In 1959, noted anthropologist Edward Hall authored a book entitled, The Silent Language. It was a part of every Peace Corps Volunteer’s “book locker” as they headed out to do good work in the farthest reaches of the world. The Silent Language provided the reader with a way to understand the explicit and implicit cultural conditions of the people with whom these youthful Americans would soon interact.

In 1959, noted anthropologist Edward Hall authored a book entitled, The Silent Language. It was a part of every Peace Corps Volunteer’s “book locker” as they headed out to do good work in the farthest reaches of the world. The Silent Language provided the reader with a way to understand the explicit and implicit cultural conditions of the people with whom these youthful Americans would soon interact. Hall defined culture as, “a set of norms, values, and standards of behavior that make the actions of the individual intelligible to the group.” (Hall, 1959) He further sub-divided the human experience into ten unique but universal isolates of human endeavor. But even with this rather scientific and perhaps sterile way of approaching a very complex and often misinterpreted set of assumptions, Hall maintained one important maxim throughout – everyone has culture and every environment has its own cultural context.

The Global Enterprise

Dr. Yong Zhao, internationally known futurist, has discovered the “death of distance.” He proposes that we live in a world that is no longer bounded by the last street of our neighborhood. We can move physically from one country to another in less than a day. Intellectually, we can move within seconds. Our neighborhood is global. As educators, now more than ever, we need to focus our efforts on preparing our students for the world they will live in. Preparing them to “code switch” effectively between cultures is vital to their success and in reducing the distance between themselves and potentially important affiliations, What about your own experiences with “code switching” between cultural environments? What did you notice about the ease, or lack thereof, with which you could move between worlds.

One of the key elements in developing students who are ready to take on a 21st century world is cultural competency preparedness. Getting a job “around the corner” or “in the next town” is nostalgia of the past. Economic viability is dependent upon our future work force’s effective engagement with people from every corner of the world. Take a look at Karl Fisch’s amazing clip “Did You Know?/Shift Happens 4.0” at if you have any doubt about the relevance of the global enterprise.

Culture is Universal

For years cultural diversity issues have been approached with a static set of racial, ethnic, and/or socio-economic characteristics that can be learned and studied like an algebraic equation. We’ve “managed” diversity, “trained” people on diversity, celebrated “diversity” days – all as if diversity was something outside the scope of human normalcy or belonging to only a single census category. Given the assumption that we are indeed quite different from each other and considering Hall’s premise that everyone has culture, what then makes one group diverse from another? What are “the actions of the individual” that would or would not be “intelligible to the group?” What should educators be thinking about as we prepare our students for the world they will live in and not the one we inherited? What can we do to help bridge the cultural divide? Accepting Hall’s premise invites a thinker to reflection in place of tired, us/them boundary definitions. It suggests that the first step toward cultural competency may be exploring one’s own norms, values and standards with an eye toward asking what makes them “intelligible to the group.” Reflection questions positioned throughout this article are examples of these entry-points to understanding culture in its multi-faceted complexity through the lens of one’s own experience.

Hall proposes that there are three levels of human behavior: technical, formal, and informal. The technical level of culture is tangible, what is written, policies, procedures, explicit rules of engagement. The formal level is slightly more implicit, usually verbal and understood by those who share the norms. Informal levels are sometimes outside our own cultural consciousness – tone of voice, pause time between words, space, time, gesture. It is the transmission of social convention from one generation to another. When setting a table, on which side of the plate does the knife go? Edge in or edge out? How do we know this? We learned it at the informal level of cultural transmission.

No culture can live if it attempts to be exclusive.

— Mohandas Gandhi

Understanding how people communicate is one of the most important elements in furthering cultural understanding. Hall noted an important distinction between communication patterns — low context cultures vs. high context cultures. In low context cultures, people use extensive vocabulary to express their thoughts because they have very little shared history and therefore need words to explain their context. Conversely, in high context cultures, the shared history and “context” replace the need for a wide variety of words – the topics of verbal interaction are contained within the known world of familiarity. Do you think you live in a high context culture or a low context culture? Dr. Aquiles Iglesias from Temple University coined “topic centered” (linear) vs. “topic-associative” (spiral) as another interesting discourse pattern in cultural communication. Each has its own unique rhythm and sequence for sharing the narrative. Are you topic-centered or topic-associative?

