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Zaharna - Cultural Continuums
notes & working draft 1/29/2000

Overview:  Cultural Continuums
R.S. Zaharna, Ed.D.

There are several ways in which scholars have distinguished cultures. This section briefly reviews theoretical frameworks useful in highlighting the salient differences among cultures.  Because of ethnocentricism, we may tend to view "our way" versus "the other way" -- or, one side of the continuum versus the other side of the continuum.  A more helpful approach is to think of cultural differences as variations spread out across a continuum.  One may view the cultural variations of a cultural continuums in much the same way as one would view the different colors within a spectrum.  Just as we tend to have "favorite colors," we tend to have cultural preferences within a cultural continuum that we favor.

I should note that although America is rapidly becoming a more multicultural society, the cultural features highlighted here characterized the dominant cultural pattern of American cultural history and are still quite prominent in the American media (a major force in shaping the new members of American society). Table 3: Cultural Continuums provides an overview of the different ways of looking at cultures.

High-context & Low-context

Perhaps the most well-known cultural continuum is Hall's (1976) discussion of high-context and low-context cultures. Hall views meaning and context as "inextricably bound up with each other" (1982, p. 18). The difference between high and low context cultures depends on how much meaning is found in the context versus in the code. You can think of "code" as the message. You can think of "context" as setting or circumstance, including the people, in which the message appeared.

Low-context cultures, such as the American culture, tend to place more meaning in the language code and very little meaning in the context. For this reason, communication tends to be specific, explicit, and analytical (Ting-Toomey, 1985). In analyzing messages, low-context cultures tend to focus on "what was said" and give literal meaning to each word. For this reason, the words - or what was said - can take on a power of their own. Chen & Starosta pointed out that low-context cultures tend to use a direct verbal-expression style in which the situation context is not emphasized, important information is usually carried in explicit verbal messages, people tend to directly express their opinions and intend to persuade others to accept their viewpoints, and self-expression, verbal fluency, and eloquent speech are valued (1998, p. 50).

In high-context cultures, meaning is embedded more in the context rather than the code. In this case, "what was said" cannot be understood by the words alone - one has to look at who said it, when they said it, where they said it, how they said it, the circumstances in which they said it, to whom they said it, etc. Each variable will help define the meaning of "what was said."

In speaking of high-context cultures, Hall states, "most of the information is either in the physical context or internalized in the person, while very little is in the coded, explicit, transmitted part of the message" (1982, p.18). Thus the listener must understand the contextual cues in order to grasp the full meaning of the message. As Hall says:

People raised in high-context systems expect more from others than do the participants in low-context systems. When talking about something that they have on their minds, a high-context individual will expect his interlocutor to know what's bothering him, so that he doesn't have to be specific. The result is that he will talk around and around the point, in effect putting all the pieces in place except the crucial one. Placing it properly -- this keystone -- is the role of his interlocutor. (1976, p. 98)
In other words, in high-context exchanges, much of the "burden of meaning" appears to fall on the listener. In low context cultures, the burden appears to fall on the speaker to accurately and thoroughly convey the meaning in her spoken or written message.

Polychronic & Monochronic

Edward Hall also introduced the concept of monochronic and polychronic cultures. The concept of chronemics is a nonverbal behavior that speaks to how people use time to communicate. Lateness, for example, can communicate messages of power (waiting in the doctor's office), attraction (arriving early for that first date), or identity (being 'fashionably late'). Chronemics, like all other nonverbal behavior is culturally based. Different cultures have different rules governing the use and meaning of time. Hall's distinction between monochronic and polychronic cultures highlight the different ends of the cultural spectrums of how culture's view time.

Monochronic cultures such as the dominant American culture tend to view time as linear ("spread out across time," "spanning across generations," "the time line" or "time frame"). Being punctual, scheduling, planning tasks to match time frames are valued behaviors. Time is viewed as a commodity ("time is money") that can be bought ("buying time"), spent ("spending time") or wasted ("wasting time"). Thus, although time is technically an abstract phenomena, in the monochronic view it becomes a concrete reality. Woe to he who has lost time. One of the most outstanding features of monochronic cultures is that because time is so concrete and segmented, "only one thing can be done at a time." To try to do many things at one time is chaos, that is, negative.

Polychronic cultures tend to view time as nonlinear. There can be a circular or cyclical quality to time ("what goes around, comes around", "life is a circle"). Punctuality and scheduling is done but rarely with the religious fervor found in monochronic cultures. Schedules are not "etched in stone" but rather "penciled in"as a matter of cultural habit instead of personal habit. People from polychronic cultures, as the term "poly" suggests, find little difficulty doing many things at one time. Because time is not linear or segmented, matching specific activities with specific time frames is not done. Times and activities are fluid.

