3.3 Describing Culture: Hall

Edward T. Hall was a respected anthropologist who applied his field to the understanding of cultures and intercultural communications. Hall is best noted for three principal categories that analyze and interpret how communications and interactions between cultures differ: context, space, and time.

Context: High-Context versus Low-Context Cultures

High and low context refers to how a message is communicated. In high-context cultures, such as those found in Latin America, Asia, and Africa, the physical context of the message carries a great deal of importance. People tend to be more indirect and to expect the person they are communicating with to decode the implicit part of their message. While the person sending the message takes painstaking care in crafting the message, the person receiving the message is expected to read it within context. The message may lack the verbal directness you would expect in a low-context culture. In high-context cultures, body language is as important and sometimes more important than the actual words spoken.

In contrast, in low-context cultures such as the United States and most Northern European countries, people tend to be explicit and direct in their communications. Satisfying individual needs is important. You’re probably familiar with some well-known low-context mottos: “Say what you mean” and “Don’t beat around the bush.” The guiding principle is to minimize the margins of misunderstanding or doubt. Low-context communication aspires to get straight to the point.

Communication between people from high-context and low-context cultures can be confusing. In business interactions, people from low-context cultures tend to listen only to the words spoken; they tend not to be cognizant of body language. As a result, people often miss important clues that could tell them more about the specific issue.

  Low-Context High-Context
Type of Communication Explicit Communication Implicit Communication
Communication Focus Focus on Verbal Communication Focus on Nonverbal Communication
Context of Message Less Meaningful Very Meaningful
Politeness Not Important Very Important
Approach to People Direct and Confrontational Indirect and Polite
Cultural Orientation
Emotions No Room for Emotions Emotions Have Importance
Approach to Time Monochromatic Polychromatic
Time Orientation Present-Future Past
In/Out-Groups Flexible and Transient Grouping patterns Strong Distinctions Between In and Out-Groups
Identity Based on Individual Based on Social System
Values Independence and Freedom Tradition and Social Rules/Norms
Work Style Individualistic Team-Oriented
Work Approach Task-Oriented Relationship-Oriented
Business Approach Competitive Cooperative
Learning Knowledge is Transferable Knowledge is Situational
Sales Orientation Hard Sell Soft Sell
View of Change Change over Tradition Tradition over Change
Countries rated on context scale
Fig 3.3 Low to High Context: Switzerland, Germany, Sweden, U.S.A, France, U.K., Italy, Brazil, United Arab Emirates, Japan.
High and Low Context” by JasonSWrench, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0


Space refers to the study of physical space and people. Hall called this the study of proxemics, which focuses on space and distance between people as they interact. Space refers to everything from how close people stand to one another to how people might mark their territory or boundaries in the workplace and in other settings. Stand too close to someone from the United States, which prefers a “safe” physical distance, and you are apt to make them uncomfortable. How close is too close depends on where you are from. Whether consciously or unconsciously, we all establish a comfort zone when interacting with others. Standing distances shrink and expand across cultures. Latins, Spaniards, and Filipinos (whose culture has been influenced by three centuries of Spanish colonization) stand rather close even in business encounters. In cultures that have a low need for territory, people not only tend to stand closer together but also are more willing to share their space—whether it be a workplace, an office, a seat on a train, or even ownership of a business project.

Time: Polychronic versus Monochronic Cultures

Hall identified that time is another important concept greatly influenced by culture. In polychronic cultures—polychronic literally means “many times”—people can do several things at the same time. In monochronic cultures or “one-time” cultures, people tend to do one task at a time.

This isn’t to suggest that people in polychronic cultures are better at multitasking. Rather, people in monochronic cultures, such as Northern Europe and North America, tend to schedule one event at a time. For them, an appointment that starts at 8 a.m. is an appointment that starts at 8 a.m.—or 8:05 at the latest. People are expected to arrive on time, whether for a board meeting or a family picnic. Time is a means of imposing order. Often the meeting has a firm end time as well, and even if the agenda is not finished, it’s not unusual to end the meeting and finish the agenda at another scheduled meeting.

In polychronic cultures, by contrast, time is nice, but people and relationships matter more. Finishing a task may also matter more. If you’ve ever been to Latin America, the Mediterranean, or the Middle East, you know all about living with relaxed timetables. People might attend to three things at once and think nothing of it. Or they may cluster informally, rather than arrange themselves in a queue. In polychronic cultures, it’s not considered an insult to walk into a meeting or a party well past the appointed hour.

In polychronic cultures, people regard work as part of a larger interaction with a community. If an agenda is not complete, people in polychronic cultures are less likely to simply end the meeting and are more likely to continue to finish the business at hand.

Those who prefer monochronic order may find polychronic order frustrating and hard to manage effectively. Those raised with a polychronic sensibility, on the other hand, might resent the “tyranny of the clock” and prefer to be focused on completing the tasks at hand.

Core Principles of International Marketing – Chapter 3.5 by Babu John Mariadoss is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Exploring Relationship Dynamics- Hall’s Low-Context vs High-Context Cultures Table by Maricopa Community College District is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.


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