Edward T. Hall-- A Great-Grandfather of NLP

by Brian Van der Horst

Much of the programming that we deal with changing in NLP is a result of cultural programs1.

The habits, problems, and many of the useless things we have learned to do and wish to change, are often surplus cultural baggage. Especially in cross-cultural situations. Such as between the differing cultures of Black, Hispanic, Asian, Amerindian, and European America. Or the cultures of management and staff. Or of men and women. Or parents and children.


Unbeknownst to many of us, quite a few of the approaches that NLP uses to solve these problems have been inherited from ground-breaking work in the field of the inter-cultural communication (ICC). This field studies the subjective experience of culture as a function of communication separate from, but including the differences in languages.

Most people date the foundation of ICC from the publication of Edward T. Hall's "The Silent Language," in 1959. If Gregory Bateson was the paternal grandfather of NLP, and perhaps Milton Erickson the maternal, then another, certainly great-grandfather of NLP would be Edward T. Hall.

To my mind, Hall is one is the most gifted anthropologists ever to live. He is also our kind of guy. He writes accessible books. He consults to governments and businesses-- apparently because he enjoys working with people who interact, who must produce results and who affect the world. He is obviously not one who would be content to rest within the warm pink snuglies of academic security.

While I think it is always valable to know one's roots ("Those who cannot remember the past are are condemmed to repeat it.2") , my primary interest in writing about Hall is sharing what I have found useful in his genius for understanding and navigating through different cultures.

I'd like to present some of his major ideas for your delectation and delight, as well as some examples of how I have benefited from them while living in Europe for the past eight years.


As early as in "The Silent Language," Hall said, "Experience is something man projects upon the outside world as he gains it in its culturally determined form."

If NLP is based on one presupposition, surely it is this same thought-- that the study of subjective experience begins with how we sort, select, and create our personal realities.

"The analogy with music is useful in understanding culture." Hall says later. "A musical score is comparable to the technical descriptions of culture... In both cases, the notation system enables people to talk about what they do...I would like to stress that there are laws governing patterns: laws of order, selection and congruence." Here Hall could be talking about meta programs.

"Like the creative composer, some people are more gifted at living than others. They do have an effect on those around them, but the process stops there because there is no way of describing in technical terms just what it is they do, most of which is out of awareness. Some time in the future, a long, long time from now when culture is more completely explored, there will be the equivalent of musical scores that can be learned, each for a different type of man or woman in different types of jobs and relationships, for time, space, work, and play. We see people who are successful and happy today, who have jobs which are rewarding and productive. What are the sets, isolates, and patterns that differentiate their lives from those of the less fortunate? We need to have a means for making life a little less haphazard and more enjoyable.3"

Of course, here Hall is talking about modelling. "Man is the model-making organism par excellence..." wrote Hall 16 years later, the same year Bandler and Grinder named NLP. "Grammars and writing systems are models of language... Myths, philosophical systems, and science represent different types of models of what the social scientists call cognitive sytems. The purpose of the the model is to enable the user to do a better job in handling the enormous complexity of life. By using models, we see and test how things work and can even predict how things will go in the future... People are very closely indentified with their models, since they also form the basis for behavior. Men have fought and died in the name of different models of nature.4"

Edward T. Hall received his Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1942. He's done fieldwork with Navajo, Hopi, Spanish-American, European, Middle and Far Eastern societies. During the 50s, he directed a training program for the State Department teaching foreign-bound technicians and administrators how to communicate effectively across cultural boundaries. He taught at the University of Denver, Bennington College, The Washington School of Psychiatry, Havard Business School, Illinois Institute of Technology, Northwestern University-- the list goes on. Today he lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and lectures widely in America, Europe, and Japan.

The seeds of most of the major themes of Hall's lifework are to be found in "The Silent Language," if indeed, the birth of the field of inter-cultural communication is dated from the publication of this book, it is at least out of respect of the immensity of his genius.

On the first page of this book, Hall begins with two themes-- time and space-- to which he will later dedicated entire books: "The Dance of Life (1983)," and "The Hidden Dimension (1966)."


Let's talk about time first.

Hall's first distinctions were between what he calls monochronic and polychronic time. "M-time is one-thing-at-a-time, following a linear form so familiar in the West...an outgrowth of the industrial revolution. Monochronic cultures stress a high degree of scheduling, and an elaborate code of behaviour built around promptness in meeting obligations and appointments.

"Polychronic cultures are just the opposite: human relationships and interactions are valued over arbitrary schedules and appointments. Many things may occur at once (since many people are involved in everything), and interruptions are frequent... P-time is polychronic, that is, many-things-at-a-time. P-time is common in Mediterranean and Colonial-Iberian-Indian cultures."

