High context societies and asking the right questions; biblical hermeneutics and cross-cultural communication in Kenya.

Most American and European interpreters come at the biblical texts with a low-context set of assumptions and ways of thinking. Unfortunately for us, the Bible was written in high-context societies.

High context societies produce sketchy and impressionistic texts, leaving much to the reader’s or hearer’s imagination. Since people believe few things have to be spelled out, few things are. This is because people have been socialized into shared ways of perceiving and acting. Hence, much can be assumed. . .

– Bruce J. Malina, "Reading Theory Perspective: Reading Luke-Acts." Pages 3-23 in The Social World of Luke-Acts: Models for Interpretation. Edited by Jerome H. Neyrey. Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson, 1991: page 20 citing Edward T. Hall, Beyond Culture, (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1976) and The Dance of Life; The Other Dimensions of Time (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday, 1983).

Some implications:

  • Many of us (Westerners) tend to falsely read the Bible as a low context document. We look mostly for explicit prescriptions; we want the Bible to tell us point blank what we should be doing and how we should be doing it. (Chapter and verse please! Preferably from one of Paul’s de-contextualized letters.)
  • A great deal of the Bible is story—narrative. In a high context culture, you don’t need much more than that; you would get it (or at least know what you need to be wrestling with.)
  • Some of the nuances of biblical stories and speeches are likely lost to us forever—at least pre-resurrection. Sad to say, we simply don’t have access to all the important contextual clues. The few contextual clues we do have (and keep hashing over and over) might actually be minor or directly misleading; the  crucial piece of info (the one piece of data that turns the whole meaning the opposite direction) might be missing entirely.

Too pessimistic you say? Maybe knowing this can help us try to be a little more humble (less dogmatic) about our interpretations of the Bible. Maybe understanding the cultural dynamics of being low-context readers of a high-context document can encourage us to focus more on the big story—the metanarrative—rather than possibly misunderstood cultural details.

Some local examples (BTW: This is why I love doing biblical studies in the African context.)

One Wednesday a few months ago, my wife Christi and I were in town for meetings, and we realized we were not going to be home in time for lunch. Wednesday is market day, so Nina (our wonderful house helper) takes the first half of the morning off and then goes shopping for us at the market; she usually doesn’t get to our apartment till around lunch time. The crucial piece of contextual data here is that our kids 8, 5, and 3 (and Nina’s 10-year old son) walk home for lunch—their school is only about 100 meters away from our apartment.

So Christi calls Nina up, and after the perfunctory greetings, the phone conversation goes like this:

Christi: We’ve just found out that we won’t be home till mid-afternoon.

Njeri: Sawa sawa.  (Kiswahili equivalent for something like “OK.”)

That’s it! In our high context society, nothing else needed to be said. We knew that Nina would put the contextual clues together, shorten her market trip, and get lunch ready for the kids. [This is also a great example of the principles of the Relevance Theory of Communication at work (as opposed to linguistic code theories), but I’ll leave that topic for another date.] Actually, if Christi had been any more explicit saying for example, “I need you to get to our apt. a little earlier than usual to make sure lunch is ready for the kids”, I’m sure Nina would have felt slightly patronized. (No one really likes to be told what to do when they can figure it out.)

America is a low-context culture. In comparison, almost everything is explicitly spelled out, and we have lots of fine print. In high-context cultural settings, we Americans can seem pretty daft. Say what? Why are you beating around the bush? Why don’t you just tell me more directly what you are thinking? Why does everyone seem to already know what is going on?

