Time orientation, known as Chronemics, is the study of how we refer to and perceive time. The different perceptions of time, such as the importance of punctuality, can be a source of friction in intercultural encounters. Edward Hall (1959) distinguished between monochronic and polychronic orientations to time. In monochronic time orientation, time is a commodity. Being punctual, completing tasks, and keeping schedules is valued, and may be more important than building or maintaining personal relationships. “Time is money” is a common saying across cultures monochronic-oriented cultures. Those growing up in a culture with a monochronic time orientation are likely to see this view of time as natural and universal. In fact, it is culturally determined and learned. In such cultures, like the US or Germany, children are taught early, at home and in school, the importance of time, scheduling, and promptness. Tardiness and missed appointments are a source of anxiety. Monochronic-oriented cultures perceive time as linear, flowing along in a straight line. We did one task, we’re doing another task now, and we are planning on doing something else later. Plans are not easily changed. People live by an external clock.
In polychronic time oriented cultures, however, the attitudes towards time are very different. Representative cultures include southern Europe, Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East. Schedules are less important, and punctuality is not considered an essential virtue. Such cultures are used to having more than one activity or conversation going on at the same time. Individuals are more tolerant of interruptions and going beyond scheduled time. Time is bent to meet the needs of people, with the attitude that there is always more time. Consequently, plans are fluid. People live by an internal clock. Greater importance is placed on the natural progress of conversations than in keeping to a pre-arranged schedule. Life is lived in the moment, not in relation to a schedule.
Different perceptions of time can vary dramatically when it comes to arranging meetings. Some Mexican American friends may invite you to a barbecue at 8 p.m., but when you arrive you are the first guest, because it is understood that the gathering actually doesn’t start until well after 9 p.m. Similarly in France, an 8 p.m. party invitation would be understood to indicate you should arrive around 8:30, but in Sweden 8 p.m. means 8 p.m., and latecomers may not be welcome. Of course context plays a role in time orientation. Japanese have a monochronic time orientation when it comes to business meetings , but are more polychronic in social gatherings.
A final way in which we communicate nonverbally is through our environment. The environment involves the physical aspects of our surroundings. More than the tables and chairs in an office, environment is an important part of the dynamic communication process. The perception of one’s environment influences one’s reaction to it.
Wal-Mart is the largest and most successful retailer in the world. It offers low prices through economies of scale, an efficient purchasing and delivery system, and low employee wages. Its home base is in the US, but it operates in countries across the globe. In many of those markets, Wal-Mart has been successful, for example in Great Britain and South America. However, Wal-Mart has been less successful in Japan, Korea, and India. Given the location of those markets, one might be tempted to assign Wal-Mart's lack of success to differences in Asian cultures and in consumer preferences. However, Wal-Mart has been largely successful in China. Moreover, it has not been universally successful in cultures closer to that of the US. Germany provides the clearest example.
There are many differences between Germany and the US, but they share a number of cultural traits including a strong work ethic, a generally individualistic orientation, a fundamentally egalitarian social and political structure, a monochronic time orientation, and a shared linguistic family (Germanic language group within the Indo-European family). However, it was in fact largely cultural issues that led to Wal-Mart's failure in the German market. The stores in Germany were run very much like those in the US, and that was the cause of many of the problems that arose. Here are the most important cultural factors:
Consumers. Wal-Mart stores had smiling "greeters" at their entrances. The company instructed cashiers to smile at customers. Germans do not tend to smile at strangers. German consumers found the personal greetings of the smiling greeters offensive – this kind of informal chatting with strangers is not the norm in Germany. The smiles from the cashiers were interpreted as mocking or flirtatious.
