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The Substance of Culture: Cultural Orientations


Lead-in reflection


Take a couple of minutes to answer the questions.

What is the usual way to greet people in your culture (i.e. shaking hands, hugging, kissing, etc.)? Do you greet everybody in the same way? Why?/Why not?

Do you always come on time for meetings, the start of events or your workday? How about when you are invited to somebody’s home?

When you think of the way you express your ideas in front of others, can this process be visualized as a straight line or as a curved line with a lot of coils?


There are no right or wrong answers to these questions. Their aim is to get you thinking about your culture in terms of the basic cultural orientations discussed in this topic.

You may wish to note down the answers to the questions and come back to them at the end of the topic.





In summary, culture has some important characteristics:

1. Culture is not innate, it is learned - since earliest childhood, members of a culture acquire its patterns of behavior and learn its ways of thinking. This is done through interaction, observation and imitation.

2. Culture is transmitted and this is done by using different symbols. Based on our shared understanding, we encode certain messages in these symbols and hope others decode them. For example, EU citizens recognize the EU flag with the twelves yellow stars, and Beethoven’s 9th Symphony as the EU anthem.

3. Culture is dynamic and it is constantly evolving. New practices, tools and ideas are being invented (for example, having a Skype name, a profile in at least one social network like Facebook). Products from other cultures’ practices may gradually be borrowed.

4. Culture is selective - each cultural group chooses what to pass on to the next generations. For example, the concept of happiness in Western societies is largely related to material provision, while to Eastern peoples belonging to the group is of the essence, etc.

5. The individual elements of culture are interrelated. If one of these components changes, the others change as well. To give an example from today’s Bulgaria, it is more and more common for couples to start a family without having been officially married. This form of cohabitation, besides surprising fewer people these days, has also led to legal changes – in the regulations dealing with children’s wellbeing for instance.

6. Culture is ethnocentric, which means it focuses on one's own group sometimes attributing its peculiarities to superhuman abilities, etc. Ethnocentrism leads to subjective appreciation, and in extreme cases to rejection of otherness.

Based on Porter and Samovar (1994: 12-14)


What are the implications of the above? Although cultures may change over time, they remain relatively stable at their core and it is possible to explain people’s way of communicating and acting if we look more closely at what lies at the bottom-most layer of the cultural iceberg.

Here we are going to use E. T. Hall’s taxonomy of cultural orientations. He distinguishes between verbal and non-verbal communication and contends that non-verbal communication is a major factor in successful intercultural communication. This his attributes to three basic cultural orientations: context, space, and time.


In Hall’s views, time and the handling of time is also a powerful factor in communication across cultures.


Monochronic cultures experience and use time in a linear way which makes it important for things to happen according to a schedule.


Polychronic ones do not place such a great importance on schedules and in such cultures, time is less tangible and it is possible for many events to occur simultaneously. Look at the summary of how time affects different culture-bound behaviours.




Do one thing at a time

Do many things at once

Concentrate on the job

Are highly distractible and subject to interruptions

Take time commitments (deadlines, schedules) seriously

Consider time commitments an objective to be achieved, if possible
Are low-context and need information Are high-context and already have information
Are committed to the job Are committed to people and human relationships
Adhere religiously to plans Change plans often and easily
Are concerned about not disturbing others; follow rules of privacy and consideration Are more concerned with those who are closely related (family, friends, close business associates) than with privacy

Show great respect for private property; seldom borrow or lend

Borrow and lend things often and easily
Emphasise promptness Base promptness on the relationship
Are accustomed to short-term relationships Have strong tendency to build lifetime relationship
Are concerned about not disturbing others; follow rules of privacy and consideration

Are more concerned with those who are closely related (family, friends, close business associates) than with privacy

Show great respect for private property; seldom borrow or lend Borrow and lend things often and easily

Hall and Hall, 1990: 15



Hands-on Task and Reflection


1 Make a list of the core values which guide your behavior. Then answer the questions.

Which of the values on your list have you acquired

  • in your family
  • at school
  • in the course of working for an organization
  • through the media

Have these values changed over time? If yes, how?




2 Think of an example of body language typical of your culture which is likely to create confusion in case you are interacting with a representative of another culture?


Certain gestures are very peculiar to certain cultures. For example, shaking and nodding. If you are accustomed to nodding in agreement, you may be genuinely perplexed in Bulgaria, where shaking one’s head means “yes”. It is common across South European cultures to gesticulate a lot, while this can be seen as impolite in Japan.

For more ideas on this topic, visit:



3 Take some time to consider the following questions.

  • How would you feel if someone from another culture comes late for a party you are giving at your home?
  • How would you feel if someone from another culture fails to complete a task by a certain deadline?
  • If other people’s being late is likely to make you experience negative emotions, how can you deal with it?


As you have learned in this topic, the way we perceive time is usually highly depended on our cultural background. Although in certain cultures punctuality is equally to being polite, in others being late is considered normal and no one attaches negative feelings to it.

The best you can do is to find out about your counterpart’s background and try to adjust to their “time frame”, i.e. to be on time if you are dealing with a monochromic culture and to be patient if your counterpart is from a polychronic one.

You may find these materials useful in exploring the topic further: