Does open source exclude high context cultures?

High context cultures value personal relationships over process. You have to know someone before you can trust them and work with them. They also tend to be less explicit and rely more on tone of voice, gestures and even status to communicate. Typically Asian countries are more high context than Western countries. Think Korea and Japan.

Low context cultures are process driven. They rely on facts and processes. Their communication style is much more direct and action-orientated. They are orientated towards the individual rather than the group. Western cultures like the US and Germany are considered low context.

So if you start a project and send email to a bunch of folks and ask them to just jump in and contribute, which group do you think will get going more quickly? The low context culture folks. As long as you define the process and procedures, they are willing to work alone and with people they don’t know very well. That’s how open source works. So our projects are optimized for low context cultures.

What happens to the high context folks when invited to participate on a mailing list? They have a hard time sending emails and contributions to people they’ve never met and have no relationship with. (Imagine walking up to a random person on the street and critiquing their dress style. It’s that kind of awkward.) Would they make good contributors? Absolutely! Do we need to find other ways other than “join the mailing list” to get them involved? Absolutely! For an example of what’s worked well, see the great work that Emily Chen, Pockey Lam and Fred Muller and others have done with GNOME Asia.

As I think about developer engagement at Mozilla, I realize we need to have different plans for different cultures. It’s even more important to be present in person for high context cultures. To establish a personal relationship before you invite them to join your project. (Or ask them to use open technologies or spread the word.) We should be following up in different ways, setting up different programs for different countries. Luckily the Mozilla Reps program will help provide the infrastructure for this.

How do you think we should encourage high context cultures to get involved with open source? If you are from a high context culture, how did you get started?


22 Replies to “Does open source exclude high context cultures?”

  1. > (Imagine walking up to a random person on the street and
    > critiquing their dress style. It’s that kind of awkward.)

    I have had this happen enough in the USA that I figured we may be even below “Low context” culture :). Funnily enough each of the times was in an open source “mecca” either Boston or Silicon Valley. But yes it does feel very awkward to have it happen to you.

    I wish I could remember who explained it to me like this but in engineering terms they said that most American culture connections were like UDP. Throw something out and if you get something back cool. European connections were anywhere from 2 to 3 handshake protocols. There was some sort of formal agreement that everyone did to get it done but as long as that was followed whatever happened after that was a lot freer.

    In contrast India was like a TCP connection with security added on. You have the initial 3 way handshake, then you have the additional handshakes and possibly referring to some other intermediate in order for the connection to continue. Explaining it like that made it a lot clearer to my engineering brain why there was additional steps in getting something done.

  2. >Typically Asian countries are more high context than Western countries.

    This is incorrect, anglo-saxon countries such as the US and Germany are high context cultures, but most of European countries have a low context culture, especially latin countries such as France, Italy, Spain, Romania…

    Thinking that western=anglosaxon is a common cultural mistake in the US and the reason why they don’t fully “get” Europe and South America in my opinion 😉

    1. Countries are on a continuum, but Germany is about as low context as you can get and the US is pretty low context. Latin countries are high context. Think of high context = high relationship.

      The different European countries fall in between.

    2. Germany is not an “Anglo-Saxon” country, though it is a Germanic country (along with Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Austria, and part of Switzerland.) “Anglo-Saxon” refers to the English-speaking former colonies of Britain; namely, the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

      How unfortunate that you display profound cultural ignorance while criticizing someone for cultural ignorance.

  3. Regardless of how or low context culture, it is generally true that people work better with people they trust. With a(n American) friend of mine (i’m French), we’re thinking about creating a company.
    We value more working with someone we know, less skilled but motivated to learn rather than the biggest expert on the planet who we may not trust.

    Trust is also highly valued in low context culture. That’s the reason social shopping emerges. You tend to buy more easily what people you trust recommanded to you. There is a trust transfer.