Americans are mostly monochronic. The French, for example, are largely polychronic.

So what happens when I, an American living in France, visit a French office? I arrive punctually. The French boss is taking calls during our meeting. His family drops by. His subordinates ask questions. We go out to eat. He invites along a couple of friends. All this seems really disorganized to me. No problem for the French. They are used to doing many things at the same time.

The Frenchperson comes to visit me. He's late. I spend a little social time saying hello. Then I present the agenda. First we will discuss our needs, wants and outcomes. Second we will negotiate a deal. Third we will sign a contract. Then last, we will have some more social time. Mon dieu, thinks my French colleague, is this guy Van der Horst a picky, finicky fuss-budget!

On an experiential level, these two cultural time orientations may be represented by what we in NLP call "Through Time"-- monochronic-- and "In Time" -- polychronic-- time lines.5 In fact, if these distinctions hold true, this may be one of NLP's potential contributions to detecting, understanding and changing cultural misunderstandings.


These two time orientations tend to produce two other significant cultural phenomena: the difference between high and low context cultures. "These terms refer to the fact that when people communicate, they take for granted how much the listener knows about the subject under discussion. In low-context communication, the listener knows very little and must be told practically everything. In high-context communication the listener is already 'contexted' and so does not need to be given much background information.6"

American contracts, for example, are about 10 times longer than French contracts. Americans like to have a lot of content. The French don't care as much, as long as the context of the agreement is understood.

Remember, the French think, "If it is a beautiful idea, it's got to work." Americans think, "If it works, it may be a beautiful idea." The French are a high context culture; America is low context / high content.

Here's another way these differences can be observed. Jack, an American, is in France. He takes Marie, a Frenchwoman, out to dinner and a show. Afterwards, she invites him to her apartment. It is midnight. She serves coffee and cognac. Jack starts talking about all the things they have in common. He stares meaningfully into her eyes. He tries to cuddle closer to Marie. Marie says, "Relax, Jack. You are going to spend the night. Don't rush it." Jack thinks he's a great Casanova. He does not know that the context has already determined what content-- sleeping together or not-- will ensue in this situation.

Jules, a Frenchman is in America. It's the same scene as above, only Mary is an American. Just after coffee and cognac, Jules jumps on Mary. Mary is horrified. Jules does not understand. He has just received all the context markers for seduction. He does not know Mary expects a lot of content, before cutting to the chase. She wants to know what they have in common, to discuss their relationship, to share details of intimacies, and to exchange medical records, before she can switch to the context of a romantic entanglement.

Mike Tyson would never have been convicted of rape in France. Under French law, the context of situation ordains the content of "what happened". I know this sounds crazy. And I am not condoning violence. I am simply reporting what many of my French friends told me-- including some lawyers. The idea of context is so important in France, that if a woman enters into a man's hotel room at 3:00 AM, a French jury will assume she has already given assent to sexual congress. The contexts of many famous French court cases explain why "Crimes of Passion" get such light sentences.

"Japanese, Arabs, and Mediterranean peoples, who have extensive information networks among family, friends, colleagues and clients and who are involved in close personal relationships, are high-context." says Hall writing with his wife, Mildren Reed Hall, in "Understanding Cultural Differences"(1990).

"As a result, for most normal transactions in daily life, they do not require, nor do they expect, much in-depth, background information. This is because they keep themselves informed about everything having to do with the people who are important in thier lives.

"Low-context people include Americans, Germans, Swiss, Scandinavians, and other northern Europeans; they compartmentalize their personal relationships, their work, and many aspects of day-to-day life. Consequently, each time they interact with others they need detailed background information. The French are much higher on the context scale than either the Germans or the Americans. This difference can affect virtually every situation and every relationship in which the members of these two opposite traditions find themselves."

Here's a nifty chart7 the Halls' have created to describe some of the predictable patterns between cultures with differing time systems:
do one thing at a time do many things at once
concentrate on the job are highly distractable and subject to interruptions
take time commitments (deadlines, schedules) seriously consider 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
emphasize promptness base promptness on the relationship
are accustomed to short-term relationships have strong tendency to build lifetime relationships


"The Hidden Dimension(1966)" was Hall's exploration into the cultural phenomena of space, including the invisable boundaries of territoriality, personal space and the multi-sensory (VAKOG!!) perceptions of space-- the eyes, ears, skin, and nose as distance receptors-- including a few distinctions rarely talked about in NLP. Here are a few of this thoughts on these topics:

Territoriality: "Americans tend to establish places that they label 'mine'-- a cook's feeling about a kitchen or a child's view of her or his bedroom. In Germany this same feeling of territoriality is commonly extended to all possessions... If a German's car is touched, it is as though the individual himself has been touched."

