I recently took a trip to Africa and the Middle East – specifically Kenya and Dubai. In Africa, one of my companions, who lives in Uganda, commented that Uganda and Kenya are very high context cultures. I hadn’t put it in quite those terms until she brought it up, but it makes sense when you consider that large areas of Africa are insular and in the areas that see a lot of tourist traffic, the tourists are cared for by residents who grow up knowing their way around.
Tourists don’t need many context cues because the residents act in place of the cues. You don’t rent a car, you hire a car and driver; you don’t plunge into a safari on your own, you go with a tour guide who knows what permits are needed and knows all the best spots for seeing animals. It’s assumed that if you want to do just about anything, you will do it under the auspices of a local.
Dubai was interesting because, from what I saw in my two days there, it’s a formerly high context culture trying to quickly adapt to accommodate hordes of low-context tourists, and people immigrating to work in the emerging hospitality, tourism, and software industries.
In some respects they get it completely right. A kilometer or so before the metro stops you start to see regularly spaced signs, pointing the way to the stop and noting the distance between the sign and the stop. The stops themselves are highly visible and the system itself is very usable and inexpensive. But, there are gaps.
On my first day in Dubai, it took me about 2 hours to find a metro stop because I started outside the range of the signs. I could see the track, so I knew there had to be a stop somewhere, but I had to walk quite a way through pedestrian-unfriendly traffic, following the track, until I started seeing the signs. Eventually I found a stop a few miles from my hotel, but then later learned that there was a stop about 1.1 kilometers from my hotel (leaving me juuust out of range of the signs).
In other places signage is sparse but there are (probably poorly paid) people stationed at regular intervals to give instruction. Just off the metro stop for Burj Khalifa and want to experience “Dubai at the Top?” There are NO signs to direct you there (unless you count the enormously tall building glinting in near distance) but there is a helpful person stationed every few hundred feet, each one ushering you to the next helpful person.
Similarly, at the airport, there were signs aplenty, but they didn’t always convey useful or accurate information. When I first arrived in Dubai I was booked at a hotel near the airport for some quick sleep. As I was leaving the airport I hoped for a hotel shuttle to save me the crowded taxi line and the complexities of converting euros or US dollars to dirhams while sleep-deprived and math-impaired.
As I come through the customs area and into the arrivals hall I see a sign, pointing to the left: “Hotel Shuttles.” Great – maybe this will be painless. I bend my steps to the left, scanning the signs overhead for further information. The next hotel shuttle sign I see points me to the outside of the terminal. This is all very familiar – like the many, many, (manymanymany) developed airports I have seen over the years. I exit the indicated doors and look for the sign that will tell me which island to go to. Signs have dried up. Hmmmm. The (very long and slow-moving and intimidating) taxi line is to my right. I head that way, figuring that at the very worst, I can get myself into the queue.
But I really want to find that hotel shuttle. I look up again, scanning for more information. A sign indicates that the shuttles are now to my right and behind me. And possibly above me. Behind me is the terminal. Is the shuttle island on a different level? One reached from inside?
So, I turn in the direction indicated by the new sign and then go back inside the terminal and look for an elevator, escalator, stairs, rope ladder, any indication that there is an upstairs. Nothing, and no more signs about hotel shuttles either. I look to what is now my right and there, barely readable in the distance is one sign about hotel shuttles – the same sign that sent me outside on my fool’s errand to begin with.
I don’t want to waste any more of my allotted sleep time looking for the fabled hotel shuttle so I go with the taxi plan. Miraculously one of the porters directs me to a much shorter taxi line close to the mysterious “upstairs hotel shuttle” sign, so maybe the fool’s errand was worthwhile after all. I collapse into the back seat and start running currency conversions in my head as the driver speeds towards the hotel district.