Cultural Norming

So how do we make our actions intelligible to the group? Aside from discourse patterns, what are the cultural norming dimensions we should consider when interacting with people from considerably different cultural contexts? Dutch psychologist, Geert Hofstede, has proposed five universal dimensions of cultural norming that address fundamental cultural orientations to life. As you consider each of Hofstede’s norming dimensions, ask yourself on which point along the cultural continuum your orientation might be expressed:

  • Power Distance – The distance between levels of a social hierarchy that can be traversed by the individual with relative comfort and permission. Low power distance is comfortable questioning authority and functioning in multiple social environments. High power distance adheres to strict social stratification.
  • Individualism vs. Collectivism – The extent to which members of the culture define themselves apart from their group memberships. Individualistic cultures, expect people to develop and display their individual personalities and to choose their own affiliations. People in collectivistic cultures, are defined and act mostly as a member of a long-term group – family, religious congregation, age cohort, town, or profession, among others.
  • Uncertainty Avoidance – The extent to which people are uncomfortable with situations they perceive as unstructured, unclear, or unpredictable – situations they try to avoid by maintaining strict codes of behavior and the belief in absolute truths. Locus of control is with SELF in high uncertainty avoidance cultures.
  • Masculinity vs. Femininity – The extent to which a culture measures the value placed on traditionally male or female behaviors.
  • Time Orientation – This dimension describes a society’s “time horizon,” or the importance attached to the future versus the past and present. Long term oriented societies, value actions and attitudes that affect the future: persistence/perseverance, thrift, and shame. Short term oriented societies, value actions and attitudes that are affected by the past or the present, such as, face-saving, respect for tradition, and reciprocating greetings, favors, and gifts.
Moving Forward

About 20 years ago, Dr. Peggy McIntosh from the State University of New York, wrote a white paper on “cultural revisioning.” It was seminal work, but unfortunately got little traction in the multicultural discussions of the time. She proposed five points along a continuum of cultural interaction from ethno-centricism (phase 1) to cultural symbiosis (phase 5). In Cultural Symbiosis, McIntosh speaks to a world where racial/ethnic identity is nearly inconsequential to the commonality of the bio-basic human experience – where one’s context of familiarity IS the entire world. Where moving between cultural perspectives is natural and seamless.

So what is the secret to becoming a more culturally competent individual? How can we help our students move along the cultural continuum and help create a world in which there is a more symbiotic connection among the peoples of the world? What factors are fundamental to this new engagement?

According to Dr. Sonia Nieto (Affirming Diversity, 1992 & 2001), in order to become culturally competent teachers, we must expand the familiarity of our own context. Expanding social and professional affiliations to engage with others unlike ourselves – including traveling to places that stretch our cultural “comfort zone,” learning about people from different socio-economic environments, and suspending judgment. In addition, you might want to reflect upon these questions about your own participation in moving towards cultural symbiosis:

  • Acknowledge that everyone has culture and everywhere has a cultural context
  • Explore your own cultural values, beliefs, norms and standards of behavior
  • How does your own perspective about culture impact your behavior?
  • In what ways will you promote “symbiotic” cultural awareness?
  • How will you expand the familiarity of your own context?
  • Does your cultural perspective impact the decisions you make about student learning?
  • Does your cultural perspective impact decisions you make about changing your organization?Perpetuating it?
  • Look for the commonality of human experience within the context of cultur§ 
  • Accept “non-like” cultures for their intrinsic value to the richness of human thought and life
  • Understand the inextricable relationship between language and culture

It’s an exciting time to be an educator! We’re at the crossroads of a new world order and our actions will determine the path we forge for ourselves and for those after us. Will we live in isolated communities, fearful of intrusion by others? Or, will we program ourselves on a refreshed journey where boundaries are nothing more than markers along our way towards healthy interdependence? Your answer and actions to this fundamental question about how you address the human experience will determine the extent to which we can become familiar with an ever-expanding cultural context.


Hall, Edward. (1959) The Silent Language.

Iglesias, Aquiles. (1988) Narrative Patterns in a speech presented at Michigan State University.

Hofstede, Geert. (2001) Culture’s Consequences: Comparing Values, Behaviors, Institutions and Organizations Across Nations. Sage Publications.

Zhao, Yong. (2009) In a speech given at the AdvancED Latin American Leadership Conference. Atlanta.

McIntosh, Peggy. (1989) “Interactive Phases of Curricular and Personal Revisioning with Regard to Race.” SUNY Press.

Nieto, Sonia. (2009) Affirming Diversity: The Sociopolitical Context of Multicultural Education. First Edition.

Ms. Caamal Canul was raised in Latin America and brings a rich “world-view” to her work of 34 years in the field of education as a teacher, school principal, director of curriculum and assessment, consultant for low-performing schools, and as a state department of education official. Caamal Canul has received numerous awards for her dedication to the profession, among them are the National Educator Award presented by the Milken Family Foundation and the Human Rights Award given by the Michigan Education Association. She has keynoted at international and national conferences and has published in several education journals. Her degrees are from Olivet College (B.A. and HDL) and Michigan State University (MA).