Collectivism & Individualism

Psychologist and intercultural scholar, Harry Triandis (1986) at the University of Illinois, has written extensively about individuals define themselves in terms of their social grouping. He has discussed these differences in terms of collectivist and individualist cultures. For an excellent summary see Triandis, Brislin & Hui (1988).

Individualist cultures are defined as those in which the goals of the individual are valued over any particular group or collective. In individualist cultures, a person tends to look primarily after his own interests or that of his immediate nuclear family. Personal accomplishments are important and individuals will take advantage of opportunities for advancement even if it means sacrificing personal relations. Relationships tend to be short-term and transitory. As a result, contracts are an important means for defining and binding relationship.

Collectivist cultures are defined as those which the collective goals are valued over the individual goals. As Triandis & Hui stated about people from collectivist cultures, "individuals pay primary attention to the needs of their group and will sacrifice opportunities for personal gain" because such sacrifice is tied to their sense of self as a member of the larger collective. In other words, what is good for the collective is good for the self; the individual's esteem is tied to the collective's esteem. The distinction between "in-groups" and "out-groups" is clearly defined. In collectivist cultures, a person is assumed to belong to one or more tight "in-groups." The in-group protects the interests of its members collectively. Loyalty to the in-group is primary. Long term relationships based on trust are also very important.

Indirect & Direct

Scholars have also distinguished cultures in terms of direct versus indirect communication styles. Levine (1985) said that the American cultural preference is for clear and direct communication as evidenced by their many common expressions: "Say what your mean," "Don't beat around the bush," "Get to the point" (p.29). Levine's description of indirect or ambiguous communication further underscore the differences:

Indirect verbal communication is designed to be affectively neutral. It aims for the precise representation of fact, technique, or expectation. Direct communication works to strip language of its expressive overtones and suggestive allusions. Ambiguous communication, by contrast, can provide a superb means for conveying affect. By alluding to shared experiences and sentiments verbal associations can express and evoke a wealth of affective responses. (1985, p. 32)

Thus where direct communication strives for emotional neutrality or objectivity. In contrast, ambiguous communication deliberately uses language to evoke an emotional response. Additionally, whereas nonlinear stresses openness, ambiguous styles would be more likely to conceal or bury the message. Similarly, direct stresses specific factual and even technical aspects of a message that the ambiguous style would omit.

Linear & Non-linear

Similar to the oral/literate framework, scholar (Dodd, 1982; Lee, 1950) suggest linear versus configurational (non-linear) thought framework. The American culture would be more representative a linear thought framework, and the Arab culture more configurational or non-linear. According to Dodd, the linear orientation "has transformed auditory and oral communication into visual communication by means of written symbols, organized into linear thought patterns" (1982, p. 163). The linear cultural pattern stresses beginnings and ends of events, unitary themes, is object oriented rather than people or event-oriented, and is empirical in its use of evidence.

Nonlinear cultures, says Dodd are characterized by the "simultaneous bombardment and processing of a variety of stimuli" so that people would think in images, not just words (1982,
p. 162). The non-linear thought framework normally has multiple themes, is expressed in oral terms and heightened by nonverbal communication. Time orientation is less important than people and events, and time is not segmented.

Oral versus Literate

Anthropologists have long posited the distinctions between oral versus literate dominant societies. The print or literate dominant society relies more on the factual accuracy of a message than its emotional resonance (Ong, 1980). This may relate to the historical purpose of the written word -- to record, preserve, and transmit (see, Stock, 1983). Literate societies also favor evidence, reasoning, and analysis over the less rational, more intuitive approach (Denny, 1991). This contrasts to the logic of oral cultures, where a single anecdote can constitute adequate evidence for a conclusion and a specific person or act can embody the beliefs and ideals of the entire community (Gold, 1988).

Whereas literate cultures may place a higher premium on accuracy and precision than on symbolism, in the oral cultures the weights are reversed. In oral cultures there appears to be greater involvement on the part of the audience, and this in turn, affects the importance of style and devices that enhance audience rapport.

Citing Cicero, Gold (1988) highlights numerous features of the oral tradition, including repetition as a means for keeping attention as well as making the speech "agreeable to the ear" (p. 160). In terms of message comprehension, Henle (1962) noted that auditors will "go to considerable lengths to make sense of an oral message" (p. 371). Thus listeners play a valuable part in constructing meaning within an oral exchange. As Gold states, "the audience cooperates with the speaker by trying to understand the meaning or 'gist' rather than the actual content" (1988, p. 170). Thus, the audience is quite active.

With heightened listener involvement, the aesthetics of style and audience relations may supersede the informational aspects of a message. An oral message may be valued more for its affective power than its cognitive merits. Tannen (1982) noted the interpersonal involvement between speaker and audience, as speakers strive for a more emotional and participatory responses from their audience. Clearly with style overriding substance, aural ornaments such as formulas, humor, exaggeration, parallelism, phonological elaboration, special vocabulary, puns, metaphor, and hedges are critical (Feldman, 1991; Gold, 1988).


