Cups of Tea Analysis
Three Cups of Tea:
study in low and high-context communication; the power of communication to alter the world
Climbing a mountain is a highly individualistic effort. Although many poor communities may live in the Himalayas, mountain-climbing is an expensive sport usually only possible for people living in highly Westernized countries. In 1993, Greg Mortenson failed in his personal attempt to climb K2, a mountain still known as 'the climber's mountain,' a peak that makes scaling Mount Everest look easy. Mortenson's efforts left him in a state of almost total physical ruin and his spirit was also crushed by a sense of having failed in his efforts. He was forced to throw himself upon the mercy of a small mountain community that had almost nothing to survive. And yet, this community gave him everything -- their best food, medical care, and shelter, even thought the children of the town were too poor to buy pencils to learn to write.
While recuperating from his efforts in the Pakistani village, Mortenson succeeded at something more impressive than climbing to the summit of K2. Since that visit, he has devoted his life to educating desperately poor children in the remote village of Korphe and other places like it. He sold his climbing equipment, and devoted every penny of his work as an ER nurse to raising money for schools. The drifting individualist Mortenson found his purpose in life, and the Balti people were able to benefit from a higher quality education that Westerners take for granted. The contact between the American Mortenson from the low-context culture of the United States with the Balti people of Pakistan illustrates the value of intercultural communications between individuals of low and high-context countries, with different orientations of 'time' in terms of future and past orientations. By engaging in simple, human exchanges of trust and cultural dialogue, both Mortenson and the people who helped him benefited from the exchange.
To understand the significance of what transpired between Mortenson and his Balti saviors, chronicled in his memoir entitled Three Cups of Tea, it must be understood what is meant by low and high-context cultures. High-context cultures and societies, such as the peoples indigenous to the desperately poor regions of Pakistan traversed by Mortenson are made up of groups and individuals who have close connections, usually family, national or cultural connections that have existed for centuries. "Many aspects of cultural behavior are not made explicit because most members know what to do and what to think from years of interaction with each other" (Beer, 2003). "Low-context societies, places like the United States and other areas in the industrialized West are regions where people tend to have many connections but of shorter duration or for some specific reason. In these societies, cultural behavior and beliefs may need to be spelled out explicitly so that those coming into the cultural environment know how to behave" Beer, 2003).
Mortenson came from what might be called a low-context culture that stresses individualism and personal relationships. Although laid-back, easy-going, and a self-confessed climbing bum with little respect for punctuality and discipline, he was individually-focused and internally directed unlike the indigenous people he encountered who were focused on their faith and tribe. When he came in direct contact with the high-context culture of his host, Haji Ali and his family, Mortenson left feeling a strong sense of obligation to the village. Although his family was made up of committed social activists, this was the first time Mortenson felt a sense of owing something to someone and something larger than himself, namely the people of the world like Haji Ali, who had nothing but their generosity to give to others. Mortenson's sudden sense of obligation to a larger, collective force is a feeling that someone from a high-context culture senses all of the time. A high-context culture is made up of a network of contexts, relationships, and mutual obligations to others, rather than fulfilling the needs of an 'I.' Individualistic low-context cultures are characterized by impersonal, fluid relationships where little is expected of the individual other than self-satisfaction unless the act of generosity is 'chosen' and willed.
Striving to overcome barriers of ignorance and entrenched and ineffectual ways of doing things, Mortenson returned to honor the vow he made before leaving his new friends -- to found a school. Many years later, more than fifty-five schools stand in the region in proud testimony to Mortenson's repeated and consistent efforts to give back to the community. The title of his chronicle of the work, Three Cups of Tea comes from a proverb: "the first time you share tea with a Balti, you are a stranger...The second time, you are an honored guest. The third time you become family" (Mortenson 2007, p.150). This is a succinct statement of what might be called 'high context' cultural practices and beliefs -- it is hard to believe that such a bond would be seriously considered sacred in the United States, where the words 'we'll do this again some time,' is taken to be a formality, nothing more. For a Balti, continuing the traditions of the past and establishing and honoring friendships are what life is all about.
Mortenson found a great deal of life-sustaining sustenance in the serious rituals of the cups of tea. "By the time he'd shared a pot of butter tea with his hosts and laced up his boots, he'd become a humanitarian who'd found a meaningful path to follow for the rest of his life" (Mortenson 2007, p. 2). He could not "imagine discharging the debt he felt to his hosts in Korphe" (Mortenson 2007, p.30). Mortenson evidently found the humane and tolerant practices of the Balti people to be profoundly spiritually enriching and life-sustaining. Helping the people of Korphe healed not simply his physical wounds, but also his spiritual wounds, the sense of emptiness he had been attempting to address by climbing K2. Mortenson thought climbing a great and towering mountain would give him a sense of spiritual uplift, but more than trying to accomplish a 'personal best' for himself, Mortenson found greater joy in becoming part of a culture and community very different than his own. This goes against the wisdom of common American culture of self-fulfillment and self-directed efforts being the essence of life.
However, the divide between himself and his beloved, life-saving hosts was not accomplished without bridging some barriers to cultural understanding. Not only were relationships more important to the low-context Balti, but they did not immediately embrace the changes Mortenson wanted to orchestrate, much to his initial surprise. Carefree Mortenson, whose personal relationships had always been characterized by carelessness and fluidity, had to acknowledge aspects of past-obsessed nature of the Balti just as they had to change.
All individuals in contact with a new culture must reorient themselves in that culture's sense of time, a location that has little to do with the hands of the clock and much to do with that cultures' sense of the past. Even when his belief structures did not challenge Balti's faith and assumptions about gender norms, Mortenson's efforts would occasionally meet with intransience from a culture that had lived in the same fashion, at the same pace the same way, for so many years: "Even a beloved humanitarian has flaws. Mortenson's dogged determination to finish the school before winter hardly suits the gentle rhythms of village life. 'These mountains have been here a long time,' one irritated resident tells him. 'And so have we. Sit down and shut your mouth. You're making everyone crazy'" (Gardner 2006)
Of course, all of us to some degree live in the same 'time zone,' and time marches on for all of us. But there is also a subjective sense of time. Cultures are often classified into three types of culture: "(1) present orientated, with little attention to what has happened in past and what the future will bring. Past is considered as unimportant while future is seen as vague and unpredictable; (2) past-orientated cultures have a high sense on traditions like to their ancestors, family, traditionalism and aristocracy. The present is tried to be maintained; (3) future-orientated cultures with a high value in changes have a more desirable development in economic and social scales" (Time Concept, 2008, Via Web). As noted by the reference to the eternity of the nearby frozen mountains, the Balti are a past-obsessed culture, which is reinforced by their traditional Islamic practices.
The 'location in time' or time of a culture is very important in assessing its priorities. Americans are very future-oriented and focused on improving themselves. Mortenson's interest in education is evidence of this -- we as a culture stress education as a value, because it allows for change and self-improvement. As the Balti are very oriented towards the past, as past relationships and practices have a great deal of importance and significance in how and what is done, and why Mortenson had to take this into consideration when…