The Silent Language

Edward T. Hall

209 pages, Anchor Books, 1990

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If you’re a born and bred American and you’ve lived in any non-Anglophone country, you may have realized after a time that the local people you met didn’t just speak a different language—they were really weird. They acted in all sorts of ways that struck you as irrational, frustrating, and eventually annoying. They stood too close to you, or too far away. Their voices were too loud, or too soft. They were vague about such basics as time, distance, and probabilities. And after months of this disorienting behavior all around you, you may have wondered whether you were going mad. In a sense, you were. You were suffering from what has come to be called “culture shock”—a sometimes-traumatic condition that results from the removal of familiar cultural cues. In its worst manifestations, culture shock can make you feel as though you’ve been detached from reality.

This concept was brought home to Americans by returning Peace Corps volunteers in the 1960s and 1970s. Because volunteers had been immersed by design in local cultures, they brought culture shock to light for many Americans. Fortunately, even before the first Peace Corps volunteers were posted overseas, a cultural anthropologist named Edward T. Hall had studied the roots of culture shock in great detail and published his findings in a compelling book, The Silent Language. Those of us who served in the early years of the Peace Corps benefited directly from Hall’s insight. In my training program in 1965, The Silent Language was required reading.

Hall spent years exploring nonverbal communication. With examples drawn from the U.S. military in World War II and foreign aid workers in the 1950s, as well as from his own research in Southwestern Indian communities, the South Pacific, and Iran, Hall helped us understand “the broad extent to which culture controls our lives.” He made us accept the sad reality that communication is about a lot more than simply words.

As Hall noted, “Almost everyone has difficulty believing that behavior they have always associated with ‘human nature’ is not human nature at all but learned behavior.” In the more than three years I worked as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador (1966 to 1969), I thought of that book alarmingly often: when every queue I entered dissolved into a mob; when I was given directions to a destination and told it was either “near” or “far” even though it wasn’t; when a pledge I’d taken for a promise was instantly forgotten.

Truth to tell, though, comprehending the underlying logic of this sort of cultural clash didn’t help me feel any more relaxed. I went just as crazy as anyone. Still, familiarity with Hall’s teachings continued to help me through the years. Those insights made it possible for me to get outside my white, middle-class skin during my later years of work in community organizing and political campaigns in districts with heavy ethnic minority populations.

All this experience came rushing back to me this summer when I read Hall’s obituary in The New York Times (he passed away July 20 at the age of 95). The article prompted me to reread The Silent Language. Boy, was I surprised! To be sure, Hall had placed great emphasis on time and space as elements in intercultural communication. But I’d completely forgotten about the rest of the book, which lays out a complex and detailed anthropological theory about the nature and “vocabulary” of culture. Once Hall launched into a discussion of his theory, he started losing me.

So what we’ve got here, it would seem, is a failure to communicate, and, not to put too fine an edge on things, in a book about communication. I stewed over this conundrum for several days. Then it hit me. The simple truth is that Hall never intended for me to read or understand his theory. He wasn’t writing for an intelligent lay audience. Instead, he was writing for an academic audience. This helps me understand what has long puzzled me: why social scientists’ findings are so rarely reported in plain English. It’s because they have no intention of making themselves understood except to a limited academic audience. Finally I understand how communication really works. Or doesn’t, as the case may be.

Mal Warwick is a Berkeley, Calif.-based author, consultant, and trainer who specializes in fundraising for nonprofit organizations. His most recent book was Fundraising When Money Is Tight: A Strategic and Practical Guide to Surviving Tough Times and Thriving in the Future.