Communicating Across Cultures

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 25, 2020

By Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D.

Two psychiatrists meet on the street. One psychiatrist says to the other, "How are you?" The second psychiatrist nods, hurries away, and thinks, "I wonder what he meant by that?"

If communicating person to person can be so difficult, then it's a safe bet that communicating across cultures is even more challenging. Each culture has set rules that its members take for granted. Few of us are aware of our own cultural biases because cultural imprinting is begun at a very early age. And while some of a culture's knowledge, rules, beliefs, values, phobias, and anxieties are taught explicitly, most of the information is absorbed subconsciously.

Take this scene in a Chinese cemetery. Watching a Chinese man reverently placing fresh fruit on a grave, an American visitor asked, "When do you expect your ancestors to get up and eat the fruit?" The Chinese replied, "As soon as your ancestors get up and smell the flowers."

The challenge for multinational communication has never been greater. Worldwide business organizations have discovered that intercultural communication is a subject of importance—not just because of increased globalization, but also because their domestic workforce is growing more and more diverse, ethnically and culturally.

We are all individuals, and no two people belonging to the same culture are guaranteed to respond in exactly the same way. However, generalizations are valid to the extent that they provide clues on what you will most likely encounter when dealing with members of a particular culture.

High-context vs. Low-context
All international communication is influenced by cultural differences. Even the choice of communication medium can have cultural overtones. For example, advanced industrialized nations rely heavily on electronic technology and emphasize written messages over oral or face-to-face communication. Certainly the United States, Canada, and Germany exemplify this trend. But the Japanese, who have access to the latest technologies, still rely more on face-to-face communications than on written messages. The determining factor may not be the degree of industrialization, but rather whether the country falls into a high-context or low-context culture.

In some cultures, personal bonds and informal agreements are far more binding than any formal contract. In others, the meticulous wording of legal documents is viewed as paramount. High-context cultures (Mediterranean, Slav, Central European, Latin American, African, Arab, Asian, American-Indian) leave much of the message unspecified, to be understood through context, nonverbal cues, and between-the-lines interpretation of what is actually said. By contrast, low-context cultures (most Germanic and English-speaking countries) expect messages to be explicit and specific. The former are looking for meaning and understanding in what is not said—in body language, in silences and pauses, and in relationships and empathy. The latter place emphasis on sending and receiving accurate messages directly, and by being precise with spoken or written words.

The business challenge for someone from a low-context culture is to realize the importance of building and maintaining personal relationships when dealing with high-context cultures.

A major in the U.S. Air Force told me, "The most important thing I learned on my international assignment was not to rush meetings with the typical 'American, take-charge attitude.' I was present when the outgoing chief took the new officer to meet a key contact and I watched, helpless and horrified, as the new man destroyed in five seconds what the incumbent had taken a year to build. Undoubtedly the new chief thought he was creating the impact of a hard-charging young executive, but in reality he was tearing down a delicate relationship."

Sequential vs. Synchronic
Some cultures think of time sequentially, as a linear commodity to "spend," "save," or "waste." Other cultures view time synchronically, as a constant flow to be experienced in the moment, and as a force that cannot be contained or controlled.

A friend from Venezuela was invited to a party in the States. The hours on the invitation were stated as 5:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. This was almost inconceivable to the Venezuelan. "How can anyone know when the party will be over?" she asked. To her way of thinking, a party can't be "timed." It begins when it begins and ends when it ends.

Whether time is perceived as a commodity or a constant determines the meaning and value of being "on time." Think of the misunderstandings that can occur when one culture views arriving late for a meeting as bad planning or a sign of disrespect, while another culture views an insistence on timeliness as childish impatience.

In sequential cultures (like North American, English, German, Swedish, and Dutch), businesspeople give full attention to one agenda item after another. In many other parts of the world, professionals regularly do several things at the same time. I once cashed a check at a Panamanian bank where the teller was counting my money, talking to a customer on the phone, and admiring the baby in the arms of the woman behind me. To her, it was all business as usual.

