Thursday, May 08, 2014

High-context culture: a true story

A "high-context culture" is one that tends toward inference and unspoken messages, as opposed to direct and literal verbal communication.

I was sitting on the Saikyo Line, heading home after work this evening. I was playing BlazBlue: Chrono Phantasma on my Vita (because fighting games on the Vita are the greatest gift to mankind since Prometheus brought mortals fire). Seated to my immediate left was an older gentleman (perhaps in his fifties) in a suit with a briefcase on his lap. Standing in front of the older gentleman was a younger suited man (perhaps in his thirties). Thirties was holding a handstrap his left hand, while holding an open beer in his right hand...and balancing an iPad in the crook of his right elbow.

My attention shifted nervously between my game and Thirties's beer, which I was sure he was going to drop while he fumbled with the iPad. My apprehension worsened after he dropped the iPad once, hitting my knee. It didn't hurt, but I was annoyed enough to wish at that moment that my knee had been hard enough to break the iPad's screen on impact.

Then it happened: While trying to put the iPad into his bag (which was on the rack above Fifties's head), Thirties managed to spray beer on both of us while everyone in the immediate vicinity looked on disapprovingly. A few drops landed on me, but the majority of the payload ended up on Fifties's briefcase. I dug through my bag and produced a package of tissues with my company's name on it and used one to wipe myself off. Then, in a brief moment of PR genius, I decided it would be nice to help Fifties out by giving him my company's pocket tissues, simultaneously creating an association between my company's name and the kindness of an unknown foreigner in his mind. I held the tissue pack out to Fifties, logo side up.

But Fifties refused my tissues with a single-handed "no, thank you" gesture. At first I thought he was just doing the polite refusal that is expected of Japanese people in all situations, but then I saw him regard Thirties with an expectant look and a nod toward his beer-streaked briefcase.

He was waiting for Thirties to clean up the mess he had made himself, which Thirties did in quick order before hurrying off the train at the next stop.

This entire episode happened without anyone uttering a single word. It was awesome.

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