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Edward T. Hall: The Silent Language
(Anchor: 1990)


The Silent Language is a translation, not from one language to another, but from a series of complex, nonverbal, contexting communications into words. The title summarizes not only the content of the book, but one of the great paradoxes of culture. It isn’t just that people ‘talk’ to one another without the use of words, but that there is an entire universe of behavior that is unexplored, unexamined, and very much taken for granted. It functions outside conscious awareness and in juxtaposition to words. [We]...live in a ‘word world’ which we think is real, but just because we talk doesn’t mean the rest of what we communicate with our behavior is not equally important. While there can be no doubt that language molds thinking in particularly subtle ways, mankind must eventually come to grips with the reality of other cultural systems, and the pervasive effect these other systems exert on how the world is perceived, how the self is experienced, and how life itself is organized.... The link between language and gestures is much closer than between language and the other cultural systems herein described - time and space, for example. A gesture and a word may be interchangeable, but this is not true for time and space. Space...not only communicates in the most basic sense, but it also organizes virtually everything in life. It is easier to see how space can organize activities and institutions than it is to recognize the subtle manner in which language arranges the furniture of the mind. What is most difficult to accept is the fact that our own cultural patterns are literally unique, and therefore they are not universal...[as very few are] conscious of the elaborate patterning of behavior which prescribes the handling of time, spacial relationships, attitudes to work, play and learning.”
(Hall, pp.vii-x)

Cultural anthropology has, for all its successes in delineating different cultures, tended mainly in counterproductive directions of late - eschewing the vital project of re-educating common sense in favour of relativistic theorizing, denying the crucial link w/biology, and otherwise trending along w/the excesses of postmodernism. Unfortunately, what has tended to get lost in this process are a clear view of its subject matter - culture - and the necessary ties to its sister disciplines (physical, economic and evolutionary anthropology, say...as well as developmental psychology, behavioral biology, history, and so forth) which are critical in keeping intellectual traditions on the rails, so to speak. This is a real pity, for anthropological thought must be a key component in any humanistic enquiry worthy of the name...but it is also why I have chosen here a work first published in 1959, yet still (to my mind) the most useful anthropological approach to culture available to the rest of us...


“Culture...is a mold in which we are all cast, and it controls our daily lives in many unsuspected ways. In my discussion of culture, I will be describing that part of human behavior which we take for granted - the part we don’t think about, since we assume it is universal or regard it as idiosyncratic. Culture hides more than it reveals, and strangely enough what it hides, it hides most effectively from its participants. Years of study have convinced me that the real job is not to understand foreign culture, but to understand our own. I am also convinced that all that one ever gets from studying foreign culture is a token understanding. The ultimate reason for such study is to learn more about how one’s own system works...through the shock of contrast and difference.”
(Hall, pp.29-30)

Hall’s earlier work - of which this is the summary & exemplar - was centred upon the full range of problems which beset inter-cultural communications...which is why his work is both so clearly grounded and practical, and why his theorizing covers the full range of culture when conceived of as communication. And, as a scholar deeply distrustful of the excesses of the “linguistic turn” in the academic Humanities, it was both surprising and delightful for me to discover in Hall a cultural anthropologist w/a deeply pragmatic (and individual) take on same, whose key linguistic influence was not the idealist/formalist tradition of Saussure, but the empirical/analytic work of descriptive linguists such as Edward Sapir - and whose central concern was properly contextualizing language, rather than simply assuming it was totally dominant...

The range of strong parallels I find between Hall’s theories and other scholars already central to this “New Humanities” project is extremely wide...ranging from Mikhail Bakhtin in language/cultural theory generally, to Kieran Egan & Merlin Donald in psychology, and Henry Plotkin in evolutionary epistemology...albeit these, even combined, are no substitute for Hall. For what we all too easily forget is that real theoretical pluralism means that our basic concepts/mindsets should be expected to differ (albeit to also be congruent) depending upon the exact question asked, and the disciplines required to be drawn upon to put together an adequate answer. And, in supplying us w/a cultural anthropological perspective so clearly consilient w/the rest of this project, Hall has also further reinforced it as a whole...given that consilience - as Whewell conceived it - is a genuinely strong test of any hypothesis or explanatory framework.