Cultural Orientations Toward Sensory Modalities: "High-context people reject auditory screening and thrive on being open to interruptions and in tune with what goes on around them. Hence, in French and Italian cities, one is periodically and instrusively bombarded by noise."

Personal space: "Each person has around him an invisable bubble of space which expands and contracts depending on a number of things: the relationship to the people nearbvy, the person's emotional state, cultural background, and the activity being performed. Few people are allowed to penetrate this bit of mobile territory and then only for short periods of time... In northern Europe, the bubble are quite large and people keep their distance. In southern France, Italy, Greece and spain, the bubbles get smaller and smaller. "

These last observations on personal space helped clear up something that had bothered me for a long time in France. Doing some research of my own, I found out that personal space is the space in which you feel you must acknowlege another person, and do something about them if they enter into this zone. Then there is intimate space-- that distance which is perceived as an invasion of your privacy.

The personal space for Americans begins at the distance of about two out-stretched arms. For the French-- although this differs from North to South-- it averages out at about one arm's lenght. This is the beginning of an American's intimate space. The French intimate space begins at an elbow's distance, or closer.

I had been feeling claustrophobic in French bathrooms for years. They are very narrow-- the walls touch your outstreched elbows-- compared to their American counterparts-- in which you can usually put out a radius of an arm's length about you. Reading Hall, I realized that French bathrooms had been invading my intimate space-- and suddenly I didn't have to do a V/K dissociation everytime I wanted to visit the lavatory. I could just smile and say, aha, those cuddly French have done it again.

There is one more essential theme in Hall's work that I feel can aid NLP practitioners, the concept of action chains.

An action chain is "a term borrowed from animal behavior to describe an interactional process in which one action releases another in a uniform patterned way. Courtship is a rather complex example. Making a date or inviting someone to dinner would be another.8"

One of my favorite examples of an action chain is Paul Watzlawick's example from World War II. Both the English and the Americans during this time were calling the other culture "over-sexed." This is rather rare in inter-cultural conflicts. Usually the misunderstandings come in polarities. One culture is hot and the other cold, for instance. Watzlawick explains this in terms of action chains.

In both the British and American cultures, there are, let's say 20 distinct steps in the ritual of courtship-- between the first hello and going to bed. One step that occurs in both cultures is "the kiss on the lips."

In America, this is about step number three. It's something you do to establish intimacy. But in England, this is around step 18. It's about the last thing you do before engaging in sexual intercourse.

So imagine a U.S. soldier on a date with an English girl. To get the relationship going in the right direction, to warm it up a little, the guy gives the gal a kiss on the lips. Just like in the (Hollywood) movies.

The lady in question now has a difficult choice to make. First, she thinks the guy is definitly over-sexed. After all, she hardly knows the fellow, and she's just been cheated out of 15 steps. So either she walks off the scene immediately-- in which case the Yankee says, "She is obviously over-sexed and hysterical-- all I did was give her a kiss on the lips."

Her other choice is to start preparing to go to bed. After, all the guy just yanked her action chain, and she is only a step or two away from the main event. If she follows this course, the American says, "Boy, is she over-sexed! She's taking off her clothes, and all I did was give her a kiss on the lips."


Getting to know Hall can help you understand, forgive, and maybe even appreciate that which is invisable, transparent, and unexamined in inter-cultural conflicts.

Take the case of the French marketing executive I met at a party in the suburbs of Paris. He was complaining that Americans are so superficial, and childlike. Of course I asked him, how did he know this?

He had been working in America on assignment. At the end of the first week, a colleague had invited him home for dinner. A little while later, his car broke down. He called the American for a ride, but he didn't want to get involved. "There you have it," he said, "They are friendly at first, but they don't make lasting friendships."

I had heard this before. First I tried pacing. I said, "I know in France, inviting someone over for dinner is a very intimate occaison, and a high mark of social respect. It is often the same for Americans, with a few differences."

I started thinking about the differences between monochronic and polychronic cultures, high and low-contexts, and action chains. My wife asked the Frenchman, "After your dinner, what did you do?" Oh, nothing, he replied, after all, I brought flowers, we had dinner together, at his home. I asked, " How much time elapsed between the dinner and the breakdown?" Three months.

I asked him, "If you were in France, would you ask someone into your home for dinner the first time you met them?" No, or course not, he replied (I already knew this action chain). First you have coffee together, then a drink at a bar, followed by lunch at a bistro, and then maybe dinner in a restaurant. Then you know if you want to invite them into your home. "How long does this process take?" Three to six weeks.

"Then you test the person before you invite them to your house?" Of course. "Well, so do the Americans," I replied. "Only they do their testing AFTER the dinner."

