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Wayfarers All!

Ah, the romance of travel!

From the Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame, 1908

“'I'm a seafaring rat, I am, and the port I originally hail from is Constantinople, though I'm a sort of a foreigner there too, in a manner of speaking.”

After a meal and some red wine, the rambling Sea Rat spoke with vibrancy to his domestically inclined new friend, the Water Rat, about the adventures to come:

“We shall break out the jib and the foresail, the white houses on the harbour side will glide slowly past us as she gathers steering-way, and the voyage will have begun! As she forges towards the headland she will clothe herself with canvas; and then, once outside, the sounding slap of great green seas as she heels to the wind, pointing South!

“And you, you will come too, young brother; for the days pass, and never return, and the South still waits for you. Take the Adventure, heed the call, now ere the irrevocable moment passes!' 'Tis but a banging of the door behind you, a blithesome step forward, and you are out of the old life and into the new!”

Despite being sorely tempted, the Water Rat stayed at home with his friends and familiar comforts. But many others have become wayfarers, heeding the call of the road, wave or wind, for one reason or another, including myself, and perhaps you as well, dear reader.

Many travelers of old set sail to go “where no one had gone before”, like the great captains of the Age of Discovery, from Vasco de Gama to James Cook: men of vision, energy, navigational and leadership skills - and bloody-minded determination. Doubtless their motivations were varied and personal. But they often involved glory: personal fame and wealth that came hand in hand with the success of their empire, as they claimed new lands they mapped, and were quickly followed by conquerors and plunderers. Or were they traders? That line has been rather blurry at times.

Then there were the missionaries and scholars like the brilliant Jesuit scholar Matteo Ricci, who mastered the arts of Chinese language and diplomacy in Macau, China, and in fact developed a cross-cultural approach to Christianity. His goal was doubtless for the glory of the Church. Other missionaries followed the explorers, conquerors and traders. Some went off to live in grand cathedrals. Humbler souls went to “native” villages, to lead brown people away from their many gods, curtail habits like headhunting and cannibalism, and teach them to sing “Onward Christian Soldiers!” in tiny churches under the mango trees.

Yes, these explorers, conquerors, traders and missionaries – wayfarers all - were often so pig headedly sure of their own rightness and superiority that they rarely credited the “heathens” and “savages” with the same degree of humanity they claimed for themselves.

I’m much more drawn to the Romantic worldview of the 19th century that saw such daring travelers as Sir Richard Francis Burton, the famed British explorer, geographer, translator, writer, soldier, orientalist, cartographer, ethnologist, spy, linguist, poet, fencer, and diplomat. Yep, no kidding! He was also spoke more than 20 languages, and even at one point had a troop of monkeys from whom he tried to learn their language. Oh, and he also co-discovered the source of the Nile, and snuck into Mecca. Not bad, eh!

Burton is considered one of the founders of anthropology, as he took copious notes of the peoples he visited, especially of their sexual practices. He could thus be considered as an expert chronicler of the exotic. But his attitudes toward many cultures were very arrogant and superior. In general, the Western wayfarers (there were many others from other cultures as well, notably China and the Islamic world) had self-justifying contexts of goals, values, heroes, and reasons – what we post-modern folk would call narrative.

But gradually the narrative changed, and became less Western-centric. Others with a more academic approach followed in Burton’s footsteps. In the early 20th century, an American woman named Margaret Mead studied the sexual culture of youth among the Polynesians of Samoa (“Coming of Age in Samoa”, 1928). Like most academic works, it had its flaws. But this paper actually helped shape the sexual revolution of the 1960’s. The guilt free sexual interactions of Samoan youth became a model for young Westerners. There was a significant effect on the behavior of a “civilized” culture from a “primitive” one resulting from her academic study! Not bad, eh!

And then along came the true father of intercultural communication, and a real traveler rat himself, Edward T. Hall. Like most people with interesting ideas, he lived a very full life. In the 1930’s he lived and worked with the Hopi and Navajo people in Arizona, going on to get his PhD in anthropology from Columbia University. However, he says he got some of his main inspiration for intercultural (cross-cultural) research during his time in the US Army in Europe and the Philippines during World War 2. Eventually he went on to work for the US State Department’s Foreign Service Institute, where he taught intercultural communication. Hall developed insights into how different societies perceived time and personal space. But his most famous theories were the concepts of “high context” and “low context” societies.

In a high context society, there is a high degree of shared knowledge, collective experience and expectations. In such a society, it was possible to communicate a complex message with very few words. The exact choice of words is compared to the shared context and provides a lot of very specific information. High context societies are more common in Asia, and nations with a relatively high level of ethnic homogeneity. But French Canadians are also considered a high context group, as is the American South. It’s easy to see the shared heritage angle there.

Low context societies, on the other hand, are more direct, and less context is needed to decode messages. They are common where there is a higher degree of ethnic diversity. Most of the United States is low context, as is Israel, Australia, most of Canada, Scandinavia. Why would Scandinavia be low context, with its long shared history and historical low levels of ethnic heterogeneity? Good question. The causes and correlations of the degree of context with other social factors are not precisely known.

Here’s an example of how high context and low context might work. A group of battle-hardened enlisted men are gifted with a “butter bar” lieutenant straight out of the academy. The men have been through hell together, and are a tight band of brothers. The lieutenant addresses them, saying how he will do his best to lead them to victory and to keep them alive in the coming battle. The men, based on their experience with newbie officers, are deeply skeptical. But they say nothing, except for one senior NCO who says, “We’re sure you will sir!” The lieutenant – an outsider to their context – takes this as a positive sign, while the other soldiers repress a smile. They know that it is pure sarcasm.

High context societies are “insider” societies that share a perception of situations that doesn’t need to be articulated. In fact, they may even find it a challenge to articulate it. How well have you ever heard a Taiwanese person adequately describe the culture of Taiwan? I have not. It’s rare. Taiwan is a very high context society, with its people sharing their own specific version of Greater Chinese history and a unique island-based worldview. There is no need to explant her society to themselves, and immigrants are few. There is a high degree of ethnic homogeneity. And most foreign visitors to Taiwan come either from other high context societies, where the rules are different, or from lower context societies that expect the rules to be in plain view, common knowledge. This has been the source of many many cross-cultural communication goof-ups over the centuries.

In a way, applying Hall’s theories is like opening a can of worms: what are the cultural rules here? What are mine? How are these differences interacting to create social reactions, intended or not? It’s a lot of work to figure all this out.

But there’s something reassuringly universal about it. One of the great advantages of cross-cultural communication is that is doesn’t simply discuss how one culture compares and interacts with another. Rather it creates a frame of reference that aims to describe all cultures.

So our voyage to another country doesn’t only serve us to make money, spread our creed, study local customs or enjoy exotic locales. It can also teach us about what it means to be human, it adds another dimension to our journey. And that’s something worth doing, no matter what kind of traveler rat you are!

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