(Chapter 7: High-Context vs. Low-Context Cultures)
After reading chapter 7 (pp. 79-102) in Foreign to Familiar, respond to one or more of the following questions based on 1) what you’ve read and 2) your personal observation, experience, and opinions:
- Do you think your hometown is more “high-context” or “low-context” than Ames? What cultural norms in your hometown vs. Ames demonstrate this?
- Do you think “who you know” matters more or less in Ames than in your home culture? Describe experiences from your life in Ames vs. your hometown that demonstrate this.
- The author of Foreign to Familiar writes “There is something in the mindset of the American that says being comfortable is of higher importance than looking appropriate” (p. 90). Have you seen any evidence of this in Ames? In your home culture, does wearing casual dress in university/business contexts communicate “I don’t respect you”? From your observation of U.S. Americans interacting with one another, does wearing casual dress in similar U.S. contexts communicate disrespect toward others?
- One of our previous Foreign to Familiar questions was the following:
Imagine you have a friend from a culture not emphasizing individual expression of opinions. Your friend is currently working in a lab with a U.S. American professor as well as labmates who are mostly from the U.S. Your friend tells you that when he approached his professor a few days ago about writing him a letter of recommendation for a possible U.S. job, his professor seemed hesitant. Your friend is very upset because, although his professor has occasionally criticized him, he had had no clue that his professor was dissatisfied with him overall. He also has no idea what he should do to improve. Your friend already spends more hours working in the lab each week than any of his labmates. . . . What do you think are his professor’s concerns? How would you advise your friend to improve? (Clue: His U.S. American professor is almost certainly teaching his own children, “You must be able to think independently!”) Finally, why do you think your friend’s professor hasn’t repeatedly mentioned whatever concerns he has until your friend’s performance improved?
How do you think cultural differences related to power distance might be impacting this situation? (See pp. 93-94 for ideas.) Do you think continuing to follow your current behavioral norms might put you in a similar situation in the future? What specific changes could you make to help prevent this? How could you maximize how comfortable you feel while making these changes?
Example from Monica: I recently talked with an Indian graduate student accustomed to calling her professor here at Iowa State, who is also Indian, “Sir” (even though everyone else in her lab, including other Indians, calls him by his first name). I shared with her that while her current behavioral norms communicate in the Indian context appropriate respect for authority, U.S. Americans are likely to misunderstand them as communicating lack of self-confidence (probably due to lack of competence!). Because my student had previously shared with me that her goal after graduation is to get a job in the U.S., I expressed concern about how her continuing to follow Indian norms in the U.S. context might hurt her job prospects. I therefore suggested she make two changes:
- Transition to calling her professor and other instructors by their first names in order to match U.S. low-power-distance norms
- Not try to solve all her problems by herself in order to avoid bothering her professor, but instead — for any problem she experiences for which she is uncertain about the advisability of her proposed solution (particularly if testing that solution would take her more than a couple of her professor-paid work hours) — briefly meeting with her professor in order to explain 1) the problem she is having, 2) her proposed solution(s), and 3) her reason(s) for why she proposes this/these solution(s). Then she can ask, “Does this make sense? Do you think this will work?” I explained to her that her doing this will communicate to her professor not only that she is able to identify both problems and potential solutions independently (something he’s likely to remember and point out when he writes future letters of recommendation for her!), but also that she so much values not wasting the work hours he is paying her for that she is willing to seek out his help in order to ensure that she most efficiently produces optimum results.
I suggested my student maximize how comfortable she feels making these changes by asking for an appointment with her professor in which she can explain that her English teacher has expressed concern that unless she learns to exhibit more independent thinking and confidence, it will be very difficult for her to get a U.S. job after graduation. She can then outline the two specific changes I recommend and ask her professor if he agrees with my concern and suggestions. If he does (as I expect he will!), I suggested she ask whether it’s really okay with him if she calls him by his name vs. by “Sir” (since it will be much easier for her to make this change without feeling disrespectful if she knows her professor agrees she should make it!). My student left my office very excited to have concrete ideas for how she can make cultural adjustments likely to increase her chances of getting the U.S. job she wants!
- The author of Foreign to Familiar describes a Korean woman who “learned to change hats. She wore her Western hat where that was appropriate and switched back to her Korean one when around Koreans. . . .She did not become a Westerner, but one who knew how to relate to Westerners” (p. 86). As a result, she became an effective “culture bridge for other Koreans” as they adapted to life in a Western country. Based on what you’ve learned so far from your life in Ames and from Foreign to Familiar, what would you likely need to explain to someone just arriving in Ames from your home country in order to be an effective “culture bridge” for that person?