Tag Archives: low-context culture

Humor’s Intercultural Perils: Why’s Everyone Pissed Off?

Do Chinese speakers have a sense of humor? On its face it seems a ridiculous question. However, many Westerners living in Taiwan have reached the conclusion that humor and Chinese culture are antithetical. As crazy as it sounds, it has a logic.

I once was one of those foreigners—I’ve since reformed. I would tell people that if you were being politically correct you’d say that humor is culturally defined and each culture has its own distinct sense of whimsy. However, if you were being truthful, you’d admit Chinese speakers have no sense of humor. I’d further explain most Chinese speakers, upon hearing a comedic aside, analyze it from every angle seeking a way to be offended. Further clarifying that a typical Chinese inner monologue after a joke might run: Have I been insulted; has my culture or race been slandered; and, how morally indignant am I, on a scale from outraged to apoplectic? If I wasn’t belittled, who was? Do I care? How much? If not directly about me, am I somehow peripherally being mocked? Let’s dig through five thousand years of human history trying to find some way to take umbrage. If not insulting, then is the joke somehow socially inappropriate?… After all this mental arithmetic, nothing is ever funny. That’s why sarcasm doesn’t exist in Chinese. That’s why Chinese speakers rely on the most unsophisticated types of humor; puns and puerile jokes, the domain of young children in the West.

I was wrong.

Well, sort of, like everything about culture, there are shades of grey. The mental gymnastics described above though overstated are kind of true. Thus, American humor can be very tough for Chinese listeners. A lot of American humor is outwardly directed, sometimes aggressive, and based on sarcasm and insult. Chinese speakers do better with American wit when that aggression is turned inwards to become self-deprecation. Then it’s clear to us Chinese speakers who is being insulted, and we’re okay with it.

Here’s where I was really wrong. Sarcasm exists in Chinese. It is very common for a group of friends engaged in badinage to be stunningly insulting and sarcastic, in a humorous way. The difference isn’t so much a matter of humor as variation between high-context and low-context communication styles (See: A Low-Context Dude and Unified Field Theory for background on the cultural linguistics). Americans are noted for their ability to move from strangers to ass-slapping and calling each other Butthead in the course of an evening. It’s friendly. It is also a very low-context cultural style. Other Western cultures, though perhaps more reserved, are also relatively low-context.

Chinese culture, and Asian cultures in general, tend to be more high-context. There is an emphasis on forming and deepening relationships within your group. As a consequence of this cultural style, humor is geared towards the in-group. If you’re not part of the group, you won’t understand the in-jokes, and likely will never hear them. Shared humor builds group cohesion and helps distinguish the in-group from outsiders. It’s coded messaging for the initiated. On the macro level, Taiwanese humor is a good example, much of it is based on the interplay of Chinese and Taiwanese, kind of creating puns across linguistic lines.  Only proficient Taiwanese speakers can really hope to understand, even in Taiwan that’s only a bit more than half the population. Non-Taiwanese have no hope.

Ultimately the tendency to confine joking to peers explains  why many foreigners living among Chinese speakers think they lack humor and don’t understand sarcasm. As outsiders, they are not invited to share in the jokes. Taiwanese people are capable of great sarcasm, and cut on their friends hard, but that’s just it, the humor is for close friends.

Humor and sarcasm coming from outside the in-group can seem aggressive to Chinese speakers. That is not how humor flows in Taiwan, rapier-like wit should only cut a group member—for social cohesion there’s an emphasis on maintaining surface calm among the wider society. For foreigners from a low-context culture, that doesn’t emphasize maintaining a respectful separation between social groups based on status and hierarchy, it is easy to inadvertently cause discomfiture with your banter. It is part of how we try to break down barriers and be more friendly and interesting. High-context cultures like their barriers just as they are—thank you very much.

The Unified Field Theory of Culture Shock

Edward T. Hall in his 1976 book Beyond Culture posits a theory that all cultures can be placed on a continuum between high-context and low-context. The position of the culture on this spectrum explains almost all cultural differences between two countries, regions, corporations, etc. The high-/low-context framework is exceptionally useful for contextualizing culture shock and giving the expat a way of understanding the wackiness that dominates his/her life. Taiwan is a high-context culture; most English speakers come from a low-context cultures, and therein lies the problem.

