When I started classes in graduate school, everyone was required to take the same class for the first two weeks of the semester, called Organizational Behavior 1. It was a class about group dynamics, cultural differences, and how to work together. One of the concepts we read about was the difference between high context and low context cultures. Low context cultures tend to be pretty heterogeneous, and the communication is characterized by being more explicit and spelling things out more. More of the communication takes place in the actual words said. In high context cultures, people tend to be more homogenous and the communication takes the shared culture into account. More of the information can go unsaid, because the people around you are already aware of or observing the non-verbal cues, historical perspective, etc. to make sense of what is being said. In general, the U.S. is on the lower end of the context spectrum and El Salvador is on the higher side, while the campo (the rural portions of the country) is even higher. Keep in mind that high/low context is on a spectrum, it varies a lot within and between societies, and it interacts with a lot of other things in a given culture. So, why am I writing this really academic stuff right now? Because I’ve seen this play out in really interesting ways in El Salvador, especially in our time in el campo.
I am fat. (By the way, I don’t consider this an insult, but a statement of fact. Read here for more background or do your own internet search. ) In many places in El Salvador the only furniture available is those molded plastic chairs with arms. Because I am wider than the average person, I don’t fit into those chairs (or many chairs with close-set arms). Then there is the fact that they are also pretty unsound structurally and that an average-sized person can cause them to collapse. I had a conversation about this fact with one of the organizers of our delegation with the Washington Ethical Society (WES) before we left the US. I spent sooooo many hours (really!) looking online for a foldable/portable stool or camping chair that I would be able to easily carry around, which had a sufficient weight limit and fit within my budget. I couldn’t find one. It’s important to me to have a comfortable place to sit and those plastic chairs aren’t it.
So, this is to let you know that I have frequent problems with seating (in the U.S. too) but most people are not aware of it. It is a function of relative-thin privilege (read here for what that is, or do your own search) that many people don’t have to think about whether they are going to fit into the seats of a given restaurant or theater or those in the house of a generous host family. Many, many people aren’t even aware that this is a difficulty that exists.
Now what does this have to do with being high or low context? In El Salvador I experienced people doing things to make my life easier without even talking to me about them first, which I don’t experience in the US. Many of these incidents involved chairs. Luckily, the house in El Rodeo where we ate our meals had a set of wooden, armless chairs. I used one of those during every meal, at the head of the table to minimize my discomfort. Of course, it still had the problem of being very tall, so my legs would go to sleep the longer I sat in it. The women who cooked for us seemed to know why I was using that chair and seemed to expect me to sit in it. (I say “seemed” because my Spanish was bad enough that I didn’t communicate with them very well.) Whereas, some members of our delegation used the chair as a place to hang things (bags, clothes, etc.) which made it more difficult for me to move around for our various meetings that happened in the same space.
At one point, we met with some of the people who collectively run Radio Victoria, which we talked about previously. They had those same really common plastic chairs for us to sit in. Shortly into the meeting, Elvis (Head of the ADESCO in El Rodeo and a member of the collective who runs Radio Victoria) got up and went into another room and returned with a wooden bench (without arms) for me to sit in. I didn’t even notice him look at me to see my discomfort with the chair. Without speaking a word with me, he did something which made the rest of my time in the meeting so much more pleasant.
While we were at CIS, during our Spanish classes, I witnessed two people fall from their chairs because the legs bent and dumped them on the floor. Some days, when I couldn’t find the plastic chairs without arms, I sat on a big bucket with a lid because it was more comfortable than sitting on the edge of the chairs with arms. One day when we had been unexpectedly called into a presentation in another room which only had chairs with arms in which to sit, I fell in the same manner as the thinner people. The front legs bent because all of my weight was on the front and I hit the floor. I decided to stay sitting on the floor because it too was more comfortable than the chair. The next day, the coordinator of the school brought me a chair (with a metal frame, plastic seat, and no arms) from her office, so I sat in that for the rest of the week. Unfortunately, it was also too tall and my legs kept falling asleep.
For a story unrelated to chairs, we talked in an earlier post about how our host father in El Rodeo spent several hours one day completely redoing the path from his house to the main path, because he saw me slip on it one morning. (The residents seemed to have little difficulty with the frequently slippery dirt paths – I’m guessing it’s because they had a lifetime to get used to the particular balance it requires to walk on them.) He cleaned a bunch of mud out and then located and placed stones to create a new walkway. If we were in the US, he might have said after I slipped, “Be careful! Don’t hurt yourself,” or commented about the inevitability of mud during the rainy season, or worried about his homeowner‘s insurance. I doubt that he would have taken that project on, especially without me saying that it was a problem for me.
As a contrast, in the US, we are fairly low context and require people to advocate for themselves if they need something. At WES we have a couple of short people who use a small collapsible foot stool during activities that require sitting in our stackable (and thankfully arm-free) black chairs. I, too, am short enough to need one of these, but I don’t think the stool would hold the weight of my feet/legs on it, even if most of my weight is on the chair. That stool brings people’s awareness to the requirements of short people with a visual reminder. Most people don’t notice when I am sitting on the very edge of a chair because my hips don’t fit into the arms. When I bring it up, people usually are happy to make accommodations, or switch seats with me, but not everyone remembers the next time (or the next) when we are in the same room meeting in the same chairs.
One time in the US, I was attending a workshop about racism being led by two women, one white and fat and the other black and relatively thin. I noticed that the facilitator who was fat was having the same problem with the provided chairs that I typically have. I had already scouted out armless chairs elsewhere in the building because we were going to be there all day. I offered to get her a different chair and she gratefully agreed. But over the course of the workshop, the thinner woman kept sitting in the armless chair, even after being asked to move the first time it happened, not aware that her colleague was quite uncomfortable in the other chair. I would like for us in the US to be more aware of differences in people and the resulting needs they have. It would not only help people with different needs than ours, but it would also help us to become more aware of our own needs. I have only been doing this practice of asking or looking for a different seat for a couple of years now – before, I just suffered through it. Despite the fact that I have not yet had a negative reaction to my request for a different seat, it takes a particular kind of resolve to constantly advocate for seating that fits me. Every time, I steel myself for the possibility that someone will say something that will hurt me. I have a long history of being bullied and denigrated for my fatness. I have to work against the life-long, trained response to be ashamed of being fat. I have to work against the desire to not be made the center of attention, especially for my size. It’s not easy work, but it is becoming easier. And I think that in my asking, I have brought other people’s awareness to the issue. I know Andrew, my husband, thinks about it now, when he didn’t before.
I am sure I also have gaps in knowledge around the every day things that other people struggle with. I am sure at times it seems like I am oblivious or unintentionally hindering other people, and I am. I am sure I don‘t recognize things like that maybe the chairs people sit in cause them constant pain. While I could say that this isn’t much of a problem because I have “good intentions,” for the people my actions or inactions are hurting, that doesn’t really matter (this is a challenging idea for a lot of us; I highly encourage you to read this post for starters). This is a problem with privilege. I don’t know exactly where my gaps in knowledge are. That’s why I try to be more observant and challenge myself by reading things and experiencing things that are not in my comfort zone (like going to El Salvador). And when someone points something out to me that I was previously unaware of because of my privilege, my job is to try to understand it and change my behavior going forward. I do think, though, that being from a low context culture, I would feel more comfortable asking people first before I did something I thought would make them more comfortable. I know that sometimes I guess wrong about what people are experiencing or misinterpret what I do observe.
So, what do you think? Do you have stories, thoughts, or feelings you’d like to share in the comments? If you would like more resources about the stuff I linked to, I can send you some. Just email me or write a comment.