Products. The product line did not match the cultural habits and preferences of German consumers. Meats, for example, were prepackaged; many Germans prefer to have meat cut on demand. Products were in some cases packaged in large quantities. Storage in refrigerators and cupboards in Germany is much more limited than in the US; German consumers tend to buy smaller quantities and shop more often. Local or regional products were not offered. To achieve economies of scale, Wal-Mart tends to carry the same products across all stores. Germans often identify closely with their home region, which often will include specific food and beverage preferences (sausage or beer, for example). German consumers are used to putting purchased items into bags they themselves have brought to the store, and they found Wal-Mart's practice of bagging products for consumers into plastic bags unfamiliar and undesirable.
Employees. It's common practice at Wal-Mart's in the US to have employees engage in group chants before the store opens, designed to build store morale and company loyalty. This practice is not common in Germany, and was perceived negatively by Wal-Mart employees. Because of regional differences and family relationships, most Germans prefer to remain near the area in which they grew up. Wal-Mart expected employees – especially managers – to be willing to relocate based on company needs. In the US, it's not uncommon for someone to seek employment far from one's home base; that's less likely in Germany. The anti-union policy of Wal-Mart also ran up against the German tradition of strong trade unions. It's also the norm in German companies that there be institutionalized employee input into company decision-making. That was not the case at Wal-Mart Germany.
The impact of the Environment on Conversations
The nature of conversations is determined by the conversation partner, the purpose of the encounter, and the context in which it occurs. Germans who went to Wal-Mart were there to buy goods, not to engage in conversations with strangers. Those same Germans may have a quite different attitude towards talking with strangers if they happen to be sitting at the same table with tourists at a local beer garden. How they talk with those tourists will be quite different than a conversation over a beer with friends or co-workers. Where a conversation takes place can have a significant effect in terms of language used. In a beer garden, one may have to speak louder than normal and, because of the mixed clientele, be prepared to speak using a simplified version of one's native tongue or English. The language used will likely be quite different from that at the workplace, more informal, with quite different subjects discussed.
Quiet, isolated environments are likely to lead to different conversation dynamics than a crowded, noisy environment. Environmental psychologist Albert Mehrabian devised a theory in which he emphasizes the varying information rates in different environments (1977). Information rate is the amount of information contained or perceived per a certain unit of time; the more information available to process, the greater the information rate. An environment with a high information rate is said to have a high load. Examples would be a busy airport or popular restaurant at lunch time. Environments with a low load might be a library reading room or a Japanese garden. According to Mehrabian, the higher the information load, the higher the anxiety, leading to discomfort and possibly anxiety. Those feelings are exacerbated by the presence of people we don't know, particularly if they are from a different culture. It's likely that most people would avoid whenever possible high load situations. From that perspective, encounters with strangers work best if carefully managed, with small numbers of conversants in a quiet setting.
Some cultures purposely create spaces with low information loads for particular purposes or cultural practices. Japanese gardens are intended to facilitate silent contemplation and meditation (Itoh, 1981). They feature carefully designed landscapes with flowing streams, rock formations, meandering walkways, and well-placed benches or other seating. The impression is one of informal natural beauty. In reality, everything in a Japanese garden is carefully planned out to create impressive views and perspectives. In contrast, the US "backyard" is a setting for socialization and sport. Typically, there will be an extensive lawn, well-maintained, allowing room for outdoor activities. This might be used for informal social gatherings, featuring meats cooked on the grill. The overall impression of an American backyard is a human-made environment, while that of a Japanese garden is a harmonious blend of natural elements. There will clearly be a different dynamic at work in conversations held in an American backyard compared to a Japanese garden. In fact, a Japanese garden is more an invitation to silence (highly valued in that culture) than to conversation. The different spaces also point to contrasting views of the relationship between humans and nature. Western culture tends to want to change and dominate nature. Asian cultures look to harmonize with nature.