The American commoditization of time not only serves as the basis for a "time is money" mentality, it can also lead to a fixation on timelines that plays right into the hands of savvy negotiators from other cultures. A Japanese executive explained: "All we need to do is find out when you are scheduled to leave the country—and, by the way, it amuses us that you arrive with your return passage already booked. We wait until right before your flight to present our offer. By then, you are so anxious to stay on schedule that you'll give away the whole deal."

In synchronic cultures (including South America, southern Europe and Asia) the flow of time is viewed as a sort of circle, with the past, present, and future all interrelated. This viewpoint influences how organizations in those cultures approach deadlines, strategic thinking, investments, developing talent from within, and the concept of "long-term" planning.

There's a joke about an American and a Chinese businessman sitting on a park bench in Hong Kong. The American is saying, "Well, you know I've been in Hong Kong for my company for 30 years. Thirty years! And in a few days they are sending me back to the States." The Chinese executive replies, "That's the problem with you Americans: here today and gone tomorrow."

Orientation to the past, present, and future is another aspect of time in which cultures differ. Americans believe that the individual can influence the future by personal effort, but since there are too many variables in the distant future, we favor a short-term view. This gives us an international reputation of "going for the quick buck" and being interested only in the next quarterly return. Even our relationships seem to be based on a "what have you done for me lately?" pragmatism.

Synchronistic cultures have an entirely different perspective. The past becomes a context in which to understand the present and prepare for the future. Any important relationship is a durable bond that goes back and forward in time, and it is often viewed as grossly disloyal not to favor friends and relatives in business dealings.

Affective vs. Neutral
With much angry gesturing, an Italian manager referred to the idea of his Dutch counterpart as "crazy." The Dutch manager replied. "What do you mean, crazy? I've considered all the factors, and I think this is a viable approach. And calm down! We need to analyze this, not get sidetracked by emotional theatrics." At that point, the Italian walked out of the meeting.

In international business practices, reason and emotion both play a role. Which of these dominates depends upon whether we are affective (readily showing emotions) or emotionally neutral in our approach. Members of neutral cultures do not telegraph their feelings, but keep them carefully controlled and subdued. In cultures with high affect, people show their feelings plainly by laughing, smiling, grimacing, scowling, and sometimes crying, shouting, or walking out of the room.

This doesn't mean that people in neutral cultures are cold or unfeeling. (All cultures will express irrepressible joy or grief.) But in the course of normal business activities, neutral cultures are more careful to monitor the amount of emotion they display. Research conducted with people who were upset about something at work noted that only some cultures supported expressing those feelings openly. Emotional reactions were found to be least acceptable in Japan, Indonesia, the U.K., Norway, and the Netherlands and most accepted in Italy, France, the U.S., and Singapore.

Reason and emotion are part of all human communication. When expressing ourselves, we look to others for confirmation of our ideas and feelings. If our approach is highly emotional, we are seeking a direct emotional response: "I feel the same way." If our approach is highly neutral, we want an indirect response: "I agree with your thoughts on this."

It's easy for people from neutral cultures to sympathize with the Dutch manager and his frustration over trying to reason with "that excitable Italian." After all, an idea either works or it doesn't work, and the way to test the validity of an idea is through trial and observation. That just makes sense—doesn't it? Well, not necessarily to the Italian who felt the issue was deeply personal and who viewed any "rational argument" as totally irrelevant!

When it comes to communication, what's proper and correct in one culture may be ineffective or even offensive in another. Culture is, basically, a set of values shared by a group of people. These values affect how you think and act and, more importantly, the kind of criteria by which you judge others. Cultural meanings render some behaviors as normal and right and others as strange or wrong. In reality, no culture is right or wrong, better or worse; just different. In today's global business community, there is no single best approach to communicating with one another. The key to cross-cultural success is to develop an understanding of, and a deep respect for, the differences.

About the Author(s)

Carol Kinsey Goman coaches executives, helps teams develop strategies, and delivers keynote speeches and seminars to business audiences around the world. She is the author of nine books, including her latest, The Nonverbal Advantage: Secrets and Science of Body Language at Work. For more information: telephone: 510-526-1727, e-mail: [email protected], or  the Web: