Technically, this story is an observation to illustrate the difference between a "high context" society and a "low context" society. In a low context society, everyone knows the rules and follows them: you drive on x side of the road, you drive x speed, you put your garbage out on the street no earlier than 6 PM and you bring the empty can in by 6 AM. You don’t let leaves accumulate on your sidewalk. Meetings begin punctually. Whatever. Such cultures can be perceived as "formal" and "rigid."
Germany is often given as an example of a low context culture. One simply follows the rules, no matter what the surrounding circumstances (context). One example I’ve heard of is a German who will wait for the green pedestrian arrow before crossing the road, even at 3 AM when there isn’t a single car on the road. Everyone follows the rules, and everyone can count on everyone else following the rules. There is comfort in knowing that all the houses will have swept sidewalks, and discomfort when someone doesn’t follow that rule.
In a high context society, in contrast, the "rules" are suggestions rather than directives. They are more like guidelines, to be followed when it’s convenient and ignored when inconvenient, all giving great weight to the "context." China is an example of a high context culture. Not as high context as some, but fairly high up there. (My personal theory is that the closer you are to the equator, the more high context the culture becomes.) I’ve read that of all groups of expats, Germans have the most difficulty, overall, adapting to Chinese culture. My German friends here have told me they find this culture very uncomfortably messy, dirty, chaotic. Especially Southern China.
The traffic in a low context culture is nicely regulated. Everyone drives the correct speed, in the correct lanes, and follows the correct rules when they want to turn. America falls in the middle of the spectrum, but toward the low context side. People speed on the highway, but they know it’s wrong. Americans get upset when you cut in front of them in line, even if they were leaving way too much space as they gossiped with their friend.
Here, in contrast, the traffic resembles a tricycle rally for three year olds, or perhaps a crowded preteen roller rink on a Saturday afternoon. The cars generally go in the proper direction, but lane marks are meaningless and it is not unusual to see a car driving on the wrong side of the street or the wrong way on a one way street, going flat against the direction of traffic. It’s not unusual for a car to cut across four lanes of traffic, in the process of its turning right from the far left lane. Traffic lights signal right of way, but drivers may not stop if they see no reason to stop.
Last night I witnessed something that illustrated this to an extent that was startling even to me. First of all, it is startling to find that in a communist society, some are literally more equal than others. But that is clearly the case. Military cars not only have black tinted windows and special license tags to proclaim their status, but they also have special horns used to announce their presence. Status rather than standing governs who gives way on a China road. I’ve been told that ordinary drivers have no respect for ambulances and won’t give way, so it’s better to just call a taxi if you are injured rather than wait for an ambulance. In contrast, every car on the road melts away from the path of a military car.
Last night, I was standing at a busy intersection. One moderately large road that is "one way" in the northbound direction intersects another large road that goes east and west. Almost every car from the northbound road needs to turn right, to go east on the east west road. Cars line up in all four northbound lanes of the one way road, and then they squeeze themselves into the two eastbound lanes of the second road. They do this by cutting into each other, and also often by creating traffic that is three lanes thick on space that is marked with two lanes. All "in context," meaning: "as the situation allows." In other words, picture four lanes turning right onto a road that has two lanes marked to go in that direction. The four lanes somehow merge into three, and then gradually traffic thins down to two lanes.
Well, I was standing at the corner of that intersection when I heard the familiar military car horn announcing its presence, signaling all other drivers on the road to move over. Not really believing my ears, I looked up in astonishment to see the military car turning southward onto the one-way, northbound street! Not only was the military car having the gall to go the wrong way on a one way street, but it did this while four lanes of northbound cars were all stopped for the traffic light, completely blocking the road. As I watched, four lanes of stopped cars somehow wiggled themselves around to make room for the military car to cut through them, like a barracuda cutting through a school of minnows. The "rules" were clearly guidelines, broken as circumstances allowed.
Another example of "rules" that are broken whenever they become inconvenient is the road in front of my children’s school, and my own driver. The lane in front of the school is very narrow, allowing only one lane of traffic to pass comfortably. Of course, there is a safety issue as well. Almost every school with a "carpool line" enforces a one way traffic policy so that children are dropped off from the passenger side of the car onto the sidewalk. This way, children don’t have to cross any lanes of traffic to get from their car into school. But there are always idiots who don’t follow this rule. Including at my kids school in the USA. But the usual transgression in the USA is the SUV Mom who tries to "cut in front," not a mom who tries to enter at the one-way exit gate.
One morning, as I took J to school, I watched as one Chinese driver tried to inch his way the wrong direction up the one way, one lane road. He finally (thankfully) gave up, but only after causing a colossal traffic jam and after the Chinese security guard came and told him to go the other way. And of course he only backed out after arguing with the security guard, much animated gesticulating. My thought was, "Idiot! Get with the program!"
So imagine my embarrassment last week when I needed to pick J up early, was out in the car, and so had the driver take me to the school. (This was the same day as the lunch I wrote about a few days ago.) Driving very fast, the driver surprised me by turning a block too soon. "Surely," I thought to myself, "he is not going to try and go the wrong way on the one way street." Wrong!
Song Ying was with me. I said (in Chinese) "It’s not allowed to go this way!" She says, "Oh, no problem." As we got to the small street, I reply (pointing with my hand), "No, see the signs. No entry." (There were "no entry" signs, with big "x" marks, spaced across the intersection, blocking all but one part of it where cars could squeeze out the exit to the road.) "Oh, no problem," she replies, as the driver passes through the no entry signs barricading the exit of the one way street, "No people here." (Meaning, no security guards yet posted at the exit, to enforce the rule.)
American businesses: take heed! You may not get it yet, but you will. Rules, contracts, whatever. It’s all a matter of context, expediency, and convenience. Don’t take it for granted that any rules will be followed. For, if you do, you may be in for a nasty surprise. Every aspect of every transaction must be personally policed to make sure the rules are followed. Don’t say you haven’t been warned!
For more reading on this subject, I recommend the book "Beyond Culture" by Edward T. Hall.