By: Cassidy Henry
Researchers agree that there are generally two types of cultures: high context and low context. Raymond Cohen, a professor of international relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is one of the first writers that conceptualized the difference between high and low context cultures. He posits that a low context is individualistic in nature holding “freedom, the development of the individual personality, self-expression, and personal enterprise and achievement as supreme values. Individual rights, not duty to one’s family or community, are paramount.” Examples include prizing equality and a society where the words “concession” and “compliance” have neutral or positive meanings.
A high context culture is almost a polar opposite. In a high context culture, there is a “rigid, stratified form of social and religious organization.” This is more of a collectivist ethic where face must be preserved at all costs and dishonor is a fate worse than death.
It is hard to stress the differences between the lack of understanding that these two cultures have in negotiations and general life conceptions. When American (and other low context cultures) begin negotiating with high context cultures, they are often surprised by what is considered relevant history. Would you consider the opium wars of the 19th century or the British imperialism in India from the 1660s to be relevant to a modern trade negotiation? Most readers would say no, but the Chinese and Indian diplomats would say yes.
Understanding this different response is critical to cooperation in the diplomatic realm. A recent dispute between Australia and Indonesia brings to light these differences. Issues arose over the fulfillment of a campaign promise by Australia. They then ratcheted upwards after spying allegations were released from Edward Snowden’s leaks.
Australia held their federal election on September 7, 2013 when the Liberal/National Coalition was elected with Tony Abbott as Prime Minister. One of his election promises was to “stop the boats.” The boats are the refugee boats coming over Indian Ocean towards Christmas Island. From January to September 2013 approximately 19,000 refugees arrived by boat. Abbott’s supporters felt like the refugees were coming for welfare and free money rather than the possible “better life” that lead the settlers of Australasia to come there.
This promise leads to his idea of Operation Sovereign Borders that had the option of turning the boats back to Indonesia. Abbott actually advocates for the Australian navy to tow the boats back to Indonesia. Australia saw these policies as purely domestic policies that did not need consultation with Indonesia.
Another campaign promise was “More Jakarta, less Geneva,” or to focus on the Asian region rather than Europe. As part of this, Abbott made his first overseas trip as Prime Minister to Jakarta. However, he faced a reluctant Indonesian President,Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (who goes by SBY). SBY, and other Indonesians, felt that Abbott had attempted to make Indonesian policy without consulting Indonesians. Then Abbott was accused ignored the Indonesian press at a press conference and appearing to ignore the Indonesian people.
This obviously would be a problem for a high context culture like Indonesia. A culture that values saving face, being told by a former colonial power what to do while the power was telling you that there was a relationship of trust would not sit well. In addition, Indonesia feels that the refugees are Australia’s problem. In fact, many of the refugees are an economic boon to the Indonesian economy.
Then, as part of the Edward Snowden leaks, on October 31st, it was revealed that Australian embassies were part of an electronic surveillance ring around the Asia Pacific region as part of a larger U.S. led global spying network. When Indonesia asked Australia for an explanation, Australia simply referred to a long standing policy to not discuss intelligence matters. Two days later, it was revealed that Australia specifically targeted SBY and other high government official’s cell phones during a UN Climate Change Conference. This is when everything turned sour.
Indonesia called the Australian Ambassador in for an explanation, recalled their Ambassador to Australia, and then proceeded to stop all military cooperation with Australia, including any help with refugees. Soon the Twitter hashtag #CrushAustralia (in Indonesian) was trending. The Indonesians were burning Australian flags in front of embassies. SBY demanded an apology.
Australia refused to give one, simply stating that Australia will continue together intelligence in its best interests, but they “regret the embarrassment” that Indonesia was suffering. That statement alone, the sort-of-but-not-really apology just secured the idea that Australia would need to publicly apologize or give in order to make it OK for them to have further cooperation with Indonesia.
The high context culture was offended even more than before and their actions to “save face” with Australia could have easily been predicted. The press in Australia does not seem to understand the difficulty that Indonesia has with this diplomatic war, they just report what actions have been taken. However, the Australian Foreign Ministry, did, eventually, seem to understand. They sent a high level delegation to Jakarta to discuss the situation with Indonesia, but it was a month later.
While current relations are no longer in a free fall, they will take much work to return to pre-crisis roles. Australia will need to be seen in Indonesia as having done most of the giving, for their culture was offended by Australia’s actions. For Australia’s part, a little more understanding of the difficulties a low context culture faces in dealing with a high context culture would greatly ease any future difficulties.
Cassidy Henry is a Master’s Candidate at the Patterson School studying Diplomacy and National Security. Her focus is on Eastern Europe/Russia, where she has spent 19 months living and studying. Cassidy is currently looking for an entry level career position and can be contacted at www.linkedin.com/in/cassidyhenry