Built environments and communication patterns
The design of built environments, such as private homes or office buildings also has a significant effect on communication. The traditional design of Japanese homes points to particular cultural norms and values, as well as typical communication patterns and practices in Japan. Because the Japanese believe in harmony with nature, traditionally Japanese homes are unobtrusively integrated into the landscape. The most important room, the sitting room, typically opens up onto the garden, with wide doors which can be opened to eliminate the barrier between house and garden. Often the garden offers its best views from the multiple open spaces along the outside of the house. One has the impression that the garden and the house flow into one another. The sitting room of a traditional Japanese family home is typically large and can be subdivided using semi-transparent screens called shoji. This allows considerable versatility, with divisions of the rooms easily changed. This modularity carries over to the traditional flooring of Japanese homes. Straw mats called tatami are used for sitting or sleeping. The flexibility in arranging living quarters accommodates the easy sub-division of space to allow for additional members of an extended family. It also enables creation of semi-private space as needed. In that way, it satisfies the need for social space for conversation as well as the possibility of withdrawal into silence and contemplation. Japanese society has changed significantly in recent decades, becoming less homogeneous and less traditional, under Westernizing influences. That has affected housing styles as well. Research has indicated however that the majority of Japanese still favor a traditional style (Ueda, 1998), with elements of traditional design typically incorporated into modern homes and office space whenever possible.
In contrast to the semi-fixed featured space of traditional Japanese homes, houses in Germany tend to favor fixed-featured space in which room divisions are permanent. These distinctions and terms were made by Edward Hall (1966) initially and are often used in descriptions of built environments. Germans tend to divide up space according to its function and to find and maintain an ordered space for all household objects and possessions. Important is that there be clear divisions, with the ability to close doors to all rooms, secure windows with heavy shutters, and surround the garden with tall hedges, fences, or walls. The house design reflects cultural aspects of life in Germany. There tends to be a strong sense of orderliness in German society (reflecting the German saying Ordnung muss sein – order is a must), with a strict adherence to rules. In accordance with that respect for order, Germans expect commitments and promises to be kept. That includes agreements regarding appointments and meet-ups; Germans are punctual and expect others to be as well. That sense of order carries over to personal interactions. Germans seek clarity in relations with others, which is reflected in the careful differentiation of people with whom one uses a formal level of address (the formal you Sie) from those with whom one is informal (du form). In contrast to other cultures which also have formal and informal modes of address (French, Spanish), Germans tend to be more rigid and systematic in their use of those forms. It's not unusual for Germans to maintain the Sie form even with close work colleagues. The desire for clarity tends to lead Germans to use a very direct style of communication, with the reputation of being sometimes overly blunt, leading to charges of insensitivity.
Greg Nees, in his cultural study of Germans (2000), draws a connection between the cultural theme of order and the design of space (see sidebar). These two examples illustrate the connection between environments and communication, but they by no means exhaust the options for living environments to be found in human cultures. Another option discussed by Hall is informal space, with no permanent divisions or walls. Informal space plays a major role in the everyday living experiences of people in Africa, parts of the Middle East, and rural areas world-wide, where outdoor space and non-permanent housing becomes an integral and vital aspect of work and family life. Living in a tent or in a communal space clearly can have a major impact on communication.
The mutual influences of clarity and order reinforce one another and help create a strong tendency toward compartmentalization in all areas of their lives, for example, inside their dwellings. The open architecture typical of American houses and apartments in which the front door opens into the living room is not common. Walk into a traditional German home or apartment and you will usually find yourself in a small, closed corridor, or Gang. This corridor provides access to the other rooms of the house or apartment, and the doors to these other rooms will generally be closed. This configuration is considered orderly...Doors remain closed in most German public and office buildings, where a closed door does not mean a private meeting is taking place, but only that the door is closed as German notions of orderliness and clear boundaries dictate (p. 48).