    “How do you think we should encourage high context cultures to get involved with open source?”
    => I have recently heard of an initiative ( where one idea was to put in Firefox bugs “mentor=nickname” on the whiteboard. This is one way to make the process more personal, to put one person, one referent, to have one person to talk to rather than a general mess of “anyone can jump in (and does)”
    This general mess is one thing that scares people who are not from the open source and not familiar with this way of working. Having one mentor/referent you can talk to and who is dedicated to help you out at the beginning is relevant and certainly reassuring to a lot of people.
    You get this knowledge of “who/where should I be asking this question to?” at some point, but it takes time, probably at the scale of months.

    “If you are from a high context culture, how did you get started?”
    => I don’t know if I’m from a high-context culture, but the first thing that got me started was the first in-person doc sprint back in October 2010. Mostly because it was in person.
    In-person events are golden to engage people.

  4. I think we are over-generalizing here.

    Some open source projects like LibreOffice have a decent IRC channel in which you can get to talk to people and get help getting things done. All you need is the guts to break the ice, really.

    It is still hard to be a n00b, but that is true for every software project (both free and non-free) one will work on in their lives.

    I would say what can be a big turn-off for high-context-culture people is the cost of the first mistake. High context societies typically abhor rejection/shaming. And a typical mistake many n00bs do is asking something in the wrong mailing list / IRC channel. A stern “this is for developers only, ask on the XYZ channel” would put a break to many enthusiastic minds, I am sure.

  5. For years the Linux Foundation (and OSDL before it) ran events in Japan where they would fly in developers (mostly kernel folks) to give talks and generally get to know Japanese developers. Over that period of time, those Japanese developers have become significant contributors to the Linux kernel. Taking the Kernel Summit there helped as well. There is a lot to be said for simply taking the time to stop by and tell folks that their work is appreciated and wanted.

  6. >As I think about developer engagement at Mozilla, I
    >realize we need to have different plans for different
    >cultures. It’s even more important to be present in
    >person for low context cultures.

    I guess you mean “high context” here?

  7. I’ve noticed this trend as well, but I’ve also noticed a related useful trend: as people participate more heavily in Open Source, they rather quickly become comfortable in a low-context environment. I think we should take care that when we do outreach to accommodate high-context cultures, we don’t lose that.

  8. It seems that there is a lot of talk at Mozilla these days about promoting civil dialogue and shifting our culture to be less abrasive and combative. I think that if we succeed with this cultural shift people from high-context cultures will be more likely to participate in the Mozilla community.

    Some other ideas (many from Melissa Lamson’s talk on cross-cultural teamwork at the recent Mozilla All-Hands):

    – Don’t put people from high-context cultures on the spot, for example by directly asking a person for feedback in a group meeting. Instead, ask the group in general to provide feedback and give people the opportunity to provide feedback later by a private channel.

    – Recognize that people from high-context cultures tend to avoid confrontation.

    – Use regional emoticons (just to be friendly). (

    – Publicly recognize regional leaders (and maybe give out contributor business cards).

    – Be aware of major holidays in various regions; avoid scheduling meetings on those days and, if appropriate, send seasonal greetings.

    – Give cross-cultural training to the people who engage most with people from other cultures (for example, Melissa Lamson mentioned above).

  9. Very happy to read your article! It matches exactly my personal experience living and working since 3 years in Japan. It’s much much… much more “people business” here, than in the west, in low context cultures.

    If I get asked by a colleague, I always try to draw a virtual chart for how a relationship over time is so much different here.

    Back in Switzerland, I experienced that you start off at around 100%. Maybe there is a slight difference on personal “like” or “dislike” but generally you get the chance to begin your relationship with a fresh and clean start.

    Now in Japan, your starting point is at 0. Yes, zero. There is a lot of “uncertainty” and “no trust” when you begin the relationship. You must earn first your credits before your chart gets better. But it will go up, if you’re willing to “invest” into this relationship. You will get many chances to get points over time. Use it!

    Once there is a problem coming up, the low context chart will get a deep dive. Much actions must be made to get it up again. Some repeating events can make it down to 0-level. Relationship finished, game over.

    In contrary the Japanese chart will have less “volatility” to that happenings. Even though you make mistakes but apologize, there are good chances that the relationship will grow further. How you deal with it is more important than what has happened.

