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DarbyKoogler Aug 24, 2023

Culture Highs and Lows

Culture are the distinctives of an individual, families, communities, regions, and even nations. In counseling we often use a biopsychosocial-spiritual lens to define culture—and the DSM includes cultural formation interview ideas. Needless to say, culture is an essential component of our work as counselors and counselors-in-training.

The United States has its own culture and as a nation is widely considered one of the lowest context cultures in the world. The antiquated term melting pot has been replaced by another food analogy term: tossed salad. Tossed salad is preferable because although a hot bowl from a melting pot may be delicious, over time the flavors tend to meld and thus are very similar bite-to-bite. But, a salad is bright, fresh, and each bite can have its own, distinctive, delightful flavor!

This is not to say that anyone from anywhere in the US can easily navigate cultural context, subculture, regions, dialects, and climates without a hitch. However, those from low context cultures tend to be more direct, to-the-point, and literal. Low context is spelled out and clear—the low-context culture of the United States developed this way out of necessity.

One of the highest context cultures in the world can be found in Japan. Because of Japan’s placement on the globe, difficultly (until the invention of air travel) of accessibility, and isolation, people within its borders had a common, cultural understanding. High context culture readers not only pick up on what is stated in words, but understand the meaning of narratives that may seem, to the untrained ear, unrelated to the subject at hand. Meaning is encrypted, rich, and subtle—the air is read. A tea ceremony for example, can be loaded with meaning from the timing to the placement of each item.

High and low contexts, direct and indirectness is important within the counseling profession because counselors and clients may have differing perspectives. For example, the direct questions: “What brings you in today?” and “How long has this been a problem?” may be met with direct, to-the-point answers (low context). However, some clients may need more time to process and to build trust and safety. Or the client may answer indirectly with a story about how a friend or relative found mental health counseling to be helpful, and/or perhaps the client may respond through descriptions of somatic complaints (high context).

Even before modern, clinical counseling was established, people understood, “Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks” (from Matthew 12:34). There is meaning and sharing whether it is low or high context, and it is the counselor’s job to join the client on the [high or low context] pathway towards the client’s best possible outcomes for healing, growth, and health outcomes. Whether a client’s response seems to be high or low context, direct or indirect counselors understand that all responses are valid and important because our words express our hearts.

Darby J. Koogler is a graduate counseling intern, writer, former teacher, and hopeful international school counselor.
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