Privacy across Cultures
Although human beings are by nature social animals, we all also need time alone. The degree to which people seek and value solitude varies across cultures, as does the means and mechanisms for being alone. Knowing about norms and conventions regarding privacy can be important in encounters with others. The extent to which one's home is considered a private sphere, for example, can vary. In the US, guests invited over for a dinner party are likely to be given a "house tour" and be shown even intimate space such as a master bedroom. Guests will often congregate in the kitchen to converse while the host or hostess is preparing the meal. They are likely to be invited to help themselves to a drink from the family's refrigerator. The dinner party is likely to play out quite differently in other cultures. In the two environments discussed above, in Japan and Germany, guests are likely to see only the main rooms for guest entertaining. They will likely not be invited to roam freely throughout the house, or to use space designed for family use (except for the toilet). Guests are unlikely to socialize in the kitchen, which in both countries is a smaller space than is typical in the US. In both countries, that space is intended for the dedicated use of food preparation. The kitchen is not viewed in any case as an appropriate location for extended conversation. The informality of communication patterns in the US allows for great flexibility in where casual conversations can take place. In other cultures, more formal rules of etiquette and social interactions will limit the range of options. In Germany in particular, social space and interactions are carefully compartmentalized, with clear distinctions and divisions in place. Separating off one's garden with a hedge or fence, for example, signals that the space is reserved for family use.
Germany and Japan are densely populated countries in which privacy is particularly valued. There are different ways to achieve that privacy. Architectural scholar Jon Lang (1987) identified four types of privacy: a) solitude, in which one is free from observation by others; b) intimacy, or shared privacy; c) anonymity, going unnoticed by others especially in a crowd; and d) reserve, in which one uses psychological means to create imagined isolation. Living in Tokyo (or other large metropolitan areas), office workers on the morning commute are likely to seek "anonymity" in crowded buses or subway cars. Once at the office, they may use "reserve", the only means of achieving privacy in a cubicled office environment. Once back home, the office worker might seek "solitude" in a specifically Japanese cultural way, by retreating into the bathroom. In Japanese houses, the bathroom is separated from the toilet and typically consists of two distinct areas, one for bathing (using a shower and soap) and one for soaking (the tub). The space is kept absolutely clean and made as attractive as possible, with the soaking water often scented with flowers or lemons. It can be a place for private relaxation and meditation.
The toilet offers the worker another opportunity for privacy, a valued commodity in a culture that places high value on social harmony, consensus building, and teamwork, all activities calling for contact with others. The toilet itself points to another key aspect of contemporary Japanese culture, the fascination with gadgets and electronics. Many Japanese toilets are high-tech, with a sophisticated control panel allowing for seat warming, massaging, and cleansing sprays. It may also play sounds and music. Soft music may help in relaxation and contemplation, while louder sounds may mask from others the personal activity occurring. That latter feature demonstrates that even in the search for privacy, Japanese tend to take into consideration those around them. Privacy in such a culture is fleeting, and therefore is all the more sought and cherished.
Naked? "This is Brazil. No one cares"
When I lived in Brazil, I was on the Amazon river...The environment clearly interacted with everyday life. Daily temperatures were usually in the 90s and 100s F. [35-40 C.], with a very high humidity. When you show up at someone’s home, they offer you a shower instead of a drink. You take off your clothes, hop in the shower to cool down (but never after eating, because faz mal [“it harms you”]), then put on the same clothes. One time, I went to the shared shower-shed between the houses in the housing area (a wooden shed with a garden hose hanging down). There was a wood plank missing. I went back and asked my host, “What do you wear to shower here?” He laughed and said, “Nothing, of course!” “But there’s a board missing,” I said. “John,” he replied—“this is Brazil. No one cares.” This leads to the notion that, because of climate and social factors, the notion of modesty was also quite different...Many of my friends thought nothing of using my cologne, my toothpaste., even my toothbrush...Because of crowdedness, especially among the working classes, privacy is conceptualized differently. If I stayed at a friend’s house, I would expect to bring my own hammock and string it across the living room—often with other family members
Notions of privacy are related to the sense of private ownership, which can also differ markedly across cultures. In the US, with a strong tradition of individualism and private ownership rights, mainstream cultural norms include sharp divisions between one's own possessions and those of others, including in a family environment. In other cultures, there are traditions of sharing and communal ownership, such as in Native American cultures. John Baldwin, a US scholar of intercultural communication recounts his personal experiences of privacy and attitudes towards personal possessions while living in Brazil (see sidebar). Brazil has a great variety of living spaces, with immense differences between life in the Amazonian rain forest and in major metropolitan areas like Rio de Janeiro or São Paulo. One of the indigenous tribes are the Mehinaku Indians. They live in communal villages with no privacy. Their huts house families of ten or twelve people. They have no windows or internal walls, and have doors that open unto an open area that is in constant view. The family members sleep in hammocks, suspended from a common house pole. According to anthropologist, Thomas Gregor (1980), "Each individual's whereabouts and activities are generally known to his relatives and often to the community as a whole. A Mehinaku has little chance of staying out of the public eye for any length of time" (p. 67). To be alone, villagers have only one option, to leave the village.
