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The Power of Context

“Although humor is present in all human groups, its content varies significantly across cultures. Many jokes don’t translate well—or at all—because of differences in social structure and cultural norms. There is no universally appreciated joke; what is funny in one culture may not be amusing in another.”

Steven B. Jackson[1]

It isn’t necessary to fly to another country to have a cross cultural experience. In today’s world, work, home, school and shopping are all contexts that include diverse cultures. Cross Cultural management is now taught at business and management schools and not in the International marketing area, but rather in relation to managing teams within an organization. Cultures evolve from like minded groups as values and experiences become shared. A common history of shared meaning creates a taken for granted knowing that can evolve into a complex culture. It is not necessary as a mediator to know the ins and outs of all the cultures that may be present in a mediation scenario, however it is part of our business to be aware of the dynamics of culture, context and communication and how this impacts on conflict.  

The key to cross cultural communication in mediation, is tuning into the dynamic of directional awareness. Is communication moving towards a constructive direction /or destructive direction? If communication is moving towards a destructive direction, then take a breath and see if a cultural nuance is being overlooked from one party and seen as a critical factor to another.

Culture shock occurs in a crisis of knowing one is being shocked into awareness of different than expected. These are the moments when you feel out of depth, something is terribly wrong.  Culture stress is a term to describe the overload of information that occurs when relating to a new culture. In order for us to communicate in comfort we need to have a lot of our communication, our relating, to be taken for granted. A sense of knowing and being known that doesn’t require a lot of attention. Culture stress is more of a long term adapting. When ongoing attention and awareness is required to grasp what is happening, we are not able to just take for granted the meaning, as we are either being met with dissonance or finding ourselves out in the cold So the adaptation period required to process information can be very stressful, no different than being an aircraft traffic controller.

Anthropologist Edward T. Hall is known as founding the scholarly field of intercultural communication during 1951-1955 when he was at the Foreign Service Institute of the U.S. Department of States. He says that “what one pays attention to and what one does not attend to is largely a matter of context.” …. And contextual awareness is developed through culture. Edward Hall said, “Almost everyone has difficulty believing that behavior they have always associated with ‘human nature’ is not human nature at all but learned behavior.” [2]

Darley and Bateson in 1973 created a research project that concluded context determines human behavior more than personality. Being in a hurry is often the real reason why people walk past a person who is lying on the pavement. The context of being in a hurry is seen to be the reason, rather than a personality that is not caring. 

Language is linear by nature, by the biology of our brains networking. Language and linear thinking does not reflect all that is in the mind and heart of the speaker. It is our very nature to take in information that is contextual to fully understand what is happening around us. Our culture determines to what degree this information is critical for meaning or is to be ignored, and inappropriate.

One way of understanding things in general is through the framework of context. Context is the meaning, the situational pattern that surrounds a scenario. What we pay attention to, context and information overload are all related. In some cultures the context is not so important as far as deriving meaning. In these cultures what is important is the information, the written or spoken word, and what that refers to. In low context cultures the written contract, the facts and what is logical is where meaning is drawn from.

Iian McGilchrist talks about the divided brain,[3] that our physiology is designed for both high and low contextual perception, but based on our culture, we develop one more than the other. There is now a strong interest in seeing what happens with the adults of the modern culture that is growing throughout the world, as they engage so often in the low context social media technology. How will this affect the brain and hence society as there is such a reliance on development of low context communication that is not being balanced by a development in the brain or society of high context?

Cultures such as Indigenous, Japanese, Chinese and even to a degree French spend a lot of time in relationship building, sitting together drinking, eating being in company to ‘know the other’, to get the drift of where this person is coming from. Not from what they say as much as ‘who they are’.  The contextual information is valued and being processed as a requirement for understanding what might be said or not said in the future. The context is what is feeding the meaning.

Context can be seen as a hidden language that is now through neuroscience being understood via contagion emotions. When you yawn it makes me yawn. As Canadian Neuropsychologist Donald Hebb says “neurons that fire together, wire together” The more we use a part of our brain the more it becomes our habit and our comfort zone. If we are used to mixing and communicating in high context cultures, our brains will be attuned to drawing meaning from context, if we are used to communicating in a low context culture, we will not be tuning into the context as far as understanding what is being communicated. Those neurons that don’t fire together don’t wire together.  

Put simply there is a continuum between high context cultures and low context cultures.

High context cultures draw their meaning and interpretation from the context surrounding an interaction or scenario whereas the other end of the continuum low context cultures draw their meaning from the information that is present, No culture ignores high or low context, they are however given higher or lesser value.

Japanese is a great example of a culture that places a high value on context in communication. The use of pronouns I , you are left out in informal conversations requiring the listener to pickup, tune into and grasp the speaker.  High context communication requires a greater degree of knowing the other, hence a greater degree of relationship development is critical in being able to understand each other. The reliance on verbal linear communication is limited.

The beauty of cross culture is the opportunity for discovery and growth. The down side to cross culture can be conflict. To be taken outside ones taken for granted cultural fluency may be stressful and at times create shock, but if there is support around growth then the discovery could lead to beauty and what is known in Chinese as ‘The Art of Being Muddled’, which is best understood as the yin yang sign, differences create a whole.[4] 

Human beings are created with the capacity to read and draw meaning from context. To a certain extent context is always necessary for effective communication; however cultures do vary in the degree of developed attention to the value of context.  As Edward Hall says,

 “Context in one sense is just one of many ways of looking at things. Failure to take context into consideration however can cause problems for cross cultural relations.  High Context cultures make greater distinctions between insiders and outsiders than low context cultures do. People raised in high context systems expect more of others than do the participants in low context systems. When talking about something that they have on their minds, a high context individual will expect his listener to know what’s bothering him, so that he doesn’t have to be specific. The result is they will talk around and around the point, in effect putting all the pieces in place except the crucial one. Placing it properly – this keystone – is the role of the listener. To do this for him is an insult and a violation of his individuality…..

