork of an Engineering Change Order for the 4A16 Printed Wiring Board as soon as possible.
- Create the paperwork of an Engineering Change Order to guide the Design Department to modify the blueprint for the A16 Printed Wiring Board that is installed in “Unit 4” of the BPS-16(V) Submarine Radar System, as soon as possible.
- Okay so there is this radar system that mounts on a submarine that is made up of lots and lots of parts. Among the parts are “printed wiring boards.” These are electronic components with resisters, capacitors, transistors, integrated circuits and all sorts of other things to control the radar. One of these is called the 4A16 printed wiring board. It is installed in an electronic cabinet known as “unit 4.” That printed wiring board has some problems in its design that need correcting. Therefore we need to write up a piece of paper called an Engineering Change Order that will instruct the people in Design Department who update blueprints so that future builds of this board will be correct.
The original (level 1) statement only makes sense to a fairly small group of people (myself included from my days as a mechanical design engineer in a certain department in a certain corporation). By the time we get to level 6, many would understand what is wanted… people who are not part of a very small subculture.
The value of high context communication is thtree-fold. First, it saves time. Communication is easier for members within the same high-context sub-culture. Second, it provides nuance. No collection of words can give the full nuance of a message that is understood by those within the same sub-cultural context. Third, it separates US from THEN. This last one doesn’t seem so great, and in many ways it isn’t. However, as humans we all need some sense of belongingness. The communication barriers that are developed such as jargon and intra-cultural referencing help people feel that they belong. In missions, however, one must communicate across cultures. And, using language to divide (create a linguistic wall) is problematic when one is trying to use communication to serve as a bridge across cultural barriers.
Frankly, much of our conversation as Christians is High Context.
Consider the statement:
Accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior
This statement is as meaningless as “ECO the 4A16 ASAP” to someone with no acculturation into (Evangelical especially) church sub-culture. Half of the words need to explained… every word in fact that is longer than four letters… as well as the broader context of the overall message.
And yet, the biggest problem is not those who have no acculturation into the church sub-culture. After all, normally…
Zero cultural understanding leads to No Communication
Limited cultural understanding leads to Miscommunication
We want non-Christians to understand and respond to a call to allegiance to Jesus Christ. However, miscommunication is more dangerous than no communication, because miscommunication leads to a flawed response. The cargo cults of New Guinea, and the Prosperity Gospel of many places are examples of miscommunication.
Overall, the danger with the use of Christian jargon is two-fold… (1) a failure to communicate leading to rejection of the message and (2) miscommunication leading to an undesirable response.
Sharing a high context message only really works when people share that same context. This usually means people who are already believers, or enculturated nominal believers. It is hardly surprising that most of the most popular evangelistic presentations (often VERY high context) target people who already would describe themselves as Christians. Sometimes, such evangelism is not actually leading people to Christ, but leading Christians of other faith traditions into our own tradition.
That really should change.