Edward T. Hall was an anthropologist who made early discoveries of key cultural factors. In particular he is known for his high and low context cultural factors.
In a high-context culture, there are many contextual elements that help people to understand the rules. As a result, much is taken for granted.
This can be very confusing for person who does not understand the ‘unwritten rules’ of the culture.
In a low-context culture, very little is taken for granted. Whilst this means that more explanation is needed, it also means there is less chance of misunderstanding particularly when visitors are present.
Contrasting the two
French contracts tend to be short (in physical length, not time duration) as much of the information is available within the high-context French culture. American content, on the other hand, is low-context and so contracts tend to be longer in order to explain the detail.
Highly mobile environments where people come and go need lower-context culture. With a stable population, however, a higher context culture may develop.
Note the similarity with Trompenaars’ Universalism (low context) and Particularism (high context).
|Factor|| High-context culture
|| Low-context culture
|Overtness of messages||Many covert and implicit messages, with use of metaphor and reading between the lines.||Many overt and explicit messages that are simple and clear.
|Locus of control and attribution for failure||Inner locus of control and personal acceptance for
|Outer locus of control and blame of others for failure|
|Use of non-verbal communication||Much nonverbal communication||More focus on verbal communication than body language|
|Expression of reaction||Reserved, inward reactions||Visible, external, outward reaction|
|Cohesion and separation of groups||Strong diistinction between ingroup and outgroup. Strong sense of family.||Flexible and open grouping patterns, changing as needed|
|People bonds||Strong people bonds with affiliation to family and community||Fragile bonds between people with little sense of loyalty.|
|Level of commitment to relationships|| High commitment to long-term relationships.
Relationship more important than task.
|Low commitment to relationship. Task more important than relationships.|
|Flexibility of time
|Time is open and flexible.
Process is more important than product
|Time is highly organized.
Product is more important than process
M-Time, as he called it, means doing one thing at a time. It assumes careful planning and scheduling and is a familiar Western approach that appears in disciplines such as ‘time management’.
Monochronic people tend also to be low context.
In Polychronic cultures, human interaction is valued over time and material things, leading to a lesser concern for ‘getting things done’ — they do get done, but more in their own time.
Aboriginal and Native Americans have typical polychronic cultures, where ‘talking stick’ meetings can go on for as long as somebody has something to say.
Polychronic people tend also to be high context.
Contrasting The Two
Western cultures vary in their focus on monochronic or polychronic time. Americans are strongly monochronic whilst the French have a much greater polychronic tendency — thus a French person may turn up to a meeting late and think nothing of it (much to the annoyance of a German or American co-worker).
Note the similarity with Trompenaars’ time as sequence (monochronic) and time as synchronization (polychronic).
|Factor||Monochronic Action||Polychronic Action|
|Actions||Do one thing at a time||Do many things at once|
|Focus||Concentrate on the job at hand||Are easily distracted|
|Attention to time||Think about when things must be achieved||Think about what will be achieved|
|Priority||Put the job first||Put relationships first|
|Respect for property||Seldom borrow or lend things||Borrow and lend things often and easily|
|Timeliness||Emphasize promptness||Base promptness relationship factors|
Hall was concerned about space and our relationships within it. He called the study of such space Proxemics.
We have concerns about space in many situations, from personal body space to space in the office, parking space, space at home.
The need for space
Some people need more space in all areas. People who encroach into that space are seen as a threat.
Personal space is an example of a mobile form of territory and people need less or greater distances between them and others. A Japanese person who needs less space thus will stand closer to an American, inadvertently making the American uncomfortable.
Some people need bigger homes, bigger cars, bigger offices and so on. This may be driven by cultural factors, for example the space in America needs to greater use of space, whilst Japanese need less space (partly as a result of limited useful space in Japan).
Some people are more territorial than others with greater concern for ownership. They seek to mark out the areas which are theirs and perhaps having boundary wars with neighbors.
This happens right down to desk-level, where co-workers may do battle over a piece of paper which overlaps from one person’s area to another. At national level, many wars have been fought over boundaries.
Territoriality also extends to anything that is ‘mine’ and ownership concerns extend to material things. Security thus becomes a subject of great concern for people with a high need for ownership.
People high territoriality tend also to be low context.
People with lower territoriality have less ownership of space and boundaries are less important to them. They will share territory and ownership with little thought.
They also have less concern for material ownership and their sense of ‘stealing’ is less developed (this is more important for highly territorial people).
People with low territoriality tend also to be high context.
Australian Aboriginal people will say that they belong to the land rather than the other way around. Before we scotch this, we should remember that they have thrived in harsh conditions for thousands of years. Western society, on the other hand has shown much barbarity over ownership of land.
When working across cultures, pay attention to high and low cultures through the actions of others. For example if people are late for meetings it may be because they are polychronic, not because they are disrespectful or lazy.
When you understand the personal, national or organizational culture, then you can seek to align with them and hence gain greater influence.