What’s more, Hall makes very real sense on a startling variety of subjects...


“Psychologists of late have been preoccupied with learning theory...[but] what complicates matters, however, is that people reared in different cultures learn to learn differently, and go about the process of acquiring culture in their own way. Some do so by memory and rote, without reference to ‘logic’ as we think of it, while some learn by demonstration but without the teacher requiring the student to do anything himself while ‘learning.’ Some cultures, like the American, stress doing as a principle of learning, while others have very little of the pragmatic. The Japanese even guide the hand of the pupil, while our teachers usually aren’t permitted to touch the other person. Education and educational systems are about as laden with emotion and as characteristic of a given culture as its language...[and] the fact is...that once people have learned to learn in a given way, it is extremely hard for them to learn in any other way. This is because, in the process of learning, they have acquired a long set of tacit conditions and assumptions in which learning is embedded.”
(Hall, p.47)

Despite The Silent Language’s brevity - and straightforward style - there is far more packed into this book than can be adequately treated here. So, his insightful chapters on cultural time and space, for example - the key concerns of his later work - will have to be passed over, since I want to concentrate on his overall analysis of culture, which I consider the most valuable part of his work. Hall sees all culture as expressly growing out of pre-human capabilities in a whole variety of areas - albeit he certainly does not see this as any simple process. Culture, in consequence, is not one thing, but many...and there are at least ten (originally biological) bases for culture, which he calls the Primary Message Systems:

1/Interaction
2/Association
3/Subsistence
4/Bisexuality
5/Territoriality
6/Temporality
7/Learning
8/Play
9/Defense
10/Exploitation (of materials)

Now, whilst I find this kind of typology interesting, I’m (so far) not fully convinced by this scheme - even though I can see how it is a useful way of carving up the cultural sphere for the purposes of analysis - because I’m not as sure as Hall that this division is the phylogenetic one (albeit that is clearly the best direction for evolutionary epistemology to take). What I am definitely convinced by, however, is the insight underlying what he sees as the three levels we characteristically operate upon: based upon our characteristic modes of learning/understanding...


“Much has been written about the implicit assumptions of various cultures, including our own. This approach is a good one, and has been responsible for a number of  valuable insights. However...like other abstractions about culture, this one leaves us feeling ‘Where do we go from here?’...I would like to propose here a theory which suggests that culture has three levels...the formal, informal, and technical, familiar terms but with new and expanded meanings. [George L.] Trager and I arrived at this tripartite theory as a result of some rather detailed observations as to the way in which Americans use, talk about, and handle time. Our observations revealed that there were actually three kinds of time: formal time, which everyone knows about and takes for granted and which is well worked into daily life; informal time, which has to do with situational or imprecise references like ‘awhile,’ ‘later,’ ‘in a minute,’ and so on; technical time, an entirely different system used by scientists and technicians, in which even the terminology may be be unfamiliar to the nonspecialist. Having observed how these time systems are used and learned, and knowing something of their history, we were able to demonstrate that in other areas of life we are also bound by the formal, informal, technical paradigm. In other words, we discovered that people have not two but three modes of behavior.”
(Hall, pp.61-3)

“In light of our previous hypothesis that all cultural behavior is biologically based, it might be assumed that the formal, informal, and technical aspects of life are also rooted in man’s physiological organism. Unfortunately...at present the most we can say is that one would expect to find that these three types of behavior spring from three different parts of the nervous system. This assumption can be inferred from a characteristic of behavior which everyone has experienced: it is extremely difficult to practice more than one element of the formal, informal, technical triad at the same time without paralyzing results.... A friend of mine, a neuropsychiatrist, once pointed out that it was enough to draw attention to one level of activity while a person was operating on another to stop all coherent thought. He used the example of a mother who is mad at her son and is berating him. The boy looks up and says, ‘Gee...your mouth moves funny when you’re mad.’ The mother is apt to become speechless.”
(Hall, pp.65-6)