    How long will it take you in Japan to get to 100%?. A personal relationship will evolve more quick, a business relationship to my experience takes much more time.

    If you are going to deal with high context cultures, draw the “relationship chart”. As timeline to track a personal relationship, 6 month to 1 year is a good timeframe. In a business relationship, make the timeline for 3 years.

    Where is the quick win? There is no! If you start dealing with China, Korea and also Japan… make sure your timeline is long enough. Not weeks or months, expect years.

    A “relationship investment” is really important in high context cultures, and it explains maybe why anonymous projects without a network of personal relationships are less successful than those with heavy local engagement.

    1. True, and this is not so different in China. Despite the fact, that Japanese and Chinese are in many ways so different.

      My best friend is Wang Wei, I’ve studied with him in Austria and then he has shown me his great country. Many years later I started working in China, and my experience showed to be pretty similar to my Japanese friends in many ways… even though business is still very different in those 2 exciting cultures.

  10. From my experience with the Google Summer of Code, I would argue that the same things important to increasing contribution from high-context cultures are *also* important to recruiting and retaining contributors in low-context cultures. Relationships and integration into the community trumps everything.

  11. Stormy, fascinating thesis!

    A while ago, 2008 in fact, I was tracking the issue of contributions to OSS projects from Asia and there was a fascinating discussion on exactly this topic between Linus and Jim Zemlin, which I transcribed here:

    Then later in 2008, the Linux Foundation announced that 15% of the contributions to the Linux codebase was coming from Japanese contributors (largely big Japanese tech firms).

    I do think that language and culture is a barrier for some in Asia to contribute to OSS projects. But if there is a great enough need (like for firms like NEC, Hitachi, Fujitsu, NTT, Sony, Toshiba, Canon which all use Linux for various products, clearly the barrier can be overcome.

    That said, contributions from Asian programmers who are paid to contribute vs. those who are volunteering their time are a different story.

  12. I think one key way to improve contributions from all cultures, but more necessary for high-context cultures is establishing local communities around projects.

    Physical proximity is the way we naturally think about community, so it makes sense to me that it is one of the most powerful ways to get people involved. If you hold meetups regularly, people will get to know each other in a high context way. When you participate in the mailing list after meeting people, or even just knowing that these are people close to you so building a relationship could have real-world impact, it’s much more engaging.

    I’ve seen this with linux user groups and low context cultures, as well as a local chinese community in my college town which had a very active mailing list.

    I think our communication tools have improved a lot, and we just need to find ways to let them improve our real-life experiences.

  13. Nice twist of words, but I think you could rephrase “low-context” as “advanced” and “high-context” as “feudal”.

  14. I completely disagree with you on this. I feel low context cultures are self centered and keen on working alone than high profile. I have seen this in my own company where I feel High context people respond more positively and readingly to new things and help to jumpstart progress.

  15. This is great insite. I wonder if this could apply to gender also. Women in general, perhaps being more “high-context” then the men in their particular culture?

  16. Chinese BBS forums are about as low-context as they come, but they are still immensely popular in China, much more so than in the U.S. Likewise for Chinese-language mailing lists at universities in the U.S. – highly low-context, yet so active that you can find any advice you need within an hour or two (I’ve participated in both). So low-context interactions with strangers are quite popular even for those from a high-context culture like Chinese. If there is indeed a lack of participation in open source (as the article implies but does not document), then I would suggest looking elsewhere for the root causes. As some commenters have suggested above, it may be that simple engagement to create a critical mass of local contributors is by far the most important aspect.

  17. This problem occurs outside of Open Source as well: within many tech companies, interactions between low-context and high-context people often prove difficult, even when those people know each other. (Mentioning “people” rather than “cultures” here because it often seems to vary by individual as much as by culture, but it certainly does correlate quite well with the cultures this post specifically mentions.) High-context people, when they run into a roadblock that prevents them from getting work done, will often do anything and everything *except* actually ask for the help they need to get un-stuck.

  18. To finish that thought: less skilled high-context people will get stuck and stay that way without asking for help, while less skilled low-context people often have trouble learning to work independently.

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