Time, Context and Space

In Dance of Life (1983), the well-known anthropologist, Edward T. Hall, explains that every culture is affected by the manner in which time, context, and space are handled. It is stunning that his discoveries are not included in most introductory social science texts. He and Mildred Reed Hall further elaborate on these measures of cultural difference in a book that analyzes differences between American, French and German notions of ideal interaction and best business practices, Understanding Cultural Differences (1990). While Hofstede's (1983) measures of individualism and communalism provide a strong departure point for understanding civility differences between cultures, Hall's analysis allows us to further refine our understanding of these differences.

Hall identifies important differences between 'low-context' and 'high-context' cultures based on an analysis of how a culture relates to time, context and place. It is interesting to note that these differences accord somewhat closely with Hofstede's measures. High context societies tend to be very partial to complex communal rituals, while low context societies tend to be more individualistic. Expectedly, the former include richer communications networks than the latter and require deft maneuvering in social and civility practices.

            Hall differentiates between monochronic time and polychronic time, explaining that a considerable amount of bitterness between people of different cultures occurs due to different conceptions of time (1983: 179). Monochronic time is characterized as linear use of time and is understood in terms of quantifiable segments. In monochronic time (M-time), events are planned to occur one at a time; the importance of preventing extraneous events from interrupting a set schedule takes precedence over interpersonal relationships. Efficiency takes on extreme importance and is measured through the 'use' of time. How time is 'spent,' 'saved,' 'wasted' or 'made' reveals the quantitative nature of linear time. Polychronic time (P-time), on the other hand, is characterized by the simultaneous occurrence of many things and by a great involvement with people. People act differently, depending on which conception of time is prevalent in their culture. Hall categorizes these various reactions as follows:

MONOCHRONIC PEOPLE                                     POLYCHRONIC PEOPLE

·do one thing at a time                                    ·do many things at once

·concentrate on the job                                                ·are highly distractible and subject to


·are low-context and need information                        ·are high-context and already have


·are committed to the job                                            ·are committed to people and human


·adhere religiously to plans                                         ·change plans often and easily

·are concerned about not disturbing others;                ·are more concerned with those who

  follow rules of privacy and consideration                  are closely related (family, friends,

                                                                                        close business associates) than  

                                                                                        with privacy

·show great respect for private property; seldom        ·borrow and lend things often and

  borrow or lend                                                               easily

·emphasize promptness                                              ·base promptness on the relationship

·are accustomed to short-term relationships                ·have a strong tendency to build  

                                                                                        lifetime relationships (1990: 14).

            Although these patterns cannot be applied rigidly to all cultures, a given culture will have a tendency to lean more towards one mode than the other. Additionally, ethnic groups within a culture may have predispositions towards one mode even though the ideal of the majority culture is in the opposing mode. Hall categorizes Northern European and American cultures as monochromic and Mediterranean cultures as polychronic. 

            Now, the manner in which time is further correlated to whether a culture is high context (HC) or low context (LC). High and low context refers to the amount of information that a person can manage without feeling that he is being overloaded or not being given all the facts he requires. People from a high context culture often convey information implicitly, and maintain larger networks of personal contacts and sources of information. People from low context cultures tend to verbalize background information to a considerable degree and tend not to be fully informed of what is not within their immediate interest (1976; 1990: 7).

            Hall specifies that a major distinction between HC and LC modes of communication is the degree of interpersonal involvement as well as the amount of information exchanged:

A high context (HC) communication or message is one in which most of the information is already in the person, while very little is in the coded, explicit, transmitted part of the message. A low context (LC) communication is just the opposite: i.e. the mass of the information is vested in the explicit code. Twins who have grown up together can and do communicate more economically (HC) than two lawyers in a courtroom during a trial (LC), a mathematician programming a computer, two politicians drafting legislation, two administrators writing a regulation (1976, cited in 1990: 6).

It would seem that cultures that value complex information networks in families, and with friends and close colleagues, are of the high context type. HC individuals 'do not require, nor do they expect, much in-depth, background information. This is because they keep themselves informed about everything having to do with the people who are important in their lives' (7). According to Hall, America is a low-context cultures while France is a high-context culture. We would add that England is neither, falling into a category which Hal does not use: Moderate Context. We will explain this further in Ch. 11.

Generally, Hall's definition of HC and LC cultures can be summarized according to a series of characteristics or outcomes:

HIGH CONTEXT CULTURE                                   LOW CONTEXT CULTURE

·Much covert and implicit messages                           ·Much overt and explicit messages;

    (Metaphoric; read between the lines)                           (Plain and literal meanings)    

·Internalized Messages                                               ·Plainly Coded Messages

    (Inner focus of control; self-blame)                             (Focus on outer control; blaming of external sources for failure)

·Much nonverbal coding                                             ·Verbalized details

    (Considerable body language and mannerisms)          (More verbal than body language)

·Reserved reactions                                                       ·Reactions on the surface

    (React more inwardly than outwardly)                         (React more outwardly)

·Distinct in-groups and out-groups                              ·Flexible in-groups and out-groups

    (Closely knit groups of affiliation: families,                (Open groups of affiliation…i.e.

    and close colleagues)                                                   PTA, communal fast food outlets)

·Strong bond people                                                     ·Fragile people bonds

(Family and community very important)                   (Family and community less


·High commitment                                                        ·Low commitment