There is clearly a connection between the spaces humans inhabit and the cultural practices which take place there. Living in an Amazonian village will dictate behaviors and communication patterns quite different from those in an urban environment such as Paris. Donald Carbaugh (1999) describes the practice of "listening" (silent contemplation and meditation) of the Native American Blackfeet tribe in sacred locations or inspired by certain sky conditions or landscapes. The practice illustrates the Indian sense of connectedness of humans and all of life with nature. Non-Indians are not likely to have the equivalent experiences in the same physical setting (see sidebar). Thus, individuals and groups may experience the same physical space very differently. Paris, for tourists, is a place of wonder and discovery. For inhabitants of the Parisian suburbs (banlieux in French), where many Muslim immigrants live in crime-ridden high-rise apartment buildings, Paris might have a very different meaning, suggesting a life of poverty and hopelessness. For business people, Paris represents a center of commerce and economic opportunity. In recent years, Paris has served as a place for terrorists to engage in brutal attacks for maximum visibility.
The example of Paris reminds us of the complexity of modern urban spaces. Villages and rural spaces tend to be monocultural, an environment in which strangers are infrequently encountered and can be ignored (see Rogers & Steinfatt, 1998). With the advent of the industrial age, beginning in 18th century England, there's been a major demographic shift in many countries, as rural inhabitants move to cities to find employment and more opportunities for themselves and their families. In the process, cities have absorbed groups representing a variety of cultural backgrounds. In the US in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, ethnic or racial neighborhoods were created with inhabitants living largely separated from mainstream communities. These neighborhoods and ghettos were often created through segregation, not through the wishes of the group members. In San Francisco, for example, racial politics isolated Chinese immigrants within Chinatown:
The sense of being physically sealed within the boundaries of Chinatown was impressed on the few immigrants coming into the settlement by frequent stonings which occurred as they came up Washington or Clay Street from the piers. It was perpetuated by attacks of white toughs in the adjacent North Beach area and down- town around Union Square, who amused themselves by beating Chinese who came into these areas (Nee & Nee, 1974, p. 60).
Patterns of discrimination and separation have persisted in the US, with African-Americans, Latinx communities, and other cultures concentrated in particular neighborhoods. That process occurs worldwide. In Europe, Turkish communities occupy particular districts in German cities, as do North Africans in French cities. This dynamic can vary with the particular ethnic group and city.
Martin and Nakayama (2010) discuss the concept of "postmodern cultural spaces" in which city neighborhoods and boundaries in many places are becoming more flexible and fluid (see sidebar). This kind of fluidity stands in contrast to the traditional notions of fixed space and time, just as online communities today, too, challenge these same notions. In the process, identities have become more complex, as we navigate communication in different locations and contexts, both physical and virtual.
Polish-Americans today in Phoenix, Arizona
The ideology of fixed spaces and categories is currently being challenged by postmodernist notions of space and location. Phoenix, for example, which became a city relatively recently, has no Chinatown, or Japantown, or Koreatown, no Irish district, or Polish neighborhood, or Italian area. Instead, people of Polish descent, for example, might live anywhere in the metropolitan area but congregate for special occasions or for specific reasons. On Sundays, the Polish Catholic Mass draws many people from throughout Phoenix. When people want to buy Polish breads and pastries, they can go to the Polish bakery and also speak Polish there. Ethnic identity is only one of several identities that these people negotiate. When they desire recognition and interaction based on their Polish heritage, they can meet that wish. When they seek other forms of identification, they can go to places where they can be Phoenix Suns fans, or community volunteers, and so on. Ethnic identity is neither the sole factor nor necessarily the most important one at all times in their lives.
