Regional differences help us connect to more people and cultures
A psychologist and recent transplant from L.A. was complaining about her slow and manipulative new Seattle colleagues.
I used to share her opinions. But, after 25 years of living here, I reacted to this tired rant with eyeball rolls and East Coast push-back. The classic Northwest style is frustrating if you'd rather 'cut to the chase'. Yes, we tend to avoid emotions, conflict and a clear decision-making process.
Maybe we're just waiting for an extroverted fool to speak up.
Where do these values come from? Before moving here, I spend a month exploring Scandinavia. My guidebook stated that in these nations, the ultimate insult was one delivered with such subtlety the receiver wasn't offended. This requires thought and restraint.
When I first moved to Seattle, a few times people stopped me on the street to ask if I was in the theater profession. Perhaps I was wearing bright clothes or gesticulating. It was delightful to see others hang back and yield the floor. I enjoyed taking command and dominating conversations, thinking this was leadership.
I was curious and careful when interacting outside of my obvious culture zones, assuming I could 'read' people who looked just like me. Eventually, I realized the damage my carelessness had caused. Credibility was tough to win back.
Yet, it's simplistic and Eurocentric to give Scandinavians all the credit for the finesse we pride ourselves on. Native American Asians populated the Northwest long before my forbears*. I've learned much from these traditions, such as:
One model for understanding communication style differences is low context versus high context cultures, which was introduced by the anthropologist Edward T. Hall, in his 1976 book, Beyond Culture. Hall's approach can be broadly applied to communications between gender, class, national or ethnic culture, and subcultures, (such as LGBT).
Here's my oversimplified take on his work:
High-context cultures use fewer words but place more value on them. They rely on 'in-groups' and subtext to fill in the blanks. Think about all that's unspoken yet clearly understood by Downton Abbey's characters. Groups relying on low-context cultural norms use more explicit communication, but place less emphasis on specific words. Shirley McClaine's portrayal as Cora Crawley's loud, obnoxious American mother nails it.
I think of high/low context as two poles, Collectivism and Individualism, which we move between constantly. The Yin/Yang symbol keeps these concepts top of mind- reminding me to welcome opposite views and listen half of the time. Two halves make a whole, one half creates a hole.
The "Northwest No" used to frustrate me. Now, I see it as a flag and slow down. Maybe we don't get as much done is Seattle, but it's certainly more pleasant.
*These are all good examples of high context cultures.