Monday, February 2, 2009

Defining Cultures: Hall

This blog started with the aim of explaining Arab behaviour and culture, without emotion, in order for the reader to make up their own mind about the action. Today's post is possibly the most opiniony one I've written so far and is wide open for comments and additions.

As I understand more and more, and can explain with ease what's going on in the Arab world ~I won't include the word 'mind' here~ I've become more and more interested in the background to cross-cultural communication and hense the inclusion of this area into the blog.

There are three key people in the studies of cross cultural communication: Hall, Hofstede and Trompenaar and today we'll contemplate the granddady [jed] of them all, Mr. Hall.

Hall started studying cross cultural comms back in the 1960’s and published, 'The Hidden Dimension' and, 'Beyond Culture' which have become standard reference works in the field. In these books Hall theorized different cultures can be differentiatated from one another; 1, by time, which he termed Monochronic (mono/one, chromic/time) or Polychronic (poly/many, chromic/time) and 2, by communication.

1. Time: Monochronic v Polychronic
To summarise; Monochronic people are time driven and will do one thing after another, whereas Polychronic people are relationship driven and often do many things at once.

Hall believes the differences between a Monochronic and a Polychronic culture are as follows:

Monochronic People
1. concentrate on the job
2. take time commitments (deadlines, schedules) seriously
3. need information
4. are committed to the job
5. stick to plans made
6. are concerned about not disturbing others; follow rules of privacy and consideration
7. show great respect for private property; seldom borrow or lend
8. emphasize promptness
9. are accustomed to short-term relationships
10. do one thing at a time

Polychronic People
1. are easily distracted and subject to interruptions
2. consider an objective to be achieved, if possible
3. already have information
4. are committed to people and human relationships
5. change plans often and easily
6. are more concerned with those who are closely related (family, friends, close business associates) than with privacy
7. borrow and lend things often and easily
8. base promptness on the relationship
9. have strong tendency to build lifetime relationships
10. do many things at once

In my experience Arabs sit almost perfectly within the Polychronic profile, apart from the last item; 'do many things at once'.

Most of the GCC nationals I have worked with generally do one thing at a time and have needed coaching to do many things at once. Personal recollections include watching staff sit around doing nothing with the reasoning;
“I can’t start working on this report until I have all the information, I just can’t start when I only have half the information.”
“I have to finish this completely before I can start on the next one.”

2. Communication: High v Low Context
Hall theorised people communicate within their own culture in one of two ways, using either 'high' or 'low' context.

To summarise; people living in high context cultures hide their true feelings and people in low context cultures state how they feel.

Everything I have read about Arabs and this subject classifies them as being a high context culture and communicate with each other using,
“Body language or non-verbal signs, intonations, idioms, euphemisms, anecdotes and hidden meanings to the extent the spoken word is simply one of several means of communication.” ~have lost the quote location, but am looking for it~

I too believe Arab culture is a high context culture and an expansion of what Hall defines as high and low context cultures is listed below:

High-Context Culture
1. Covert and implicit messages; metaphoric and read between the lines meaning
2. Internalized messages; blame self for failures
3. Much non-verbal coding; attention paid to body language and mannerisms
4. Reserved reactions; react more inwardly than outwardly
5. Distinct in-groups and out-groups; often tribal – family first then friends, with few entrants
6. Strong people bonds; family and community more important than anything else
7. High commitment; relationship are always more important than tasks, relationships are often long term and permanent
8. Open and flexible time; getting there is more important that the end result
9. Harmony with Nature; allows environment to grow, with little human interference

Low-Context Culture
1. Overt and explicit messages; plain and literal meaning
2. Plainly coded messages; blame others for failures
3. Verbal details; expression emphasized in the verbal rather than the body language
4. Reactions on the surface; react more outwardly
5. Flexible in-groups and out-group; open groups of affiliation,
6. Fragile people bonds; family and community less important. Individual wants and needs are put first
7. Low commitment; tasks are more important than relationships, relationships are often short term and ‘passing-through’
8. Highly organized time; the end result is more important than getting there
9. Mastery over Nature; personal Control over the environment

Four Types of Culture
Using the comparisons of 1. monochromic v polychronic and 2. high v low-context, we can assume, according to Hall, there are four types of culture:
1. Monochromic + High context
2. Monochromic + Low context
3. Polychronic + High context
4. Polychronic + Low context

But ...
In my experience Arabs are polychronic/high-context. But, having stated I think Arabs are a high-context culture I have to add a big ‘but’.

I believe there are several items in the low-context list which are far more relevant to Arabs than the equivalent part from the high context list. This would seem to suggest Arabs can not be at the top of the list.

The three things which I believe need to be included from the low context list to the Arab high-context culture are;

1. Outer Locus of Control & Blame Others for Failure
Personal recollections include a Board of Directors meeting where one manager pointed a finger at another manager and said, “It was him, not me”.
Another incident springs to mind where a board member instructed me in his working theory of how to pass the blame,
“Whenever anyone points out something you’ve done wrong make sure you change the subject by telling them what they have done wrong.”

2. React more Outwardly
In my experience Arabs are emotional beings and react emotionally to events. Not only do they react emotionally, they expect others to react in an emotional manner too ~somedays it's like living inside an opera production, anyone for a drama queen?~

3. Mastery over Nature
My take on this is to survive within a desert environment it must've been essential to have mastery over nature to survive. This skill continues today with water desalination and land reclamation.

League Tables
Wanting to know if my experiences agreed with Hall’s theory I found various tables on the internet offering differing opinions as to which cultures were high context and which were low context cultures. I have amalgamated them to produce a combined list:

High Context Countries
Japanese Chinese French, Spanish,
Italian Mediterranean
Latin American
Africans Indians & sub-continent
Korean, S E Asian
Central Europeans Slavs
Other American cultures
Benelux countries
Scandinavians, Finns
North Americans (Americans, Canadian)
New Zealand (white)
South African
German, Swiss, Austrian

Low Context Countries
Indians & sub-continent
Spanish, Southern Italian, Portuguese
Other Slavs
Northern Italians
Czechs, Slovaks, Slovenians
French, Belgium
Other American cultures
Dutch, Danish,
Australians Scandinavians,
Finns, British,
Swiss, Austrians,

Difficulties for Foreigners with Complex Cultures
Arriving as a foreigner in to a high-context culture can be difficult, especially if you’ve come from a low-context culture.

In addition to having everything around you being different (geography, language, facial features, etc.), a person from a low context culture will have the added disadvantage of having little experience dealing with a high-context culture.

A low context person will be used to having everything (rules, explanations, etc.) out in the open and the English phrase, “It’s not fair” springs to mind.

As I understand it, the main difficulties for foreigners dealing with unknown complex cultures are:

1. Being used to having obvious and structured instructions
2. Difficulty in seeing and then understanding the whole process and the context in which it exists
3. A lack of understanding often leads to mental irritation and the, ‘us-and-them’ syndrome.

1 comment:

kexon said...

Hey, interesting blog entry. I'm just curious - where did you get the info that Slovenia is a low context culture? I'm writing a thesis and would like to mention that but I need a good source (reference)...