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The Cultural Nuances of Communication

It’s all in the way you say it.

By Eva Nertinger, CC

When you speak in a foreign language, you want to appear authentic to the local culture. So it’s important to know what is regarded as “normal” in that culture. But that can be tricky—because even when the majority of people in a cultural group agree on certain values, plenty of exceptions and deviations still exist.

In addition to being a conference interpreter and a translator, I also teach intercultural communication and business English. In this role, I’m often aware of the potential for miscommunication between people from different cultural groups. It’s important to understand diverse communication styles—and the need to be culturally aware and sensitive when we speak to people from cultures different than ours.

For example, Americans are perceived as engaging in “ping-pong” conversations: They speak in short bursts, and the “ball” is then “hit” to the other person in the form of a question or tag such as, “isn’t it?” This communication style is reactive, with one person reacting to what the other says. Longer monologues, or pauses in the conversation, are uncommon.

In contrast, you could describe the “normal” communication style in Japan as “bowling.” People speak more deliberately, carefully considering their words before talking, and then speaking in longer sequences. Interruptions are considered impolite (just as you wouldn’t jump into the bowling lane and try to grab the ball!).

“I’m often aware of the ­potential for miscom­munication between ­people from different ­cultural groups.”

The potential for miscommunication is obvious. It is easy to understand, for example, that a Japanese person speaking in English would not necessarily change their conversation style simply because they are speaking in another language. They probably aren’t even consciously aware of their communication style and might only notice the awkwardness of a conversation if the other person speaking English is American.

The Issue of Context

Asian and Western cultures also differ considerably in what Edward T. Hall, a renowned American researcher on cross-cultural communication, defined as “high vs. low context.”

According to Hall, high context is when the most crucial part of information being relayed is not mentioned, and must be read between the lines. Members of the same high context culture will understand what is meant in such a conversation (even if it is not explicitly said). The following workplace example shows what can happen when two people from different cultures use high context.

 It seems we will have to work through the weekend.
 Can you be here on Sunday? 
 Yes, I guess so.
 That’ll be a great help. 
 Yes. Sunday is a special day. 
 What do you mean? 
 It’s my son’s birthday. 
How nice. I hope you all enjoy it very much.
Thank you. I am grateful for your understanding.

The boss will probably be angry when the employee doesn’t show up to work on Sunday, and the employee won’t understand the anger because he told the boss about his son’s birthday. Both here use high context in different ways. The boss does not explicitly tell the employee to show up on Sunday and the employee does not explicitly say that he won’t show up. This might be an extreme case, but it is a good example of what can go wrong in such situations.

In low context cultures, such as Germany, communication is direct and explicit and people will clearly state what they think and want. For people with other communication preferences, this might be perceived as harsh, rude and impolite. But this is not the intention of the low context speaker. In a German-to-German context, this style is considered efficient and time-saving, and small talk is often seen as a waste of time. Speaking figuratively and beating around the bush leave an impression with the German listener that the other side is not sincere or honest.

I sometimes have a hard time helping my Business English students understand that “I would like” definitely has a better sound to it than “I want,” which would be the direct translation of how Germans would express the thought. My German students also need to be persuaded to accept phrases like “Would you please be so kind” to make conversation less confrontational.

Criteria for Good English

English teachers continue to debate what criteria should be used for effective international English. Criteria include comprehensibility, appropriateness and politeness, with the caveat that these terms do not have one universal definition. The following situation is an example.

Someone asks the question, “Would you like something to drink?”

First person answers, “No, I wouldn’t.”

Second person answers, “You are very nicely, but no thank you.”

From a purely grammatical point of view, the first answer is correct while the second one is not. But is answer number one appropriate and polite? Does it lead to good communication? Probably not.

This gives us a glimpse of the different aspects of communication. My goal is to continually improve my communication skills—it is one reason why I joined Toastmasters 20 years ago.