THE GRIP OF CULTURE: EDWARD T. HALL
Edward T. Hall is an anthropologist and one of the founders of intercultural communication study. His works have played a key role in describing how people’s view of the world and behavior are largely determined by a complex grid of unconscious cultural patterns. In The Silent Language (1959) Hall outlined a broad theory of culture and described how its rules control people’s lives. In The Hidden Dimension (1966) he introduced proxemics, the study of our culturally determined perception and use of space. In Beyond Culture (1976) he progressed further towards an integral vision of culture.
THE SILENT LANGUAGE
People communicate through a whole range of behavior that is unexamined, taken for granted. This process takes place outside conscious awareness and in juxtaposition to words. What people do is frequently more important than what they say. Nonetheless, people of European heritage live in a “word world” and tend not to perceive the relevance of communication through the language of behavior. Even though language molds thinking, other cultural systems have a pervasive effect on how the world is perceived, how the self is experienced, and how life itself is organized. Culture may be defined as “the way of life of a people, the sum of their learned behavior patterns, attitudes and material things.” Culture controls behavior in deep and persisting ways, many of which are outside awareness and therefore beyond conscious control of the individual. Hall attempts to bring those patterns to awareness. He develops a method for the analysis of culture, through defining the basic units of culture, its building blocks or “isolates,” and then tying these isolates into a biological base so they can be compared among cultures, moving up to build a unified theory of culture. The Silent Language outlines a theory of culture and a theory of how culture came into being. Its key message is that we must learn to understand the out-of-awareness aspects of communication, our cultural unconscious. The book’s ultimate purpose is to “reveal the broad extent to which culture controls our lives.” Culture hides more than it reveals and it hides most effectively from its own participants. The real challenge is not to understand foreign cultures but to understand one’s own, to make what we take for granted stand out in perspective. This can be achieved mainly through exposing oneself to foreign ways, through the shock of contrast and difference. Culture is not one thing, but many. Hall identifies ten primary kinds of human activity he labels Primary Message Systems. Each is rooted in biology, can be examined by itself, and gears into the overall network of culture: 1) Interaction, 2) Association, 3) Subsistence, 4) Bisexuality (cultural differentiation between men and women; concepts of masculinity and femininity tend to be regarded as “human nature,” but vary widely from one culture to the next), 5) Territoriality, 6) Temporality, 7) Learning and Acquisition (culture is shared behavior; most culture is acquired and therefore cannot be taught; language is first acquired, then taught; learning, a key adaptive mechanism, came into its own when it could be extended in time and space by means of language; people reared in different cultures acquire culture in a culturally specific way, they learn how to learn differently; in the process of learning they acquire a set of tacit conditions
and assumptions in which learning is imbedded), 8) Play, 9) Defense, and 10) Exploitation (use of materials, development of physical extensions to the body to meet environmental conditions). Culture is a complex series of interrelated activities, with roots buried in the past, in infra-culture, behavior that preceded culture but later became elaborated by humans into culture.
According to Hall’s theory, culture operates on three levels: formal, informal, and technical. While one of these modes of behavior dominates, all three...
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