BookMarks - June 2020

book review bookmarks june 2020 May 15, 2020

We have a guest editor for Bookmarks this month. It is SIETAR USA member David Sanford. He has taken on a classic in the intercultural field: The Silent Language.

The Silent Language
By Edward T. Hall
Fawcett Publications, Inc,
Greenwich, CT, 1959, 192 pages

Reviewed by David C Sanford

Just about the time the cross-cultural field was being formally recognized and accepted, I found myself at a used bookshop and came across a book by the name of “The Silent Language,” by Edward T. Hall. It is a 75 Cent paperback copy published in 1959. I still have this copy with its yellowing, brittle pages. 

As the title implies, this book is about language, actually the non-verbal gestures and actions which are at the core of our human interactions and communication.  Because of his appreciation for this dynamic and his work at the time with the selection and training of Americans to work in what he called “foreign” countries, Hall was motivated to write this book in order to explore the difficulties in intercultural communication through examining the significance of what people do rather than what they say. To this end he offers up the importance of observing non-verbal actions and gestures which he labels as the hidden language, a key to understanding our cultural differences. In many ways this book was and remains one of the first explorations into identifying the field of cross-cultural communication. For this reason, I believe it is a classic in the field.

What caught my attention in rereading it this time is the way in which he methodically examines what culture means by weaving in his personal questions, stories and conclusions, and those of several social scientists of the day. I am particularly struck by the way in which he addresses U.S. Americans and our ignorance of other cultures, and the need for us to get on board and not only be curious about different cultures but get over our ethnocentricity to understand not only “foreign” cultures but more importantly understand our own. One of the most iconic phrases of the intercultural field came from this book, “…Culture hides much than it reveals, and strangely enough what it hides, it hides most effectively from its own participants…”

 From the perspective of an academic and field experience as an anthropologist, Hall discusses his opinions and conclusions as he weaves U.S. Americans into the main theme to understand culture through the lens of non-verbal communication. Among the main groundbreaking ideas he presents, the following are particularly noteworthy:

  1. Culture is a form of communication. “Communication is culture and culture is communication.”
  2. The power of non-verbal communication with every gesture and action significantly influences how we perceive others and view ourselves as cultural beings. It is that which is not spoken, the “silent language’ which plays a key role in our human relationships.
  3. Humans operate on three different levels which Hall (and Trager, a fellow academic) presents as the tripartite theory.  To illustrate this he points out for example how Americans talk about and handle time. There is the “formal” literal time as in what a watch says. There is the “informal” situational reference as in “later” or “in a minute.” And the “technical,” which measures increments of precision.   Each is present in any situation, but one will typically dominate at any given moment in time. These moments are constantly shifting which can then present several  opportunities to study how change works for different people, particularly as they encounter those from a different cultural perspective than their own.  It is within this discussion that he  introduces us to the concept of “monochronic,” a term we take for granted these days 
  4. Space or territoriality: an animal’s instinctive defense of his habitat, den is compared to how we are defensive of our car, desk, yard, or how we demarcate the literal physical boundary, the bubble between us and others. He applies the tripartite theory to discuss this concept.
  5. Culture or communication is concerned with messages, and these have three components: sets, isolates and patterns. In this case messages can be broken down into sets (words), isolates (sounds), and patterns (grammar or syntax).  

Essentially, what Hall has accomplished in the writing of this book, along with its successive editions over the past 60 years, is to instill not only an interest in the study of culture, but also the passion to pursue a career in the field of cross-cultural communication, training, consultation or coaching. Every interculturalist’s personal library, yes full of good old paperback or hardcover books, should include this classic work which remains ground breaking and to this day presents the aspiring interculturalist with a foundation for understanding our field, and a window into our historical beginnings.