Chen, G. & Starosta, W. (1998). Foundations of intercultural communication. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Condon, J. & Yousef, F. (1975). An introduction to intercultural communication. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.

Daniels, N. (1975). The cultural barrier: Problems in the exchange of ideas. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Denny, J. (1991). Rational thought in oral culture and literate decontextualization. In D. Olson & & N. Torrance (Eds.), Literacy and Orality. NY: Cambridge University Press.

Dodd, C. (1992). Dynamics of intercultural communication. Dubuque: Wm. C. Brown.

Feldman, C. (1991). Oral metalanguage. In D. Olson & N. Torrance (Eds.), Literacy and orality. NY: Cambridge University Press.

Gold, E. (1988). Ronald Reagan and the oral tradition. Central States Speech Journal, 39, 159-176.

Hall, E.T. (1982). Context and meaning. In L. Samovar & R. Porter (Eds.), Intercultural communication: A reader. Belmont: Wadsworth.

Hall, E.T. (1976). Beyond culture. NY: Doubleday.

Henle, M. (1962). On the relations between logic and thinking. Psychological Review, 69, 366-378.

Kluckhohn, F. (1953). "Dominant and variant value orientations," in C. Kluckhohn & H. Murray (eds.), Personality in nature, society, and culture. NY: Alfred Knopf, pp. 342-357.

Kluckhohn, F. & Strodtbeck, R. (1961). Variations in value orientations. Evanston, Il: Row Peterson.

Lee, D. (1977). "Lineal and nonlineal codification of reality," in P. Kollock & J. O'Brien (eds.), The production of reality. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine-Forge Press, pp. 101-111.  (Reprint from Psychosomatic Medicine, 12 (2), pp. 89-97, 1950).

Levine, D. (1985). The flight from ambiguity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Okabe, R. (1983). Cultural assumptions of East and West: Japan and the U.S.. In W. Gudykunst (Ed.), Intercultural communication theory. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

Ong, W. (1980). Literacy and orality in our times. Journal of Communication, 30, 197-204.

Stewart, E. (1972). American cultural patterns. Chicago: Intercultural Press.

Stock, B. (1983). The implications of literacy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Tannen, D. (1982). Introduction. In D. Tannen (Ed.), Spoken and written language: Exploring orality and literacy. Norwood, NJ: ABLEX.

Ting-Toomey, S. (1985). Toward a theory of conflict and culture. In W. Gudykunst, L. Stewart & S. Ting-Toomey (Eds.), Communication, culture and organizational processes. Beverly Hills: Sage.

Triandis, H. (1986).  Collectivism vs. individualism:  A reconceptualization of a basic concept in cross-cultural psychology," in C. Bagley & G. Verma (eds.), Personality, cognition, and values.  NY:  Macmillan, pp. 57-89.

Triandis, H., Brislin, R. & Hui, C. (1988). Cross-cultural training across the individualism-collectivism divide. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 12, 269-289.

Table 3:  Cultural Continuums -- The Two Ends of the Spectrum

Hall (1976) 


Hall (1976) 


Levine (1985) 


Lee (1950)
Dodd (1982) 


Triandis (1986)


 - meaning in message 
  - explicit 
 - include details in message 
  - speaker responsible for 
                  message clarity 


 - view time as linear

- time can be segmented
(divided into measurable quantities)
- value punctuality, scheduling 
& planning 


- direct, to the point 
- clear 
- objective 
   (remain emotionally neutral) 


- one theme 
- clear structural organization 
  with beginning & end 
- time segmented 


- individual's goals valued over
      group goals
- personal accomplishments valued
- networking among groups
- relationships short-term, functional

Literate Society 

- printed, written word valued 
- singular experince 
- factual accuracy stressed 
- logic & coherence 
- speaker my be detached 
      from audience 
- analytical reasoning 

Message design:   
- simplicity 
- accuracy 
- understatement 
- action-oriented language


- meaning in context 
 - implicit 
  - details in context, not message 
 - listener responsible 
       for understanding message 


 - view time as nonlinear, can be c
   seen as circular or cylical 
- time not segmented, more fluid

- loose adherence to scheduling


- indirect, circular 
- ambiguous, vauge 
- subjective 
   (deliberately use emotion) 


- may have multiple themes 
- organizational structure absent 

- time fluid 


-group's goals valued over
  individual goals
- group pride valued
- in-group loyalty valued
- relationships long-term, 
    trust important

Oral/Aural Society 

- aural experienced valued 
- group experience 
- imagery & sounds stressed 
- emotional resonance 
- speaker & audience linked 

- inutitive reasoning 

Message design: 
- repetition 
- vivid imagery 
- exaggeration 
- symbolic language