Context, Culture, Communication and Crassness

On Metafilter, there is an answer that gets referenced a lot which describes Ask Culture versus Guess Culture. This is most of it:

This is a classic case of Ask Culture meets Guess Culture.

In some families, you grow up with the expectation that it's OK to ask for anything at all, but you gotta realize you might get no for an answer. This is Ask Culture.

In Guess Culture, you avoid putting a request into words unless you're pretty sure the answer will be yes. Guess Culture depends on a tight net of shared expectations. A key skill is putting out delicate feelers. If you do this with enough subtlety, you won't even have to make the request directly; you'll get an offer. Even then, the offer may be genuine or pro forma; it takes yet more skill and delicacy to discern whether you should accept.

All kinds of problems spring up around the edges. If you're a Guess Culture person -- and you obviously are -- then unwelcome requests from Ask Culture people seem presumptuous and out of line, and you're likely to feel angry, uncomfortable, and manipulated.

If you're an Ask Culture person, Guess Culture behavior can seem incomprehensible, inconsistent, and rife with passive aggression.

Obviously she's an Ask and you're a Guess. (I'm a Guess too. Let me tell you, it's great for, say, reading nuanced and subtle novels; not so great for, say, dating and getting raises.)

Thing is, Guess behaviors only work among a subset of other Guess people -- ones who share a fairly specific set of expectations and signalling techniques. The farther you get from your own family and friends and subculture, the more you'll have to embrace Ask behavior.


Yesterday, my son sent me a Wikipedia page on High Context and Low Context cultures which fits nicely with the idea of Ask versus Guess Culture. This is the introduction:

High-context culture and the contrasting low-context culture are terms presented by the anthropologist Edward T. Hall in his 1976 book Beyond Culture. It refers to a culture's tendency to use high-context messages over low-context messages in routine communication. This choice between speaking styles indicates whether a culture will cater to in-groups, an in-group being a group that has similar experiences and expectations, from which inferences are drawn. In a higher-context culture, many things are left unsaid, letting the culture explain. Words and word choice become very important in higher-context communication, since a few words can communicate a complex message very effectively to an in-group (but less effectively outside that group), while in a low-context culture, the communicator needs to be much more explicit and the value of a single word is less important.

I would say High Context Cultures are Guess Cultures and Low Context Cultures are Ask Cultures. The article goes on to say that High Context Cultures tend to be more homogenous. It posits that Low Context Cultures grow out of a need to bridge differences created by diversity in the population.

The above article also indicates that High Context Cultures strongly favor in-group communication. You pretty much have to be a member of the in-group to really understand it, no, they won't explain and good luck with that. It further indicates that some forms of communication, such as humor, are highly context dependent. Jokes are generally not funny if you have to explain them.

It occurs to me that this idea explains a lot of general memes, such as The Ugly American and the amount of serious awkwardness that immigrants experience when trying to figure out how to fit in. No matter your culture, some things are expected to just be understood without explanation. When you lack context, it matters not how talented you are at reading nuance. You will flub something badly.

I believe this concept also has significant merit for understanding some of the issues women experience in the work place.

Let's posit that there is a Male Culture and a Female Culture. Let's further posit that Male Culture has been shaped for thousands of years by the kind of work done in the public sphere that is largely associated in the modern world with paid work and Female Culture has been shaped for thousands of years by the kind of caretaking work typically done in the private sphere without direct pay for people one cares about personally.

When women try to pursue serious careers, they are like immigrants in a foreign land. They lack important contextual cues, they either don't what to ask or asking is a career killing faux pas and men are affronted by the efforts of women to try to fit in.

I once had a conversation with my sons who suggested to me that, in some sense, men are much more burdened with a need to read nuance due to having careers in the public sphere. In some sense, paid work is Guess Culture: Don't offend the clients. Don't offend your coworkers. Etc.

In contrast, if you are a homemaker dealing with family, there is often much more room to err and be forgiven. There is also more opportunity to hash things out and hashing things out is neither weird nor overly personal. It can be both when you want to talk about certain things in a work related context.

So, as women (generally, on a grand scale) move away from being homemakers and into being career women, they are like Ugly Americans trying to enter into and be accepted by a highly sensitive Guess Culture that relies heavily on context to communicate. On top of that, historically, if a man was talking to a woman to whom he was unrelated, he was probably looking for romance.

This would go a long way towards explaining why so many men are so reluctant to engage a woman in serious conversation: Historic precedent means that speaking to a woman at all will be interpreted by many Male Culture members as romantic interest or even intent to seduce. In this highly sensitive Guess Culture where the majority of communication is signaled contextually and where there is no forgiveness for offending the wrong people, this is Just Not Done. Men cannot afford the implication and their culture is far more sensitive to implication than this hypothetical Female Culture.

This might also explain the meme of women being talkative or talking too much or talking more than men. This is often interpreted as suggesting women are more social and more socially skilled than men.

But this framing indicates women are Ask Culture. They are a Low Context Culture. You need many more words to hash it out when communication is less dependent on contextual cues and shared history.

This also may be part of why, in an increasingly global economy where the internet is connecting people in real time from incredibly diverse backgrounds, diverse companies with more women are outperforming the traditional male dominated companies: Ask Culture is more diversity friendly.

You (business men) need us (business women). We know something you do not. We know how to effectively communicate with people when context is lacking.

This is something I have always done well, assuming I do not get shut down by people running the place who are much more Guess Culture than I am and horrified by my supposed tactlessness. When given running room, I do well at sorting out miscommunications with people from foreign cultures, people who speak English as a second language and so on. I don't mind answering questions asked in good faith, often in spite of them sounding quite "rude" to other people.

My initial draft of this was titled An explanation for Guess Culture that isn't "Y'all are dicks". Now that I have written the piece, it strikes me as completely unintended humorous double entendre. I opted to change the title out of deference to the sensitivities of HN culture as that forum provides a substantial portion of the (generally pathetically low) traffic for this blog. It is, no doubt, still Rong somehow.

I am still trying to work out how to effectively navigate the pitfalls inherent in trying to write about these things. I am clear that my directness is a strength in terms of analysis and clear communication. It also has long been a PR disaster.

In addition to being a woman and former homemaker, I have a long personal association with military culture via family members: My father and ex husband were both career military.

The American military tends to be quite blunt. It is generally okay to ask. More than most cultures, it exemplifies an attitude that the only dumb question is the one you did not ask. It is an environment where lives and national security are on the line. It is better to be "rude" than dead. It also has a great deal more diversity than most civilian American organizations.

The blood brother style bonds that military life fosters helps break down barriers and bridge gaps between people of diverse backgrounds. My ex once told me that the joke in the Army is they are the Green Race. In other words, they are defined by the color of their uniform, not the color of their skin.

Having spent so much of my life around the military, I tend to be quite blunt. A small handful of people find me refreshingly direct and honest and appreciate the lack of BS. A great many more people find me rude, crude and socially unacceptable.

This also may explain the double bind I always feel I face with regards to posting my articles to Hacker News: If I don't post them, they vary rarely get posted and usually only if it is "gossip" that will be criticized. If I do post it, no one else is vouching for me, I am an interloper, how dare I?

Men may be reluctant to promote me for fear of the implication. If I promote myself, well, that never is taken as seriously as when someone else endorses you.

As a woman trying to gain entry into the proverbial "old boys' club," there are no good answers available to me. Guess Culture is tradition bound. It dislikes change. It is not welcoming of outsiders or anyone different. It is xenophobic.

But the old boys' club is in need of fresh blood and new practices. The global economy inherently requires a more Ask Culture orientation. It is time to evolve or go the way of the dinosaur.

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