I explained that if you don't send a thank-you note, or make a telephone call a day or so after the dinner, you are judged as impolite. Furthermore, if you do not maintain contact, with either a call, letter, fax, or visit at least once a week, after a period of three to six weeks, an American will assume that the relationship has terminated.

I extended my sympathies. "I am sorry, Monsieur. You did not pass the test."

In France, however, sometimes years can go by after a dinner at someone's home, but the relationship remains intact. The event --which has been pre-tested--is so special in the Frenchperson's mind that very little "upkeep" of the relationship is necessary.

You could also begin to understand why freqently, on first sight, the French think we are efflusive children and why Americans think the French are arrogant, if you think in action chains.

The criteria of "Being Liked" and "Being Respected," are important in both cultures. However, in the U.S., likability comes first in the sequence of the social action chain. So, if you are concerned about liking and being liked, what are you going to do behaviorally when you meet someone for the first time: you are going to smile and say nice things. Then you are going to next decide how much you repect the person, especially since in America, we don't have quite the power-distance, or all the social strata that exist in France. North Americans expect people to be more or less equal.

Not in France. Here, there is a wider power distance between social strata. (Would their national slogan be "Liberty, Equality and Fraternity," if they had it in the first place?) Here, respect is the first criteria that is demanded to be determined in a social interaction. So, if respect and being respected are important-- what do you do behaviorally? You judge, you evaluate, you ascertain the social class of the other, and you definitely project the moves that will get you respect in you home culture. Laughing, smiling and saying nice things come later on your action chain-- after you have determined who respects whom.

All of Edward T. Hall's writings bear the mark of his genius. I recommend reading them all, in the order they were published if you would like some terrific insights into the scientific foundations of NLP and how to go about handling inter-cultural communications.

If you only have time for one, I recommend starting with "Beyond Culture," which is a great summary of his work. It has four indexes-- one for authors, one for subjects, one of themes, and one of "Ideas and Techniques of Transcendence." This last index reads like a poem:

"An individual cannot thru introspection and Self-examination understand himself or the forces that mold his life, without understanding his culture.

"Cultures won't change unless everyone changes. There are: neurological-biological-political-economic-historic and Culture-Psychodynamic reasons for this.

"Culture is dictatorial unless understood and examined.

"It is not that man must be in sync with, or adapt to his culture but that cultures grow out of sync with man. When this happens people go crazy and they don't know it.

"In order to avoid mass insanity, people must learn to transcend and adapt their culture to the times and to their biological organisms.

"To accomplish this task, since introspection tells you nothing, man needs the experience of other cultures. I.e. to survive, all cultures need each other."


The Silent Language, New York: Doubleday, 1959

The Hidden Dimension, New York: Doubleday,1966

Beyond Culture, New York: Doubleday, 1976

The Dance of Life, The Other Dimension of Time, New York: Doubleday, 1983

Hidden Differences: Studies in International Communication, Hamburg: Grunder & Jahr, 1983, 1984, 1985

Hidden Differences: Doing Business with the Japanese, Garden City, NY, Anchor Press/ Doubleday, 1987

Understanding Cultural Differences, Germans, French and Americans, Yarmouth: Intercultural Press, 1990

Most of the above publications can be ordered through the Intercultural Press: PO Box 700, Yarmouth, ME 04096.

* * * *

Brian Van der Horst has been a professional trainer for 15 years. For the past 8 years he has lived and worked in Paris as a director of Repere. Previously, he was a consultant with Stanford Research Institute in the Values and Lifestyles Program in the Strategic Environments Group, and director of the Neuro-Linguistic Programming Center for Advanced Studies in San Francisco. He has worked in journalism as an editor for New Realities, Practical Psychology, Playboy, and The Village Voice. He has been an acquistions editor for J.P. Tarcher Books, Houghton-Mifflin, and had a television program in San Francisco. Before this time, he worked in the entertainment industry for 10 years, serving as Vice-President of the Cannon Group, and as Director of Advertising and Publicity for Atlantic Records.

1 Culture here is used as the technical term social scientists use to refer to the systems for creating, sending, storing and processing information developed by human beings, that differentiate them from other life forms; and include beliefs, mores, customs, habits, arts, sciences and traditions. One could also use as synonyms, the expressions world-view, model of the world, or subjective reality.

2 George Santayana

3 This last paragraph was used as a frontispiece for both "The Emprint Method," and "Know How," by Cameron-Bandler, Gordon and Lebeau.

4 Edward T. Hall, "Beyond Culture," 1976.

5 See chapter two of "Time Line Therapy," by Tad James and Wyatt Woodsmall (1988) for a discussion of this hypothesis.

6 Edward T. Hall and Mildred Reed Hall in "Understanding Cultural Differences"(1990).

7 Ibid.

8 "Beyond Culture" (1976)