Also in HC (high context) systems, people in places of authority are personally and truly (not just in theory) responsible for the actions of subordinates down to the lowest man.  In LC systems, responsibility is diffused throughout the system and difficult to pin down – a point that President Nixon exploited in his Watergate defense. Paradoxically, when something happens to a low-context system, everyone runs for cover and ‘the system’ is supposed to protect its members. If a scapegoat is needed, the most plausible low-ranking scapegoat is chosen.  In the My Lai incident, a lieutenant took the rap”[5]

Louise Sundrarajan, is the head of the Indigenous Psychologists Task Force, (formally known as cross cultural psychologists), Louise explains how for Chinese culture, emotions, and not just the speakers emotions, tell the true story. 

”There is a long tradition in the west from Plato to Sartre, (with the exception of Heidegger) that considers emotions to be somehow distorting reality. The Chinese believe on the contrary. The emotion reveals something that is true about the person and the world…Concern for the true condition of things, which pertain to both the self and the world is sustained in the tradition of mindfulness awareness. .. In sum, being true to qing the perceived emotion and the true condition of a situation are seen as critical for interpersonal relatedness. The route for developing this sensitivity in Asian collective oriented culture takes place within interactions with others as well as in self reflection.”[6] 

In the foreword to The Anatomy of Self, Edward Hall says,

,” …it brought home to me once again. the absolute obligation that each of us has –in spite of the risks – to share our insights with others and the great loss when people lack the confidence, energy, or courage to describe systematically the conceptual worlds in which they live.”[7]

That I believe is our job as mediators, to provide the opportunities, the guidance in which people can with confidence, with energy and courage share the world in which they live, despite the risk.

To give an example of how I have used the power of context in mediation I will take you into the heart of a family break up. Here was an Australian women from Irish decent and a Brazilian man now living in Australia. They had  two  beautiful boys. A very sad case of pain in living together. Although they both had high context cultural awareness from different backgrounds, living in Australia required a high degree of adapting to low context, especially around paying bills. The gulf between them grew.

In caucus I was able to tap the man into the wisdom of his culture, the hierarchical respect that I knew he would connect to beyond the pain and sense of awkwardness that he was having both in the mediation and in his present life that was being bombarded with low context law.  I asked him if there was someone he could think about that he looked up to, that he respected and to bring this person to mind. He told me his uncle was a Judge, and he respected him highly. As soon as the uncle entered the room, metaphorically, the processing of decisions became easier. The man floundering in shame, was able to connect to respect, to a place in his mind and heart that was full of awe and compassion. A place that was in the present circumstances of his life, distant and separate. With the invitation to bring his uncle into his mind, he was able to imagine what he would say, what would be the best course to follow, This became the turning point from destructive to constructive communication, High context values respectful relationships and collective awareness, This man was no longer alone in the room with discomfort, he was now connected to his heritage. From lost to found.

Here are some practices for developing High Contextual awareness:

  • Yishai Shalif, Narrative Counsellor who does a lot of work in Israel between Jewish and Palestinians, suggests the Not Known stance, the orientation of curiosity, known as well in some circles as a beginners mind, creates the space for awareness to be processed.
  • High context is processed in silence. If you are able to be in silence and still your inner voice, you will catch a glimpse of what is going on around you, with others. This takes time to develop and patience.
  • Spend time in a different cultural context with the intention of being non judgmental and just noticing. The longer you spend in non judgmental awareness the easier it will be to take in nuance of difference without conflict.
  • The Japanese have a word, ‘omoshiroi’, which can be translated as interesting, holding a person’s attention. This is used to put judgment aside noticing that something is different from expected. Try using the word interesting when things or people behave differently from expected and see how that impacts on your thoughts and emotions.

Here are some practices for developing Low Contextual awareness:

  • When doing a task put all your attention on the task and the goal and avoid conversation or social interruptions.
  • When introducing yourself, put the emphasis on what you do, rather than your group or family identity.
  • Use time as a commodity, see it in terms of saving time, spending time, and keeping time. See this as an important value for yourself and others.
  • Focus on the detail, compartmentalize your day. See your day as fragmented silos each part being important.
  • Follow instructions from  a manual that gives clear steps. Do this without watching someone do it first.



[1] Steven B. Jackson Culture Conscious  What’s Funny? It depends where you’re from.

Posted May 18, 2012

[2] Edward T Hall  The Silent Language 1973  Anchor Books  p43

[3] Iian Gilchrist The Divided Brain

[4] Mieke Matthyssen (2015) Zheng Banqiao’s Nande hutu and “the Art of

Being Muddled” in Contemporary China, Contemporary Chinese Thought,

[5] Edward T Hall Beyond Culture Anchor Books 1976

[6] Louise Sundararjan ‘Lost In Translation’ in Conversations on Compassion Michelle Brenner 2015

[7] Edward T Hall Foreword to The Anatomy of Self The Individual versus Society written by Takeo Doi.MD 1985


Michelle Brenner

Michelle Brenner PGDip Conflict Resolution (Macq.Univ.) was one of the first to receive post-graduate qualifications in Conflict Resolution within Australia in 1994. Since then she has been a pioneer in the practice and development of the field. She was a forerunner in mediation in local government, being the first full… MORE >

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