Today's Reading

This brings us to the most important difference between high-context and low-context cultures: the degree of conflict each generates. In Asian cultures, expressing your opinion directly and forcefully is unusual. It can be interpreted as callow or even offensive. Westerners are more willing to 'speak their mind' and risk confrontation. Differing opinions are expected, even when they generate friction. The difference is relative: even in the West, we have developed cultural strategies to avoid too much argument, like the custom of not discussing politics or religion over dinner. But as such traditions fade, so does their dampening effect on conflict.

I'm making broad-brush comparisons between countries by way ofillustration, but Hall's high- and low-context culture model is applicable at any scale. People who live in villages where everyone knows each other engage in more high-context communication—nods and winks—than people who live in big cities, who are used to encountering strangers from different backgrounds. In long-established organisations, staff may be able to make their intentions known to each other in a way that leaves newcomers mystified, whereas in a start-up, anything that isn't explicitly articulated will not be heard. Individuals shift between high- and low-context modes: with family or friends, you probably do a lot of high-context communication, but when talking to someone in a call centre, you go low-context. Low-context cultures are better suited to societies undergoing change, with high levels of diversity and innovation. But they can also feel impersonal, brittle and unpredictable, and contain greater potential for strife.

Most of us, wherever we are in the world, are living increasingly low-context lives, as more and more of us flock to cities, do business with strangers and converse over smartphones. Different countries still have different communication cultures, but nearly all of them are subject to the same global vectors of commerce, urbanisation and technology—forces that dissolve tradition, flatten hierarchy and increase the scope for arguments. It's not at all clear that we are prepared for this.

For most of our existence as a species, humans have operated in high-context mode. Our ancestors lived in settlements and tribes with shared traditions and settled chains of command. Now, we frequently encounter others with values and customs different to our own. At the same time, we are more temperamentally egalitarian than ever. Everywhere you look, there are interactions in which all parties have or demand an equal voice. Take the way that marriage has changed. Seventy years ago, there would have been little need for the partners in most marriages to discuss who was going to perform which household chores, or who looked after the children—such things went unsaid. People outsourced those decisions to the culture. With the rise of gender equality, the modern household requires more explicit communication and negotiation. Context no longer tells us who should be doing the laundry. You can believe, as I do, that this change is overwhelmingly a good thing, and still recognise that it increases the potential for thorny disagreements.

For marriage, read society as a whole. Children are less likely to obey parental authority silently; organisations rely less on command-and-control and more on collaboration; journalists no longer expect readers to take their word for it; football managers have discovered that screaming at their players in the dressing room is not necessarily the most effective route to success. Everyone expects their opinion to be heard and, increasingly, it can be. In this raucous, irreverent, gloriously diverse world, previously implicit rules about what can and cannot be said are looser and more fluid, sometimes even disappearing. With less context to guide our decisions, the number of things on which we all agree is shrinking fast.

The low-context shift has been a long time in the making but its speed is being accelerated, at a dizzying rate, by communication technologies. Humans have a highly evolved ability to discern a person's intent from their eyes, posture and movement, the pitch and inflexion of their speech. Online, that context is taken away. Smartphone interfaces and microblogging platforms are low-context by design, restricting the user to a few words or images at a time. We get only a crude read on someone's intent from text, even when the signal is boosted with emojis. Think about what defines low-context culture, at least in its extreme form: endless chatter, frequent argument; everyone telling you what they think, all the time. Remind you of anything? As Ian Macduff, an expert in conflict resolution, puts it, The world of the internet looks predominantly like a low-context world. Meanwhile, we rely on conflict-resolution tactics evolved for the world of 200,000 years ago.

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1. Beyond Fight or Flight
2. How Conflict Brings Us Closer
3. How Conflict Makes Us Smarter
4. How Conflict Inspires Us

5. First, Connect
6. Let Go of the Rope
7. Give Face
8. Check Your Weirdness
8. Get Curious
9. Make Wrong Strong
10. Disrupt the Script
11. Share Constraints
12. Only Get Mad on Purpose
13. Golden Rule: Be Real

14. The Infinite Game

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