Intercultural competence cannot be reduced to a simple personality trait, or some abstract textbook knowledge. It’s for a large part related to language, to the capability of managing conflicts, and to social responsibility. According to Edward Hall we can place these in the categories of context, space and time. These categories can help you interpret communication and interaction between cultures and that is exactly what the field of intercultural communication focuses on.
Hall’s research is interesting to me, as a communication specialist, because he was an anthropologist. The field of anthropology [study of what makes us human] has always had my interest because in my opinion the cultural side of anthropology is immensely important to the field of intercultural communication.
Let’s look at Hall’s findings, starting with ‘context’. According to Hall there are high context cultures and low context culture. These terms refer to how a message is communicated. In high context cultures people tent to be more indirect. Body language is important, the social aspect is important, the receiver is expected to read the message within the context of an indirect story. The Netherlands is not an indirect country, as you may have figured out by now. That makes the Netherlands a low-context country. Characteristics of a low -context country are explicit and direct communications. The idea behind this is that when you “say what you mean” you minimize the margins of misunderstanding. You can understand, that when coming from a high-context country, the Netherlands might be confusing.
Next on Hall’s list is ‘space’, this topic focuses on physical distance between people when they interact, but also on how people guard their own territory. For example, you travel by train, one other person is sitting in the compartment, on a four-seater spot. Where do you sit? In one of the three seats still available close to the other person, or as far from this other person as possible? A Dutchie would go for option two: keep distance. Don’t share space if you don’t have too is the general motto here.
Final topic is time. Hall divides cultures in being either polychronic or monochronic. In the first type of cultures people can do several things at the same time. In the second type people tend to to one thing at the time. This does not refer to the ability to multitask, it’s more about the perception of time. The Netherlands, being typical monochronic, puts a true value in appointments. One shall never be late, but preferably early. Events have a start and and end time, yes even birthdays. Polychronic cultures are the exact opposite, they value relationships over time, arriving late is not considered an insult, people easily plan more than one event to visit and not even think about it. For Dutchies, a polychronic approach to time is frustrating because it feels very ineffective. For lots of non-Dutchies an monochronic approach is frustrating because it feels unwelcoming to live life by the clock instead of by the people around you.
So the Netherlands, being a low context, space valuing, monochronic culture might be a hard nut to crack for expats, exchange students, refugees and other newbie’s. Keep in mind, it’s not personal, it’s cultural. And if you would appreciate some tips and advice, contact me. We can set an exacte date and time and get to the point immediately with an appropriate distance 😉
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