Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Cultural context in open source software

Have you ever worked on an open source software project—and out of nowhere, a flame war starts up on the mailing list? You review the emails, and think to yourself "Someone over-reacted here." The problem may not be an over-reaction per se, but rather a cultural conflict.

Anthropologist Edward T. Hall (not related) identified the "context preferences" of different cultures, describing high- and low-context cultures. In his 1976 book, Beyond Culture, Hall described the different communication styles of low- and high-context communicators. This difference is why, for example, German and English speakers interact differently with each other.

I don't mean to reduce entire cultures to a simple scale, but understanding the general communication preferences of different cultures can help you in any open source project that involves worldwide contributors. A brief introduction:

Hall's cultural factors says low-context cultures are more direct, and high-context cultures more indirect. A low-context communicator will get right to the point, while a low-context communicator prefers explicit messages that are simple and clear.

For example, in a high-context culture, communication will be very indirect, sometimes nonverbal. High-context cultures may hide reactions; you may not realize if you've offended someone because it would be rude to react and risk embarrassing you. It may take a very long time for a high-context speaker to get to the point. Japan and China are typical examples of a high-context culture.

Where do you fit on the cultural context? Germany and the Netherlands are typically low-context, China and Japan are high-context. Italy and France are somewhere in the middle. The US and England skew towards the low-context end, at about the one-quarter mark.

In a personal example: I'm in the US. At that one-quarter mark, we are mostly low-context, but we share some high-context qualities. We appreciate that you are on time, but we don't worry if you're a few minutes late. We speak openly about what's on our minds, but we're cautious not to embarrass or offend. We are organized, but not strictly so. We get to the point, but also use "phatic language" and talk about the weather or sports as a way to "ease into" a conversation.
Hall's high- and low-context is a broad cultural classification, and individuals may differ, but you can apply the high/low-context classification to understand the speaking styles of different audiences. And in doing so, you can become a more effective communicator.

Of course, these are cultural averages. While the US overall skews to low-context on average, you can find examples within the US that deviate somewhat. New York is probably lower context than, say, Minnesota. And you may find differences within industries. I find higher education to be higher context than industry. But as a national average, the US is around that one-quarter mark, trending to low-context.

After I learned about high- and low-context cultures, I adjusted my email style to my audience. Am I writing to someone from a high-context culture? I'll try to reference our relationship and include more background in my email. Are you from a low-context culture? I'll be more direct, and aim for the clearest delivery in the shortest message. If you need more from me, I'll assume you will reply and ask for details. For low-context cultures, my mantra in writing emails is 1. write message, 2. delete most of it, 3. click Send.

I encourage you to learn more about Hall's cultural factors. How does your organization communicate? How do others in your field work together? While the US tends to be lower context, at about that one-quarter mark, some regional and professional variances mean you may need to adapt your personal style to suit the environment you work in. Understand how best to communicate, so your message will be heard.
images: mine (Feb 2016)


  1. I guess the Linus & the Linux Kernel Devels should read this, LOL!

    1. Linus is low-context, but his style conflicts with typical Danish (where I am from) and German, as I understand them. It is normal in this culture call out bad work and no one will get upset. What Linus does is to attack the person instead of the work (code) which is not really expected and thus seems extremely rude.

    2. Linus is definitely low-context, which makes him an outlier from Finnish culture in general. I don't know Finnish culture well, but I understand them to be (on average), more reserved and quiet. Typical Finns don't interrupt, and they don't like big talkers. That's not Linus. As you say, Linus is very direct and calls people out for bad work.

      In Communication Style and Cultural Features in High/Low Context Communication Cultures: A Case Study of Finland, Japan and India, the authors suggest that Finland is more high-context. I live in Minnesota, and I think Minnesota shifts to (slightly) more high-context than the rest of the US. Most Finns would probably get along well here. But I think a number of original settlers in Minnesota were Finnish and Swedish and Norwegian, so maybe that's not a surprise. :-)

  2. A very nice blog post about this whole thing between german and english can be found here:

    Sadly I cannot find the translation to english, I thought I'v seen it on stackexchange.

    btw. from a german point of view the us/uk-speaker are on the faaaaaaar right side, near high.

  3. That's a great blog post, definitely about the same cultural issues of low-context and high-context. I was able to understand most of it using Google Translate.

    I especially liked the mention of the "little white lie." In very low-context cultures, there is no "little white lie." But in other cultures, the "little white lie" is coded social interaction. Borrowing from the blog post you linked to, if you give someone a gift, and they don't like it, you may not hear about it. Instead, the other person may say "How cute" and "Thank you" but then never make use of the gift. In some parts of the US, they might even "re-gift" the gift, to give it to someone else. In a very low-context culture, saying you like a gift when you didn't really appreciate it is the same as a lie. But in other cultures, even at that "one-quarter" mark with the US and England, this is socially acceptable.

    In a very high-context culture such as China, the other person will make a big deal of thanking you about the gift. They will comment on its positive features. They will tell you how much they appreciate it. Because it would be impolite to say otherwise. I can see how from a German point of view, the US response and the Chinese response seem the same, like the US person is still on the faaaaaaar right side. But it's cultural perspective. There's a different degree there.

    One other item I liked was how friends might communicate. Say two friends are shopping, and one tries on a new dress. She asks her friend, "What do you think?" If the friend replies "Maybe something in blue would look better with your eyes," in the US that's easily understood as "That dress doesn't look good on you." But to a German, that statement is meaningless. As the article says, "A German has the feeling one is talking past the other. Eyes? What is this drivel about my eyes? I want to know if I look good in the dress."