A higher context culture has an indirect and implicit style of interaction. High-context communication emphasizes context as the preferred method of imparting meaning. Words are not used to explicitly state meaning, rather meaning is conveyed indirectly and nonverbally. The meaning of a statement is to be found in between the actual words. In a high-context culture there is an emphasis on establishing long term relationships. That’s logical as clear communication in a high-context culture requires familiarity. As you can imagine talking with a stranger who is artfully trying to avoid saying what he really means is a recipe for miscommunication. High-context cultures de-emphasize writing as there is less room for subtle non-word communication. By contrast low-context cultures seek clarity in all aspects of communication. There is a strong emphasis on explicitly stating meaning. They speak directly, avoid nonverbal communication, and rely on written communication. Can you see the potential for cross-cultural miscommunication and culture shock?

High-context cultures tend to be exclusionary. They emphasize community over the individual. Long-term relationships are important and there is a strong differentiation between group members and outsiders. The emphasis on being part of a group means that people in the group have enough shared values, experiences, and other commonalities to be able to communicate without the necessity of explicitly stating everything. These cultures rely on their common background to explain situations. Asian countries with their relatively high level of racial homogeneity tend to be high-context. Whereas more racially diverse (European) cultures tend to be low-context. The higher cultural/racial diversity requires individuals from widely varied backgrounds to use words to clearly state meaning, as there isn’t the group cohesion necessary for high-context communication.

The languages themselves have developed to reflect these different communication styles. High-context languages tend to be more ambiguous. While low-context languages have developed to state meaning clearly and explicitly with enough precision to convey fine gradations in meaning. These differences are clearly manifested in high- and low-context languages’ vocabulary and writing structure. For more information on high-/low-context languages and cultural linguistics see “A Low-Context Dude in High-Context Places”.

There is a strong correlation between collectivism and high-context cultures. High-context cultures emphasize building strong interpersonal connections and maintaining long term relationships. They seek to maintain strong kinship, patronage, and other social group ties. Distrust of outsiders is built into the culture, language, and communication style. [So, if you’re an expat in Asia, it sucks to be you]. There is a parallel emphasis on getting group members to conform to the larger group’s expectations. Low-context cultures are more individualistic. Interpersonal bonds are less stable. Group cohesion is less robust, which allows people to move in and out of a group more easily than in a high-context culture. Low-context cultures tend to be open and accepting of outsiders.

High-context cultures tend to be traditional. Communication requires society members to absorb shared cultural contexts and cues. Cultural stability is needed for the subtextual basis of high-context communication to be assimilated by all community members. High-context cultures tend to fight change and are slow to adapt. Low-context cultures have a lower emphasis on using shared history to provide shared communication references and thus are free to make quicker social changes. The downside is that large intergenerational communication gaps can develop, sometimes making cross-generational communication difficult.

One aspect of high- and low-context cultural differences that gets attention among multinational corporations is the difference between polychronic and monochronic work methods. High-context cultures tend to be polychronic, which values human interaction above time considerations and material objects. A polychronic work culture encourages multitasking, does not worry excessively about time management, and spurns strict organization in favor of a collegial—if chaotic—work environment. Low-context cultures tend to be monochronic, where people do one task at a time, they do it well, and then they move on. Time is considered to be very valuable. The monochronic approach to work is to carefully plan and schedule everything. Time management is of paramount importance. Getting it done is good; but getting it done on schedule is what matters. High-context cultures tend to feel that the process is more important than the product. In low-context cultures the end-result—in the case of work, the product—is what’s important. If you made a good product then the degree to which its production facilitated warm interpersonal feelings amongst staff is inconsequential. That’s not true for high-context cultures.

The high-/low-context framework provides a broad structure for perceiving and generalizing cultural differences. It aids in understanding the underlying social factors that sometimes lead to cross-cultural interactions going awry. It is generally used to place nations within a worldwide cultural context. It is inherently an instrument of overgeneralization, though a certain nation might generally be considered high-context certain groups, regions, corporations, ethnicities, etc. within that country may be lower-context. Still, I find high-/low-context theory useful for helping me understand my interactions with Taiwanese society.

I wanted to introduce the high-/low-context framework for use in future articles on cross-cultural interaction. It is a useful model to illuminate aspects of expat life in Asia. As you can imagine this article barely scratches the topic’s surface. If you’re interested in more information try reading Hall, Edward T. Beyond Culture. Anchor Books, 1976. ISBN 978-0385124744 and Samovar, Larry A. and Richard E. Porter. Communication Between Cultures. 5th Ed. Thompson and Wadsworth, 2004. ISBN 0-534-56929-3.