(Relationship is more important than the task;             (Task more important than       

long-term relationships)                                              relationships; short term relations)

·Open and flexible time                                                ·Highly organized time

(Process more important than product)                       (Product more important than



Hall's model of HC and LC cultures coincides in many respects with Hofstede's classifications of individualism and collectivism:

INDIVIDUALISM                                                     COLLECTIVISM

·Individual autonomy                                                  ·Group unity and harmony

·Self-oriented                                                              ·Group-oriented

·Personal goals                                                           ·Group goals

·Unique and independent                                            ·Conforming and interdependent

·Individual privacy                                                      ·Group belongingness

·Nuclear family                                                           ·Extended family

·Individual rewards (equity)                                        ·Equal distribution of reward (equality)

·Competition                                                               ·Cooperation

            Hall further explains that the manner in which time and context are used has a very telling effect on the use of space 'proxemics' (10-12). He defines space as the

'visible boundary…[that]…is surrounded by a series of invisible boundaries that are more difficult to define but are just as real. These other boundaries begin with the individual's personal space and terminate with her or his "territory" (10).

            The delineation of space is not only physical but involves all the senses, including the olfactory and auditory ones. In some cultures, speaking loudly is considered an invasion of personal space (11). Each sphere of space---'personal social space' and 'public social space'---has varying rules regarding the use of body mannerisms as well as the use of familiar forms of address.

            So it would seem that the 'physical distance' one maintains between oneself and another is determined by cultural habituation and is psychologically grounded. And this cultural habituation has a salient influence on the manner in which one uses one's 'sensorium' during one's relations with others. If a person is habituated to keeping his distance then someone who stands too close to him will make him feel that his senses are overloaded and perhaps even disrespected; this may move him to judge the other as being 'too forward' or 'shameless.' Conversely, someone used to standing close to others, might interpret someone who keeps a distance greater than that to which he has been habituated as a lack of interest or a sign of disdain. The sentiments will be registered without conscious understanding of why there is such an immediate visceral reaction.

            The misunderstanding and conflicts that can occur from mismatches in conceptions of context, time and space can create considerable dissonance in civility, understanding and sympathy. As Hall elaborates in his comparisons of German, American and French business cultures (1990), much of the alienation felt between the French and the Americans and the French and the Germans may be connected to the fact that they follow different contextual, time-use and space-delineation standards. Conflict and incomprehension result not only from what is being said and done but from how it is being said and done.

Expectedly, the stability of the above-listed values and dimensions will be greatly determined by the manner in which subjects 'appraise' situations and react to them. Varying appraisals of an identical situation will trigger different emotional responses. There might also be exceptions to the norm due to sudden explosions of anger or an overload of hurt. In individualistic cultures, it would be expected that the appraisal and the actual emotional affect shown in reaction to the appraisal would be closely matched. But that is not the case in all cultures and there are, in fact, substantial differences in affect-expression in various individualistic cultures. Not all cultures assign the same values to the universal emotions that have been located by Western theorists such as Ekman (1972) and Ekman, et al. (1987) who experimented with photos showing the human face experiencing a variety of emotions. While respondents in various countries managed to identity the photographed faces as experiencing emotions such as 'enjoyment, anger, sadness, fear, surprise, and disgust,' their familiarity with which emotions they considered positive or negative varied according to their own cultural habituations (Matsumoto 1992, cited in Smith and Bond, 1998: 75; Schimmack, 1996, cited, 75).

Particular attention, therefore, needs be paid to the manner in which the citizenry of a nation manages its emotions, for there can be considerable variation even between cultures that are considered individualistic and self-referential.

The potential antagonism between 'communal' and 'self-referential' mentalities (at least as understood in Anglo-American society) was observed during the protracted tensions between the late Princess Diana of Britain and the Windsors. A Queen who had reigned for nearly half a century using duty and restraint of emotion as her guiding principles was suddenly confronted with a self-referential person who insisted that the monarchy be 'humanized' and brought down to the level of the people. Elizabeth II may have been surprised (and perhaps even embarrassed) by the claims of the Princess. A monarchy was supposed to act as an organic reminder of duty, harmony, restraint and honor. Its function was not to resemble the people but to give the people some stable model to emulate, one that stood above the contingency of emotion and the vicissitudes of change. The emotional restraint adopted by the Queen in favor of duty required some distancing between her and her people. The distancing was not necessarily an act of self-aggrandizement but one of presenting a grave countenance to symbolize a collective commitment to British institutions.

This well-fulfilled role was referred to by her son, Charles, Prince of Wales, during a short speech delivered at the end of the Jubilee celebrations of 2002. The Prince remarked that the Queen had steadfastly held to her duty and been a reminder of 'continuity' in an era of 'perilous change' (BBC-TV, June 2, 2002). Princess Diana, however, had been an agent of change, a considerably self-referential woman who considered emotional interaction, familiarity, informality, and open mutual recognition as important as the preservation of the protocols of a long-standing British institution. She was the outcome of an individualistic therapeutic mentality. Graham Turner, a British court journalist and author of Elizabeth: The Woman and the Queen (2002), has stated that a major difficulty between the Princess and the Queen was that the princess desired to be 'recognized' by the Queen for her efforts whereas the Queen may have not understood why the performance of duty, being that it was a duty, would need extraordinary recognition (Interviewed on ITV-TV, June 3, 2002).