He’s another example:

Last week,

I hid out at a beautiful house of some friends who live about 45 minutes from here, and did some concentrated writing.  (They were out of town.) On my last day, I had a short conversation with the caretaker of the house I was staying in, and the dynamics of the conversation made me smile.  Throughout the week, we’d said “hi”, and we’d talked enough for me to know where he was from, how long he had worked there, etc., but he’d mostly stuck to his work, and I’d focused on mine. We both knew I was leaving on Saturday, but we hadn’t talked about the time. At about 10am, Chris (the caretaker) was doing something in the kitchen, so I went in to tell him when I was thinking of leaving. Given the dynamics, I knew I need to take the initiative to bring it up the topic.  (Obviously this situation involves some significant socio-cultural differences—power distance, so don’t overgeneralize).

Me: So, I’m thinking about leaving around three today.

Chris: Silence . . . meditative look. (I’d seen this look before when he was having trouble catching my American accent, but this was pretty straightforward statement.)

Me: Is that okay with you?

Chris: [more thoughtful silence. . . like he’s still processing the information.]

Me: Will you be around then?

Chris: Uummmmm . . . [stares out the window off into the distance, like he’s working on a good answer.]

Me: What are your plans for today? Are you going out?

Chris: I was thinking of going to Nairobi (45 minutes away).

Me: What time were you planning on going?

Chris: Maybe around 11?

Me: So it would be better if I left then, so you can lock up the house.

Chris: [Big smile as if to say“Bingo! Aren’t you a clever boy!!”] And you can drop me off in Nairobi? (phrased as a question). [He’d obviously already put some thought into this topic.]

Me: Very good. Let me do a little more work done, and then I’ll pack up the car.

Now if I had been a less self-centered person and a better contextual communicator, I would have asked more about his plans from the very beginning instead of just assuming he’d be around to lock up whenever I left. On the other hand, if I had been even more self-centered and not bothered to pursue his opinion, I might have put his plans for Nairobi in a bit of a pickle. I kind of wonder what he would have ultimately done if I’d just hung around until 3 or so without saying anything at all: postponed his Nairobi trip to another day? found a nice way to tell me that I needed to leave earlier (this could have some difficult cultural ‘face’ issues)? found some other creative solution?

BTW, His method of silence hints at a piece of valuable wisdom I’ve learned from many of my African friends. If you are patient enough and bide your time, many of your problems will sort themselves out—often in better ways than you could hope. It doesn’t always work, but it works a lot more often than my Western impatience does—especially in circumstance where we have little control. (Don’t mistake this for “passivity”; rather, it’s being patient enough to let the situation unfold so you can take advantage of a more advantageous opportunities when you do have control; it’s a timing thing.)

In cross-cultural communication, if you don’t ask the right questions in the right way and pay attention to the right contextual clues, you likely won’t get the info you need. Communication in Africa is inferential rather than direct, so you need to become adept at listening for what is being communicated between the lines. Our setting here is a high context society, and one of the things I really appreciate is that you don’t have to say much for someone to figure out what’s important.

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One thought on “High context societies and asking the right questions; biblical hermeneutics and cross-cultural communication in Kenya.

  1. heidi says:

    Hi Ben. SMALL WORLD! I’m one of the stateside-and-soon-to-join-the-team members of the Masso’s WHM team in South Sudan. Currently I’m here at “home” in St. Louis and studying at Covenant seminary for a year. I’m working on a research paper, got frustrated with the library databases and decided to google my OT paper topic “high context culture and the bible” just to see what would come up, hoping to come up with some resources, and low and behold there was this post you made 2 years ago, and I thought to myself, I think I know that name…and turns out I was right 🙂

    This whole “high context/low context culture” thing was totally new to me this semester when my OT prof brought it up in relation to Ex 3:18 and another passage I can’t quite come up with off the top of my head at the moment…but it definitely struck a chord in regards to my experience in Bundibugyo! So when asked to pick a research paper topic I immediately thought of this topic he brought up earlier in the semester…anyways, thanks for the insight! it’s sooooooo true.

    Looks like you’ve got a lot of interesting stuff you write about here, so I hope to keep reading (not just when I need some sources for a paper 🙂

    God bless your work there in Nairobi!

    Heidi Lutjens

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