First published in 1959, The Silent Language is a book written by the American anthropologist Edward T. Hall. Drawing on research into variations in communication processes across different cultures, Hall argued that people communicate not only through words, but also through an array of behaviors—or “silent languages”—that are outside the range of most people’s conscious awareness. He identified a number of such languages, including the languages of time, space, material goods, friendship, and agreements, and demonstrated how these differed from culture to culture.
Different cultures have different approaches to time. In the United States, for example, time is considered to be linear, sequential, and rational. People in such cultures tend to be very precise about timing: they schedule their day-to-day activities in detail, they attach importance to keeping appointments, they take deadlines seriously, and they are concerned about delays. In other cultures, such as France, people conceive of time in a more fluid and elastic manner. The members of such cultures take a less strict view of time. They attach less precision to scheduling and place less importance on postponement or delay.
Cultures also vary in the way they use space. For example, Hall argued that different cultures have different norms governing social distance, understood as the distance at which people naturally stand from each other. For example, standing at a close distance may seem normal and sociable to the Japanese, but intrusive and uncomfortable to Americans. Cultures also differ in the use of spatial positioning to denote rank or power. In Japan, for example, delegations of managers are commonly arranged with great precision so that their positioning indicates each manager’s relevant rank. In delegations of American managers, by contrast, spatial positioning conveys little information about rank. Such spatial arrangements can be frustrating for the Japanese, who are unable to infer rank from physical position.
The importance attached to material goods also differs across cultures. Hall observed that Americans tend to place emphasis on material possessions and the accumulation of goods, using, for example, clothes, automobiles, and houses to ascertain each other’s status. In the workplace, American firms commonly denote power and prestige through the use of material possessions: a corner office, a larger desk, a company car, and a salary that is very large compared to other members of the organization. Other cultures attach less importance to material goods. In Japan, for example, senior managers tend to share a large, open plan office with little distinction in their physical surroundings, and their salaries tend not to vary greatly from those awarded to more junior staff members. In continental European companies, pay scales are more compressed than in the United States, again reflecting a lower importance attached to material goods as an indication of status.
Hall argued that cultures differ in the ways in which their members develop and maintain friendships. In some cultures, friendships are made relatively easily. For example, visitors to the United States commonly state that they make friends quickly and easily, but that their friendships are often transitory and without the depth or endurance of friendships in their home countries. By contrast, cultures that attach little importance to material possessions may be matched by greater emphasis on personal relationships. People are known not by what they own, but rather by their place within a social network of family and friends. As a result of this emphasis on relationships, friendships may take a long time to develop; once developed, however, they tend to be very durable, involving a strong sense of reciprocal obligation.
Hall also observed significant variations in how members of different cultures express agreement and disagreement. In countries such as France, agreements are based on trust and may be consummated with a handshake and only a brief statement. In the United States, by contrast, agreements tend to be explicit and spelled out in writing; this view is captured by the American saying “a verbal contract is not worth the paper it is written on.” Likewise, the norms of expressing agreement and disagreement may vary widely during the process of negotiations that lead up to an agreement. The members of some cultures tend to voice their dissent quite readily: American managers, for example, do not hesitate to identify terms that are unacceptable or conditions that must be met for an agreement to be reached. The members of other cultures tend to avoid direct confrontation, and instead use subtle cues to express disagreement. Rather than openly saying that a proposal is unacceptable, a Japanese manager might suggest only that the proposal “may be difficult” or that “it raises some concerns.”
As Hall continued his research, he observed common patterns in the ways that people socialized in different cultures using these five different languages: he noted that some people tended to communicate in a relatively explicit fashion, while others communicate effectively with much more implicit information. Drawing on these findings, Hall proposed a distinction between what he called “high context” and “low context” cultures.
- Richard W. Brislin and Eugene S. Kim, “Cultural Diversity in People’s Understanding and Uses of Time,” Applied Psychology (v.52/3, 2003);
- Edward T. Hall, The Hidden Dimension (Doubleday, 1966);
- Edward T. Hall, The Silent Language (Anchor Books, 1990);
- Edward T. Hall and Mildred R. Hall, Understanding Cultural Differences (Intercultural Press, 1990).
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