Deciphering the term Culture

2013-08-18 14.09.25

(Bautista, Personal Photograph of the Dong Wu Silk Museum, Beijing China, 2013)

Deciphering the term Culture

There is an understanding, too, at some deep if unspoken level, that we’re all of us, one way or another, from out of town.   Literally and figuratively.  Each of which presents its own set of questions – for example, ‘What culture am I?’ ‘What culture are you?’ ‘And what is our – Canadian – culture?’ (Zola, n.d., Retrieved on May 31, 2004, from

Quite simply, I believe each culture shapes the perception of its members.  As I continually unravel this one particular term, I realize culture like most terms of diversity is an intricate web.  Andres and Andres (1994) write that “culture means the system of symbols and meanings people use to organize their ideas, interpret their experiences, make decisions and ultimately, guide their actions” (p.51).  Their definition though is based on their research of the mostly homogenous ethnic make-up of the Philippines.

From Hall (1977) I gather a possible definition of culture as an area of complexity.  From him, I learn that culture is a multi-layered idea of understanding an individuals’ membership in a particular group and consequently, how the group’s system of beliefs, traditions and functions affect and influence the individual.  I gather that cultures, then, are indicative of a way of life.

Cultures are extraordinarily complex…How does one go about learning the underlying structure of culture? …Culture is humanity’s medium; there is not one aspect of human life that is not touched and altered by culture.  This means personality, how people express themselves (including shows of emotion)…as well as how economic and government systems are put together and function. It [culture] is frequently the most obvious and taken for granted and therefore the least studied aspects of culture that influence behaviour in the deepest and most subtle ways. (Hall, 1977,106)

 In multicultural settings, complexities of culture tend to multiply.  If particular people of one culture function in certain ways, then what occurs when a number of cultures must operate and live within the same multicultural community?  Hall’s (1986) discussion of High/ Low Context helps to theorize co-existing cultures.

Hall defines high context cultures as those cultures that function without need to be instructed or informed of how to function within an environment and or the immediate society.  There is very little need for communication because most individuals from these cultures instinctively know what is expected of them.  As Hall (1986) writes, “high context cultures…take it for granted that their interlocutors will automatically ‘know’ the essentials.  In high context communication, most of the information is stored in the memory of the individuals so that very little is transmitted” (p.162).  He refers to the Pueblo, many of Africa’s indigenous peoples, and the Japanese as examples of high context groups.

Also from Hall (1986), I read how low context cultures “are those in which there is a widely shared assumption-and behaviour to support that assumption that the amount of knowledge on the part of one’s interlocutor is minimal.  That is, there is a need to tell everybody everything in great detail (this applies particularly to instructions)” (p.162).  He indicates that within these cultures instructions must always be clarified.  Thought processes are geared towards the production of a solution and in order for this to happen, communications must be clear and understood by all.  “Low context communications are those in which virtually nothing can be taken for granted and in which most of the information is in the transmitted message” (Hall, 1986, p.162).   He further writes that low context situations are found in Western cultures namely American legal institutions, government regulations, technology and computer programming.

I interpret High Context culture as those who are expected to know how to belong in society because of a mostly homogenous people and Low Context as those who must be told how to operate within a mostly heterogeneous population.  Oriental? Occidental? Both?

In terms of multicultural environments, Hall presents a possible theory for understanding occurrences when cultures cannot co-exist within the same setting, a form of culture clash.  Hall states:

Shifts in the level of context are metacommunications which indicate shifts in relationship.…The result is that high context individuals operating in low context cultures constantly feel put down (a problem with many minority individuals in dominant culture situations)….Two ends of the context scale approach information in very different ways.  These different approaches have a deep and abiding effect on the educational process, and they are related to high and low context communicating.  Not everyone arrives at meaning in an event in the same way!  High context peoples…do not construct meaning in their daily lives so much as they “extract it” from the environment and the situation. (1986, pp.162-163)

If Hall’s offering is accepted then issues of education are also affected by the complexity of culture.  In classrooms of diversity, students live and learn according to their particular background, but they also function within the larger context of Canadian multi-culture.  The difficulty lies in locating and negotiating the similarities and the differences between the culture of heritage and the culture of dominance.

From negotiating and living my experience, I continue to think about two self(ves), two forms of culture, Canadian and Filipino.  In light of Hall’s perspective, my parents, raised in a high context culture, came to Canada and raised children in a low context one.  Can I then be considered the middle ground?   I wonder if this postulation of High/Low context is another approach to negotiating issues of cultural self-identity crisis.  Perhaps, this inability to locate one’s self in either High or Low context definitions becomes my area of inquiry for individuals who were born Canadian and yet, raised in immigrant households.

Culture is, inherently, a quality of life that shapes and guides a large part of how people think and interact in their environment.  A homogenous community, where culture is somewhat uniform, provides a place of shared lived experiences.  In a multicultural setting, however, misunderstanding the culture of others could be seen as the root of ignorance and prejudice.  Cultural identity crisis occurs when we instill codes of assimilation and acculturation.  When we try to construct a Canadian identity of similarity, we overlook the significance of differences.  We posit the differences as outside of the Canadian cultural definition.  Diversity in Canada is the recognition that we are all culturally different, but that we are also connected and that we must be mindful of the differences in cultural understandings.



Andres, T. & Andres, P. (1994). Understanding the Filipino.  Quezon City:  New Day Publishers.

Hall, E. T. (1977).  Beyond Culture.  New York: Anchor press/ Doubleday.

Hall, E.T. (1986). Unstated Features of the Cultural Context of Learning. In A.Thomas & E. Plaman. Learning and Development: A Global Perspective. Toronto: OISE Press.  157-76.

Zola, M. (n.d.). Definitely Not the Chinatown Field-Trip to See the New Year Dragon Dance… Retrieved May 31, 2004, from