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Beyond Culture

by Edward T. Hall

ISBN – 0-385-12474-0

–Review by Doug Balzer

Understanding the mosaic of humanity is one of life’s quests, at least for me. Who doesn’t desire to know why, who, what and how we are human beings? As a minister, professor, and semiotician I find that anthropology is at the center of everything I do. Therefore, anthropology is an additional area of my studies. Edward Twitchell Hall, Jr is, in my opinion, one of the greatest persons to delve into the study of anthropology and cross-cultural research. If you are not familiar with him, it is my pleasure to introduce him and his work to you through this book review.

Recently, I found the need to reach into the past for help to propel my thinking forward into the future. Hall came to mind as I recalled his work. Hall’s work may be crucial in helping us deal with the issues of cultural change we see all around us.

In his book Beyond Culture, Hall explores how people across cultures display such diverse patterns of behavior, from resolving conflict to perceiving the passage of time. Hall has an ability to help us by bringing out the contrasts among cultures, showing us why we need to look beyond our culture to better understand other people.

In my opinion, Hall was a futurist in his thinking. As we look at this book, we find Hall was able to see the issues we are dealing with due to globalization, the mass migrations and displacement of people. Globalization has removed barriers so that today it is normal for people from Asia, America, Europe, the Middle East, and Australia to all living in a single neighborhood. Also, he explains why we see neighborhoods becoming homogeneous due to definitive cultural differences that inhibit heterogenous or mixed cultural neighborhood.

Humanity has made great strides as a global society. Our technology has allowed us to overcome the physical barriers of our world making it easier to connect with one another, as well as to be in conflict with each other.

What I found in reviewing Hall’s Beyond Culture is no matter how many physical and technological barriers we have overcome, culture still is the great divider, determining how we think and act in groups. Culture is still the great hurdle we have to leap. The way cultures come into conflict is when a normal behavior for one group is misunderstood by another. This almost always leads to confusion, or worse, violence between the cultures.

Still, there is hope and Hall in his book leads the way. He leads the way by helping us to recognize the practices that blind us, as well as the transcendent bad habits we all bring to the table. He challenges us to open our minds to other cultural norms and anomies.

In a nutshell, Hall takes us on a quest. The human quest of growing beyond ourselves. He demonstrates that our actions and thoughts are shaped by the culture in which we grew up. Yes, it sounds oversimplistic, but he explains that from birth, we begin to learn from the people around us. In this way, a person’s actions are changeable, as they suit the cultural context in which the person exists. Over time, these learned actions develop and become ingrained habits. Eventually, these habits become second nature, almost automatic. By the time we’ve reached adulthood, these learned actions have become internalized, unconscious behaviors, specific to the cultural context in which we were raised.

Culture’s carry different ways of greeting each other, solving conflicts, ways of showing gratitude, courtship, and language. Some researchers have argued that the language a group speaks has a big effect on the way a group thinks, as well as the way they perceive time.

Hall demonstrates that we perform learned cultural rituals on a daily basis, often without even realizing it. Small talk is a great example of a cultural pattern. When you chat with an acquaintance at a gathering, you perform actions in a familiar and predictable sequence such a cultural pattern is also called a ritual. We perform rituals daily, whether working, buying groceries, even dating.

Cultures have different ways of communicating, and each has its good, bad and ugly aspects. Different cultures have different ways of communicating. Some communicate explicitly while others communicate implicitly. Countries such as Germany, Switzerland, the countries of Scandinavia and (although to a lesser extent) the United States communicate explicitly. In the context of these cultures, plans are typically set clearly and plainly, using words.

The downside is that a message must contain all the necessary information so there can be communication at all. This can slow things down, as messages are complex and long.

Implicit communication, in contrast, is faster at the moment but much slower to change overall. Physical gestures, in particular, rely on historical tradition for meaning. Gestures can’t take on new meanings quickly, but spoken language can.

If an implicit culture is stable for a long time, people become more able to efficiently communicate, often through developing implicit signs of speeding things up. But if a culture is changing rapidly, communication remains explicit, as it allows for more flexible communication.

Cultural differences shape the way you walk, and the way you perceive time. Yes, you read it here, even the way you walk down the street is influenced by your cultural background! Not only do people from different cultures talk differently; they move differently, too. Each culture comes with specific ways of sitting, standing, dancing and moving around.

Culture doesn’t just affect how we talk or move our bodies. Cultural practices affect the way we think, too. You might be surprised to find out that people even hold a different perception of time depending on cultural background.

People view time as a straight line, moving forward into the future in Europe and North America. Such a view leads people to schedule work hours strictly, setting deadlines for specific tasks. In contrast, people from the Middle East and Latin America tend to focus on the present moment. They often prioritize tasks on the fly, based on what is most pressing at that moment. For people in these cultures, time is flexible, and deadlines are seldom hard or fast.

Differences in the perception of time can certainly explain many cultural differences.

You see the world through the lens of your culture, which can lead to a lot of misunderstanding. We view the world through our unique cultural glasses. We expect other people to act and think the way we do. It’s no surprise then that there are many misunderstandings between cultures. Actions deemed “appropriate” are in particular a sensitive area between cultures. We might be startled or even offended by the actions of a person from another culture, especially when the gesture clashes or conflicts with what you see as correct or acceptable.

It can also be hard to understand the way institutions work in different cultures. Styles and methods of education vary considerably from culture to culture, for example. In Western cultures, children are trained to get ready for the job market. Thus schooling is competitive and task-driven. In contrast, the children of Pueblo Native American descent are educated by peers and role models, spending time with them and absorbing their knowledge. This system is informal, and children play more than study before their working lives begin. Pueblo Native Americans prefer this method, feeling that the Western system is unfair to children and therefore damaging to society.

It takes a lot of work to understand another culture, but it’s worth it. It’s more important than ever that we learn to understand the way culture affects people’s behavior. Especially with our world is becoming more connected, this means you are more likely to meet or work with someone from a culture different from your own. Yet doing so is not as easy as you might think. Understanding other cultures is difficult because it requires knowledge of a culture’s particular historical and social context.

So, the best way to discover cultures beyond your own is simple: interact with people whose cultural backgrounds differ from your own. Don’t study them from afar, instead learn directly from them. Here is the secret to lessening misunderstanding.

The message of this book is the way we talk and walk to how we resolve conflicts and view the world; our cultural backgrounds determine how we behave. By interacting with people from different cultures, we’re better able to recognize and understand contrasting behaviors and communicate with individuals of all backgrounds.