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Highlights: Did You Mean What I Thought You Meant? Jean Interviews Barry Regan (#63)

Aug 19, 2021
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This week, Jean interviews Dr. Barry Regan, a communications expert on University Faculty-Professional Studies at the School of General Education, Purdue University Global. Barry discusses high context vs low context communication. Below are the highlights. the video or read the transcript.

Jean: Please explain high context and low context communication and how that works across racial distances.


Barry: The question is, how do people from different cultures communicate their message? Some cultures employ a whole host of nonverbal cues to get their message across. Their words are not explicit, using instead hand gestures, body movement, eye contact.


Jean: So someone who isn’t attuned to nonverbals will be frustrated that they’re expected to figure out what the other person is saying. How does this play out racially?


Barry: Look at all the examples of White women saying to Black women, oh, I love the way your hair looks. May I touch it? Whites don’t understand why that’s a problem. They don’t get that there might be issues around it (“it’s just hair!”). To Black women, it’s othering, it’s pointing out difference. It’s demeaning for people who are used to being indirect.



Barry: As White folks, there has to be a recognition beyond the intent of the literal words. We have to broaden our understanding of what is a racist action to include more high context behaviors, if we are to understand why it is so common for actions of racism to be perpetuated against especially Black, Latinx, Asian American folks in this current day and time.


Jean: We talk about contextualizing. So low context would include simply looking at the specific situation.  


Barry: Saying “I’m hungry” is low context. The meaning is clear. A high context culture may not want to impose, so they would say “I haven’t eaten since 8am.” The low context person doesn’t understand why they just didn’t say they were hungry.


Jean: So your point is to recognize that someone else may communicate differently.


Barry: Yes. Be aware that this person’s style may not match yours. You’re not expected to change, but to understand the message. The US is mostly a low context country. High context countries include Asian countries, some Middle Eastern countries, parts of South America.



Barry: Look at the example of a Middle Eastern journalist throwing his shoes at President Bush. In low context, it was just throwing a shoe. In high context, it was an enormous insult; to show the bottom of your shoe is a horrific sign of disrespect.

Jean: What about the reaction to Simone Biles dropping out because she lost her proprioception, her sense of where her body was. They called it the “twisties.” Was the reaction racial?  


Barry: Low context people said she quit on her team.  Whereas her intent was to say she could not fulfill her obligation to the team. Yes, I think it’s racial. Another way to look at it is through Hofstede’s cultural dimension of individualism-collectivism. Low-context Whites expect individuals to push toward greatness. High-context Blacks see the need to do what’s best for the group. White folks are using the value system rooted in individual achievement. This was actually a selfless act. Black women in particular have to face this sort of judgment all the time.



Barry: Here’s another example: the Olympic committee made a ruling on bathing caps that didn’t allow for the increased bulk of Black women’s hair. The decision was discriminatory. It includes the pressure for Black women to straighten their hair, or dye it blonde, rather than go natural. Black women’s bodies are picked apart in public, in a way that others are not.


Jean: Switching gears, there was an article from a White man discussing why he would not apologize for his White male privilege. He reported harsh times in his family, so felt he was no more privileged than anyone else.


Barry: This speaks to a misunderstanding of what privilege means. Because some people had some persecution at some time does not equal why all Blacks have suffered persecution all the time. He was looking only at his family, not the larger group. Privilege is structural.


Jean: Also, there are types of privilege: economic, gender, racial, ethnic. One can be privileged in some, but not others. And they can move elsewhere and regain that privilege.  


Barry: My hope is, if we can continue to raise awareness about more normal, everyday human interactions, and then be willing to have discussions of connecting that to larger social issues, the more people’s defenses will not be up. If we agree that inequality exists, shouldn’t we try to do something about it?

Barry Regan, EdD

Barry is a communications expert on University Faculty-Professional Studies at the School of General Education, Purdue University Global. Prior to that he was instructor of communications and director of forensics at Grand Canyon University. He received his BA at University of Nevada-Las Vegas, MA at University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, and EdD at Grand Canyon University.

Questions to ask yourself:

  1. Can you recall conversations where high context and low context speakers could not understand each other? How would you teach each party to reframe the conversation to reach out to the other?
  2. Try to imagine yourself in the context opposite your own. How would you change how you listen to the other person?

Leading Consciously skills and concepts covered in this post:

  • Testing assumptions
    • Test your assumptions about others
    • Check to see if you are making cultural assumptions
  • Building effective relationships
    • Engage in powerful listening
    • Develop skills in inquiry and openness
  • Bridging differences
    • Learn to recognize dominant/nondominant dynamics
    • Develop an awareness of your own stereotyping tendencies and biases and learn how to manage them
    • Address underlying systemic biases


#BridgingDifferences   #CommunicationDiversity  #ItsTheContext


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