“One more generalization that should be kept in mind about formal, informal, and technical integrations is that while one will dominate, all three are present in any given situation.... Everyone has his or her own style (the informal), but the informal has the formal as a base...[and] the technical, of course, very quickly develops its own new formal systems. Science, for example, which we think of as being the very essence of the technical, actually has built up within it a large number of formal systems that no one questions.... As a matter of fact, a good deal of what goes under the heading of science would more appropriately be classed as a new formal system which is very rapidly displacing or altering our older formal systems, centered in folk beliefs and religion.”
(Hall, p.66)

Whilst these three approaches clearly make sense from the start, it is only when Hall expands upon their characteristics - and illustrates them w/a wealth of examples - that you can really begin to see just how useful such an approach can be in analyzing our different sorts of cultural knowledges...and how cultures can so easily (and puzzlingly) differ given these three ways of learning about/dealing with our main concerns:


“Formal activities are taught by precept and admonition...[and] there is no question in the mind of the speaker about where he/she stands, and where every other adult stands.... The burden of this communication is that no other form is conceivably acceptable. Formal patterns are almost always learned when a mistake is made and someone corrects it. Technical learning also begins with mistakes and corrections, but it is done in a different tone of voice, and the student is offered reasons for the correction. An error made by many parents and teachers these days is to try to explain formal behavior in the same way one goes about outlining the reasons for technical behavior. This is a signal to the child that there is an alternative, that one form is as good as another! A great mistake. The details of formal learning are binary, of a yes-no, right-wrong character. You either break a taboo or you don’t, you steal your neighbor’s coconut or you don’t, you say ‘boyses’ for boys or you don’t. A hundred little details add up, until they amount to a formal system which nobody questions.... Formal awareness is an approach to life that asks, with surprise: ‘Is there any other way?’”
(Hall, pp.67-71)

“Informal learning is of an entirely different character from either the technical or the formal. The principal agent is a model used for imitation. Whole clusters of related activities are learned at a time, in many cases without the knowledge that they are being learned at all, or that there are patterns or rules governing them. A child may be puzzled about something and ask her or his mother for the rules. ‘You’ll find out about that later, dear,’ or ‘Look around you and see what people are doing; use your eyes!’ ...The child is treated to this kind of remark so often that he/she automatically translates it as; ‘Don’t ask questions, look around and see what people do.’...Entire systems of behavior, made up of hundreds of thousands of details, are passed from generation to generation, and nobody can give the rules for what is happening [and] only when these rules are broken do we realize they exist.... In informal activity, the absence of awareness permits a high degree of patterning...[as it is] made up of activities or mannerisms which we once learned, but which are so much a part of our everyday life that they are done automatically. They are, in fact, often blocked when cerebration takes place. All this has been known in one way or another for a long time, but no one has understood the degree to which informal activities permeate life.”
(Hall, pp.68-72)

“Technical learning, in its pure form, is close to being a one-way street. It is usually transmitted in explicit terms from the teacher to the student, either orally or in writing. Often it is preceded by logical analysis and proceeds in coherent outline form...[and] unlike informal learning, it depends less on the aptitude of the student and the selection of adequate models, but more on the intelligence with which the material is analyzed and presented.... To recapitulate briefly: the formal is a two-way process...[and] tends to be suffused with emotion. Informal learning is largely a matter of the learner picking others as models. Sometimes this is done deliberately, but most commonly it occurs out-of-awareness [and] in most cases, the model does not take part in this process except as an object of imitation. Technical learning moves in the other direction...[and] if the analysis is sufficiently clear and thorough, the teacher doesn’t even have to be there.... In real life, one finds a little of all three in almost any learning situation. One type, however, will always dominate.”
(Hall, pp.69-71)

And the analysis only becomes more cogent when Hall undertakes to explore the affective dimensions of these approaches...


