Rhythm and culture

George Leonard (1981) writes about identity as being ‘the stable, persistent, unique quality that manifests in every human individual’. Personal identity in the form of a ‘distinctive pulse’ can persist over time, through generations, and evolving culture. Leonard speculated that all significant bodily and behavioural functions when subjected to adequate analysis will be shown to display unique, identifiable rhythmic patterns, the sum of which can be taken as an overall wave function, the most fundamental quality of individuality.

An individual’s rhythmic patterns are situated in the rhythm of the culture(s) they are rooted in. Hall (1976) found that each culture he investigated had its own beat, tempo, and rhythm. Furthermore, that the behaviours of people embodied the culturally based intervals for corrective action that affect how we connect at the emotional level. For example, the Spanish of New Mexico keep close tabs on each other’s emotions so that even slight variations are immediately detected and commented on. This short interval or short cycle on feedback can create volatility. Anglo-Saxons have a long time interval, long feedback cycle, taking mood shifts for granted and avoiding interfering or intervening in others lives. People frequently feel they are alone and that it is right and proper they should be able to solve their own problems. When things go wrong, it only becomes obvious when it is out of hand.

Rhythm is a powerful dimension of identity and culture. The proxemics example of people adjusting a fraction of an inch at a time to cultural differences in proximity whilst moving every thirty seconds around a room as they are standing and talking not only illustrates the power of interpersonal synchrony but also shows what happens when this lacks mutual adaptation of the cultural embodiment of space. Hall found that few people can function unless it is within the limits of their own rhythm system (culture). He addressed the need for differing rhythm cycles of cultural identity to calibrate especially in cross-cultural communication and that if different systems are not calibrated, unless a deliberate and successful effort is made to bring them into phase, the interaction could be problematic.

As each person has their own rhythm that makes up their personal identity, such calibration of rhythmic differences in interpersonal synchrony is essential in everyday interaction.