Martin and Nakayama (2010), p. 296
Car and Driving Behavior in a Cultural Context
When we talk about human living spaces today, one of those difficult to ignore is the automobile. Most of us spend large blocks of time driving or riding in the car. Anyone who has done much traveling outside one's home country has likely been struck by the difference in car cultures, driving behaviors, and traffic patterns. In the US and the UK, for example, drivers generally follow traffic rules and drive in an orderly and predictable way. In other countries, such as Nigeria, traffic regulations are largely ignored. In that country, as well as in others in Africa, cars must compete for space on the road with vehicles of all kinds in addition to pedestrians and street hawkers. In India, cows roam freely over roads, including on the Indian equivalent of major, divided highways.
As is the case in schools and businesses, driving behaviors often reflect aspects of national cultures. North American and German drivers, for example, will assume that they have the freedom and the individual right to claim the right-of-way if traffic rules allot it to them. They are likely to be upset if others do not respect that right and go out of turn or cut them off. The pattern of driving behavior in cultures deemed collectivistic is quite different. In China and India, for example, drivers behave in a very different fashion, allowing others to merge or turn, even if that goes counter to the right of way or to traffic regulations. For those used to Western patterns of driving, the seemly chaotic flow and merge of traffic in India may seem inexplicable and dangerous. Yet in India, it is a functional chaos which actually does have informal rules of order. Precedence is given by size of vehicle, with pedestrians yielding to bikes and carts, bikes and carts to cars, cars to buses, and buses to trucks.
It's not just how we drive that may be different, but as well what it is we use our cars for. Europeans in general see cars as a dedicated means of transportation and when driving focus exclusively on that activity, with the goal of getting from A to B as quickly as possible. US Americans, on the other hand, see their cars as extensions of their personal living space and as an appropriate location in which to carry out all kinds of everyday activities, from eating/drinking to dating. In the US, drive-throughs are available for all kinds of activities, from picking up medications at a pharmacy to getting married (in Las Vegas). Edward Hall commented in Hidden Dimensions (1966) on the size of American automobiles, contrasting it with French cars:
The French automobile is designed in response to French needs. Its small size used to be attributed to a lower standard of living and higher costs of materials; and while there can be no doubt but that cost is a factor, it would be naive to assume that it was the major factor. The automobile is just as much an expression of the culture as is the language and, therefore, has its characteristic niche in the cultural biotope. Changes in the car will reflect and be reflected in changes elsewhere. If the French drove American cars, they would be forced to give up many ways of dealing with space which they hold quite dear. The traffic along the Champs-Elysées and around the Arc de Triomphe is a cross between the New Jersey Turnpike on a sunny Sunday afternoon and the Indianapolis Speedway. With American-size autos, it would be mass suicide (p. 145).
Today, globalization has affected the automobile industry, as it has all others. The same kind of cars are sold and driven all over the world, and their national prominence is difficult to determine, as parts typically come from suppliers in multiple countries, with manufacturing plants also spread worldwide.
Although the idea of cultural space doesn’t fit neatly into the category of nonverbal behaviors, many scholars find significance in the idea as it merges culture, environment and identity. Culture is dynamic and redefines itself from one generation to the next so examining these social and cultural contexts is critical to intercultural communication research.
Contributors and Attributions
Language and Culture in Context: A Primer on Intercultural Communication, by Robert Godwin-Jones. Provided by LibreTexts. License: CC-BY-NC
Intercultural Communication for the Community College, by Karen Krumrey-Fulks. Provided by LibreTexts. License: CC-BY-NC-SA