“Affect is a technical term, used by psychologists to describe feelings, as distinct from thought. The nontechnical reader may prefer to substitute ‘emotion’ or ‘feeling’ whenever the term ‘affect’ is used. Whenever violations of formal norms occur, they are accompanied by a tide of emotion. One can get an idea of how people feel about formal systems by thinking of a person who has been supported all his or her life by a very strong prop. Remove the prop, and you shake the foundations of life. Deep emotions are associated with the formal in almost every instance...[and,] in time, as formal systems become firmer, they become so identified with the process of nature itself that alternative ways of behavior are thought of as unnatural - if not impossible. Yet this rigidity has its advantages [as] people who live and die in formal cultures tend to take a more relaxed view of life than the rest of us, because the boundaries of behavior are so clearly marked.”
(Hall, pp.73-4)

“There is little or no affect attached to informal behavior, as long as things are going along nicely according to the unwritten or unstated rules. Anxiety, however, follows quickly when this tacit etiquette is breached...[but] what happens next depends on the alternatives provided by the culture for handling anxiety. Ours include withdrawal and anger [but] in Japan, men giggle or laugh nervously [and] the leeway for emotional response in the informal is much less than one might expect. The point is that the emotions associated with deviation from informal norms are themselves acquired informally, and are limited by the fact that people do not realize that their response is learned, or that there is any other way to respond. A comparable situation exists in language: In English, one of the most common ways of indicating that one is asking a question is by ending with a rising inflection. That there might be other inflections which achieve the same purpose simply does not occur to one. In this sort of thing, it seems ‘natural’ that the repertoire would be somewhat limited.”
(Hall, pp.74-5)

“The technical is characterized by a suppression of feelings, since they tend to interfere...[and,] in general, the technical person becomes emotionally involved only when the technical rules of the game are not followed. Once a technical foundation is laid down, it seems to be important to adhere to it. [And,] because it is so explicit, the technical in our society has become associated with authority and law and other structures which embody uncompromising attitudes.... [However,] the whole matter of deviation from norms bristles with complexity. For example, children never know where the line is until they step across it. The manner in which they are reprimanded provides the glue that holds together these systems in later life...[and] there are gross differences in regard to norms from one culture to another. [Moreover,] within the confines of a diverse culture such as our own, what is a formal matter at one time may become informal later, what is viewed technically by one group may be informal within the next.”
(Hall, pp.75-6)

Furthermore, Hall also uses these modes in a theory of cultural change which offers real insight into the patterns we see over time. And, although I'd argue this pattern is hardly invariant, I would also see it as covering the vast majority of the cultural change we see around us all the time...albeit, I’d also like to see a comparable and coherent approach to those exceptional changes which don’t seem fit this pattern - as I suspect that they may well differ less than we might at first guess.

Still, one (short) book can only do so much, after all...


“To this point, we have been looking at the formal-informal-technical triad as a fixed and static system. In actuality, these states are constantly fluid, shifting one into the other - formal activity tends to become informal, informal tends toward the technical, and very often the technical will take on the trappings of a new formal system.... It is of more than academic interest, then, to see how the the formal, informal, and technical exist in a relationship of continuous change.... Taken at any given point, culture seems to be made up of formal behavior patterns that constitute a core, around which there are certain informal adaptations. The core is also supported by a series of technical props...[but] the differing rate at which formal and technical systems change, however, can lead to a good deal of personal anxiety...[while] often technical systems turn into formal ones so quickly that people react to them as though they were still technical. Much of the worshipping at the shrine of scientific methodology in the social sciences these days smacks more of a formal system than a technical one. In these times, it seems to be remarkably easy for scientists to turn into priests. Though unlike the ordained priest who knows he is a priest, and receives the backing of a formal organization, the ritualistic scientist is engaged in a disconcerting masquerade. A good example of this transition is what has happened to the psychoanalytic disciples of Freud...[but] it is time, however, that we began to realize that much of what passes for science today may have been scientific yesterday, but can no longer qualify because it does not make any additional meaningful statements about anything. It blindly adheres to procedures as a church adheres to its ritual...[and while] all scientific statements are technical...not all technical statements are scientific
(Hall, pp.87-93)

