Status Quo

OK Maybe it’s not status. It’s certainly not a theory.

If it were a theory, in the scientific sense, we would measure its success by its ability to predict results. A theory for predicting Kenyan behaviour was never my intention. And by presenting it here as if that’s what it was, I was bound to cause offence, especially among Kenyans who would thereby be likened to experimental creatures whose behaviour could be predicted like so many cellular automata when subjected to the superior intellect of a doctor of, what was it again? Sociology? Uh-huh. Theoretical computer science. What it was about, really, was making sense of the bewildering behaviour that I encounter here through experience and anecdote.

Still, I make no apology for it. Not even for how I presented it. Since no offence was intended, any taken might reflect a willingness on the part of the offended to interpret my words cruelly. If I were spiteful I might call that bad attitude. One thing that six years of studying subjectivity in software design has taught me is that there are many different ways of looking at everything. Here comes another one:

Following my invitation for some of my readers with experience of East Asian countries to talk to me about Face and how it may be preserved, lost threatened, etc., nothing much happened. One good and wise Chinese friend wrote to me privately and declined to answer the question on the excellent basis that she feels she doesn’t have an adequate and fare explanation and she fears that allowing people to make their own judgements based on inadequate information might be harmful. A subtle and kind warning to me, perhaps, about the dangers of making theories based on anecdotes supported by generalisation and exaggeration; one that I intend to completely ignore.

Having been thus declined, I decided that I would gather some intelligence on the subject of Face myself using the timelessly unreliable and scientifically uncredited method of searching on Google. I found out, from sources such as, that cultures where Face is important are sometimes known as High Context and those where it is less important, as Low Context and thus a society may be classified according to its position on a context scale. There are numerous qualifications to this approach along the lines that you can’t, really, put a society in a fixed point on the scale because any one might exhibit both high and low Context characteristics when observed at different scales or in different aspects. So seeking to position my host culture with respect to such a scale might me just as divisive as making up my own ‘theories’. The benefit of the approach, however, is that it provides another way to think about the issues and, possibly, to explain the otherwise bewildering.

Context, in this context, seems to mean the people who surround and interact with the individual and the relationships among them. This includes how the individual is viewed including their place in a social hierarchy, which we might call status. 😛

In low context societies the freedom of the individual is a core value and political and social ethics are often built around the notion of equality. Such societies are also known as individualistic.

In high context societies collective interests are valued over those of the individual and political and social ethics are often built around traditions and social consensus. Such societies are also known as collectivist.

Collectivist societies encourage consensus and opinions may be acquired or influenced by membership of groups such as families, clans, tribes or companies. Maintaining harmony is valued and consequently communication may be subtle and indirect. Verbal communication may be accompanied by non-verbal cues or ritual and direct confrontations, such as might arise from contradictory opinions, is avoided. This is sometimes called high-context communication.

Individualistic societies encourage one to form and own opinions. Voicing opinions, even controversial ones, is admired as a sign of strength and honesty. Consequently communication tends to be direct and matter-of-fact, contradictions and disagreements may occur and are considered educational. This is sometimes called low-context communication.

The two kinds of society are also said to differ in the moral forces that affect behaviour: personal guilt in individualistic ones, public shame in collectivist ones. Humiliation in front of one’s group seems to be, in an abstract sense, what comprises loosing face.

So it seems likely that my host culture is a high-context one whereas my native one is low-context. One website I found published numerical results of surveys carried out in various parts of the world that attempt to position various cultures in a number of dimensions including the individual ? collectivist one. Unfortunately, it seems that there is more money available to fund such research in Europe and East Asia than in East Africa. Remember that the main customers of this sort of intelligence are those who want to become effective international negotiators; maybe there are more and more important deals to clinch in China at the moment than there are in Kenya.

I’ve collected some of the data by squinting at little graphs on web pages — I bet you have to pay big bucks to get the full results ? and present them here, all figures approximate and uncalibrated:

Axis World Average UK E. Africa*
Power Distance 52 30 64
Uncertainty Avoidance 60 30 52
Individualism 40 85 27
Long Term Outlook 42 20 20
Masculinity 48 61 41

*E. Africa figures were gathered in Kenya, Tanzania, Ethopia and Zambia.

I’m not fully sure what this tells us apart from that there are differences and the Individualism axis has the greatest difference. According to how I read these numbers, the figures for the Masculinity axis mean that those East African countries are more feminine than the UK. Reading again the summary of differences between masculine and feminine I recognise ways in which this is true and also ways in which it is completely false.

Here are what some of the other dimensions signify:

Power Distance measures the spread in levels of power between the powerful and powerless in society. The larger the distance, the more such differences are expected and considered normal.

Uncertainty Avoidance measures the tendency of people to avoid contradictory or inconclusive situations. High uncertainty avoidance can lead to people making stuff up and believing it if they don’t know the answer. It also makes societies resistant to change and new ideas.

Long Term Outlook measures the tendancy of a society to value tradition. Lower values here can indicate more flexibility to accept change and higher values more tendancy to cling to tradition.

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