Edward T. Hall: Culture Below the Radar

Edward T. Hall: Culture Below the Radar

John Zada | October 4, 2023

During periods of my adult life I’ve spent multiple sojourns living and working in the Middle East. Though I was raised at home in an Arab culture, I was born and grew up in the West, and thus have always considered myself more ‘Western’ than ‘Eastern.’ That’s why when I relocated to the Arab World for the first time, the culture shock I experienced was nearly as deep and unrelenting to me as to the non-Arab foreigners in my midst. The dense crowding, noise, pollution, relative poverty, differing social codes, politics, and pace of life hit you square in the face upon arrival and took adjusting to—sometimes repeatedly, albeit less so, as one comes and goes from the region over time.

Yet as overwhelming as those environmental and cultural factors were, I noticed over time that it was the smaller things, the much more subtle differences, that really made the most impression on me.

One thing I found odd upon my arrival in Cairo, and then later again during sojourns in Dubai and Beirut, was the strange (to me) habits of office culture among some company managers and businessmen. When you made an appointment to meet someone at their office, you sometimes did not arrive to a sacrosanct one-on-one meeting in which you were granted a private audience. Instead you stepped into a buzzing office environment in which the host would be holding court with others. It was like being the second or third guest on a late-night talk-show: you had to share the limelight with the other visitors at the periphery of the host’s desk. Your meeting was not always private.

Moreover, business was conducted with everyone simultaneously, in improvised piecemeal, and in no logical turns. But the juggling act didn’t end there. It wasn’t unusual for your host to also be fielding phone calls from his clients and associates. All office conversation would be put on hold to take calls from his wife on his mobile, to delegate tasks to his staff, and maybe greet a friend or acquaintance who showed up for a visit unannounced and who would be invited to sit with the delegation.

Office meetings were not invariably like this—and less so over the decades (this was 20 years ago, but these habits still exists in certain parts of the Middle East today). But often enough they were; and a certain efficiency stemming from uninterrupted focus and privacy naturally suffered.

It was a mystery to me as to why such practices existed until someone directed me to a book entitled The Silent Language—a work that examines how different cultures perceive space and time and how that affects their non-verbal communications and behaviour.

The author, an American cultural anthropologist named Edward T. Hall argued, among other things, that world cultures could be more or less divided between two approaches when it comes to how they order events in time. Western cultures, he wrote, especially in Northern Europe and North America, tend to handle tasks and events sequentially, linearly and individually. He termed those cultures “monochronic.” Others, like in the Middle East, South Asia, Latin America, and the Mediterranean, preferred to approach functions and events simultaneously. Hall called those cultures “polychronic.” 

The office phenomena I experienced fell into the latter “polychronic” category. But interestingly, the polychronic designation also explained other subtle discrepancies of culture that I experienced while living in the Middle East. For instance, lineups and queues in the more traditional quarters of the region were seldom single-file affairs as in the West, but rather more like anarchical mobs of humanity all vying simultaneously for the attention of the vendor. Social gatherings, especially among younger people, I noticed, tended to be more fluid and inclusive group affairs, in which participants’ friends, and even friends-of-friends could easily and spontaneously join. In the West, by comparison, social life, I felt, tended to be more rigid, appointment-like in formality, and fixed in terms of its participants.

Edward T. Hall’s contribution to the field of cultural anthropology was unique among his peers. Whereas many of his colleagues in ethnography studied what we would define today as the obvious pillars of culture: music, dance, language, food, clothing, worship, rites etc., Hall was fascinated with intangibles. He argued that some of the most important aspects of culture were those that were invisible to its holders, lying below conscious awareness, like the unseen mass of an iceberg below water. Hall devoted his life to revealing these differing aspects of “hidden,” “implicit” or “unconscious” culture as he called them. The most notable and recurring forms were our differing perceptions of space and time, our bodily movements and rhythms, nonverbal signalling, environmental impacts on perception, and implicit and explicit communication habits.

The book cover to Edward T. Hall's, 'Beyond Culture'

“There is not one aspect of human life that is not touched and altered by culture,” Hall writes in his magnum opus, Beyond Culture. “This means personality, how people express themselves (including shows of emotion), the way they think, how they move, how problems are solved, how their cities are planned and laid out, how their transportation systems function and are organized, as well as how economic and government systems are put together and function. However… it is frequently the most obvious and taken for granted and therefore the least studied aspects of culture that influence behaviour in the deepest and most subtle ways.”

Hall was turned-on to this hidden world of culture, after spending several years in the 1930s working as a construction foreman among the pueblo-dwelling Navajo and Hopi peoples in the Southwestern United States. This period as a young man helped develop his ideas, which eventually became his life’s work. His deeply humanistic memoir about this period, West of the Thirties, recounts his observations of the differences in logic, behaviour, and communication between these indigenous groups and the white European American community of which he was part.

Though Edward T. Hall became the first to explicitly articulate this notion that culture can manifest and fly below the radar of human awareness, there are scores of other books and authors that explore similar cross-cultural themes. 

The Forest People, by Colin Turnbull, chronicles the author’s three years living among the BaMbuti peoples in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, in which he contrasts the nuances in their way of life with his own. In Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches author Marvin Harris explains the seemingly inexplicable idiosyncrasies of numerous cultures around the world by way of local social and economic imperatives and conditions that have shaped them. And the Afghan writer Idries Shah’s somewhat tongue-in-cheek trilogy of works, Darkest EnglandThe Natives Are Restless, and The Englishman’s Handbook, examines the strange customs and behaviours of the exotic tribe known to him as The English—thereby turning on its head the historical propensity for Westerners to Eurocentrically observe and judge foreign cultures.

Why is all of this important? 

Edward T. Hall argued that at a base level, harmony in intercultural relations and the avoidance of conflict depend on an understanding of our hidden cultures that influence one another. 

“In any encounter, particularly intercultural or interethnic, the correct reading of the other person’s verbal and non-verbal behaviour is basic to transactions at all levels,” he writes.

This goes beyond more practical matters, like how Americans can better do business with the French, Germans, or Japanese—all of which Hall wrote about in other books. Hall is more concerned here with existential challenges. The degree to which the West, for instance, can grasp the hidden cultural underpinnings of Chinese and Russian culture, and vice versa, for instance, the more likely we are to avert the phases of direct violence between great powers that loom over us and can stifle, or end, life on the planet.

Ultimately though, all of this comes back to ourselves, to self-knowledge, and to what the late brain scientist Robert Ornstein called “conscious evolution”—a willful effort at greater awareness that is now a survival imperative of the human race. Where Hall’s work is concerned, there can be no successful conscious evolution without our bringing into awareness the drivers of our action that lie below awareness. And that includes what he terms “hidden culture.”

Edward T. Hall’s supreme assertion in Beyond Culture, his most indelible legacy even, is that by deliberately exposing ourselves to the implicit culture of others, we see our own where it is otherwise invisible, and thus inconceivable. This is especially important at a time when our own culture has possibly mutated, overreached, and/or grown dangerously out of phase with our humanness.

“In order to avoid mass insanity, people must learn to transcend and adapt their culture to the times and to their biological organisms,” Hall writes in Beyond Culture. “To accomplish this task, since introspection tells you nothing, man needs the experience of other cultures. To survive, all cultures need each other.”  


John Zada is a writer and journalist based in Toronto, Canada. He is the author of the books, In the Valleys of the Noble Beyond and Veils of Distortion.