“In summary, change is a complex, circular process. It proceeds from formal to informal to technical to new formal, with the emphasis shifting rather rapidly at certain junctures. The rapid shifts are explained by the fact that people cannot tolerate existing in two systems at the same time; they have to approach life at any given moment from one of these three levels of integration, but not more than one. [And] it is doubtful that anyone really changes culture, in the sense that this term is ordinarily used. What happens is that small, informal adaptations are continually being made in the day-to-day process of living. Some of them work better than others. These adaptations eventually become technicalized as improvements, and the improvements accumulate imperceptibly until they are suddenly acclaimed as ‘breakthroughs.’...This is because the out-of-awareness nature of the informal is where all changes start. To paraphrase Dobzhansky, life is due to the dynamic interaction of living substance with itself, and is not the result of either chance or design.”
(Hall, p.93)

Hall’s borrowings from descriptive linguistics - rather than semiotics - lead him to analyze the messages of culture into three components: sets, isolates, and patterns, analogously based on the roles of words, phonemes and sentences in language. And, whilst this approach proves (arguably) much more productive than semiotics, as might be expected its greatest insights are demonstrated at the pattern level, where the real complexities of culture emerge:


“All [cultural patterns] seem to be bound by by three laws: those of order, selection, and congruence [albeit] it should be emphasized that there may be additional laws governing the formation of patterns which have not yet been discovered [however] these three seem to provide a beginning.... The laws of order are those regularities governing changes in meaning when order is altered.... Order is used differently in different cultures. With us, it is a basic part of our grammatical system [but] it should be noted that...this is not the case in inflected languages like Latin, and Old English of the time of Alfred. Order has great importance in other cultural systems...[and] permeates almost every activity in a culture like our own. Yet in some other cultures the activities in which order is important may represent basic pattern differences between cultures...[whilst] the placing of the climax of any event varies all over the world.... The essential point is that societies will order the people, or the situation, or a station in life, but not all three simultaneously.”
(Hall, pp.128-130)

“Selection controls the combination of sets that can be used together...[but] there is no inherent logic to selection. The most one can say is that in such and such a case, the selection works as follows, and state the overall category.... Selection plays a prominent part in the patterns of social relations around the world in dress, sex, and in work and play - in fact, in all of the primary message systems. The easiest way to determine when selection is being applied is to note whether there is something bound to something else by custom when any number of other items [or practices] could ‘logically’ serve the same purpose...for, once the selection has occurred it is binding. The arbitrariness of culture is generally not understood, because there are other areas where culture has tremendous leeway. Selection is a major exception.”
(Hall, pp.130-1)

“Congruence is more difficult to talk about precisely than either order or selection [but] its subtle dictates may, nevertheless, be more binding. Unlike order and selection, which have to do with the patterning of sets, the law of congruence can be expressed as a pattern of patterns. Congruence is what all writers are trying to achieve in terms of their own style, and what everyone wants to find as he/she moves through life. On the highest level the human reaction to congruence is one of awe or ecstasy...[while] complete lack of congruence occurs when everything is so out of phase that no member of a culture could possibly conceive of himself creating such a mess.... Many jokes are based on incongruities of one sort or another, which is one reason why the readers (or listeners) have to be almost a native speaker in order to appreciate the full implications of a joke.... Pattern congruity or style in writing is a function of knowing what can and cannot be achieved within the limits of the pattern.... The writing of the scientist is often incongruous because it drags the reader from one analytic level to the next, and then back again...as the scientist has to communicate on a number of different analytic levels at once, by footnoting and overqualifying every statement. In defense of my fellow scientists, it should be said that one of the most difficult things in the world to do is to learn to keep the levels apart as well as to maintain congruity...[and that] scientific...and not literary congruity is their preoccupation.”
(Hall, pp.131-3)

“While people demonstrate varying degrees of sensitivity for congruence, perfect congruence is seldom achieved. It lurks in every culture and is captured by us only in rare creations. True artistry exists when congruence is so high that everything appears simple and easy, when it communicates so clearly that people wonder why they didn’t say it themselves.... One might assume that much is known about pattern congruity. Actually, the field has hardly been delineated as a field of scientific study.... [In contrast,] it is a tremendous sensitivity to pattern incongruity that artists bring to their work. They have a highly developed sense for working within patterns, making the most of them, pushing and stretching their boundaries but never crossing them, so that the spell can be maintained and not broken.... [And] because many artists are participating in variants of the overall pattern that are not widely shared, they often have the reputation for setting the pace for everyone else. They are credited with ‘creating’ new patterns. Yet most artists know that what greatness they have lies in being able to make meaningful statements about what is going on around them. They say what others have tried to say, but say it more simply, more directly, and more accurately, more incisively and with greater insight...[for] the drive toward congruity would seem to be as strong a human need as the will to physical survival.”
(Hall, pp.134-5)

Another thing that helps keep Hall’s feet firmly on the ground - apart from his continual reference to the concrete problems of inter-cultural communication - is his fascination with the details of the learning process, which he illuminates here in a lovely example by showing exactly how an infuriating child is searching out necessary (but tacit) knowledge:


“It is interesting and informative to watch very young children as they learn their culture. They quickly pick up the fact that we have names for some things and not for others. First, they identify the whole object or the set - a room, for instance; then they begin to fixate on certain other discrete objects.... By doing so, they accomplish two things. First, they find out how far down the scale they have to go in identifying things. Second, they learn what are the isolates and patterns for handling space and object nomenclature.... The child will ask ‘What’s this?’ pointing to a pencil. You reply, ‘A pencil.’ The child is not satisfied and says, ‘No, this,’ pointing to the shaft of the pencil, and making clear that she means the shaft. So, you say, ‘Oh, that’s the shaft of the pencil.’ Then the child moves her finger one quarter inch and says, ‘What’s this?’ and you say, ‘The shaft.’ This process is repeated and you say, ‘That’s still the shaft; and this is the shaft, and this is the shaft. It’s all the shaft of the pencil. This is the shaft, this is the point, and this is the eraser, and this is the little tin thing that holds the eraser on.’ Then she may point to the eraser, and you discover she is still trying to find out where the dividing lines are. She manages to worm out of you the fact that the eraser has a top and sides but no more. She also learns that there is no way to tell the difference between one side and the next, and that no labels are pinned on parts of the point, even though distinctions are made between the lead and the rest of the pencil. She may glean from this that materials make a difference some of the time, and some of the time they do not [and that] areas where things begin and end are apt to be important, while the points in between are often ignored.”
(Hall, pp.166-7)

“Our way of life...is ostensibly characterized by an underlying formal pattern of equality...[but] we also have a very complex informally patterned status system [in which] the counters on the mobility scale are numerous and so finely grained that while the average person can manipulate the system, he/she cannot describe how it works...[Moreover,] Americans have comparatively few technical and formal restrictions placed upon them, but are loaded with informal ones. This means that Americans are apt to be quite inhibited, because they cannot state explicitly what the rules are. They can only point to them when they are violated.”
(Hall, pp.122-4)

Edward T. Hall’s The Silent Language had an immeasurable effect on the emergent field of inter-cultural communication studies when it first came out in 1959...but, sadly, it has been much less influential on the mainstream of cultural anthropology, albeit Hall is still considered a major figure. But...by setting out a genuinely useful approach to the analysis of culture/cultural difference - which, by the way, is today even more markedly consilient w/the best work in adjacent disciplines than it was back in 1959 - Hall (rather like Vygotsky & Bakhtin) was clearly ahead of his time, and we can still learn a hell of a lot from this book, even though some of its examples and rhetoric are definitely dated...

What has not dated, however, are his fresh take on the “linguistic turn”, his uniquely insightful means of dividing up culture for analytical purposes, and his refreshing insistence on building cultural studies upon a biological base, without any sign whatsoever of reductionist excesses. So, if you want to know how cultural anthropologists should think - rather than how they usually do - this is one invaluable book...


“This is the way it should be. The analysis of one’s own culture simply makes explicit the many things we take for granted in our everyday lives. Talking about them, however, changes our relation with them. We move into an active and understanding correspondence with those aspects of our existence which are all too frequently taken for granted, or which sometimes weigh heavily on us. Talking about them frees us from their restraint.”
(Hall, p.137)


John Henry Calvinist