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Intercultural communication and considering a different perspective

With the ever-increasing rise of globalization, the need to communicate more effectively across cultures becomes all the more important. In a hyper-connected world, we need to learn how to better understand the perspectives of others, and how to make accommodations in conversations that support both parties being on the same page.

Simply put, different cultures see things differently. Contrastive cultural values and thought patterns can lead two people seeing the same picture to describe it in fundamentally distinctive ways. One person might discuss seeing a picture of clownfish, sea turtles, and a yellow tang with great focus on their physical characteristics; while the other person may highlight the coral reef in the background and talk about the relationships in the oceanic environment. What one person might see as being very apparent, the other might disregard.

In failing to notice the important “subtleties” in conversation, groups can turn simple misunderstandings in communication styles and thought processes into conflicts. Words, tone, thought process, and context to various degrees all play critical roles in intercultural communication.

To understand better how these factors come into play when communicating across cultures, here are some things to keep in mind when communicating across cultures.

Analytical thinking vs. Holistic thinking

Western society emphasizes analytical thinking, which pays more attention to focal objects and specific details, and not as much to what is going on in the environment. Analytical thinkers tend to believe that there are clearly definable, specific causes leading to the observed effects. For instance, if a woman receives a promotion at work, that woman would receive almost, if not all, the credit for the promotion. Her promotion was the result of her hard work. The outcome is a clear result of a cause and effect relationship.

Eastern societies typically process events holistically or within a large context. They assume that individual parts cannot be fully understood unless they are placed within the interdependent relationships. Since everything is connected, one entity cannot be fully understood unless we take into account how it effects and is affected by everything else. If a woman receives a promotion at work, her promotion could be viewed as the result of her hard work, the support of her colleagues, the current office environment, the beliefs of her managers, and so on.

Holistic thinkers tend to be dialectical thinkers and seek to reconcile opposing views as existing in a middle ground; meanwhile analytical thinkers would prefer to avoid a middle ground. Dialectical thinkers accept grey areas, assuming that things constantly change. In one study when two apparently contradictory propositions were presented to logical and holistic thinkers, the former polarized their views, while the latter accepted both propositions.

 In failing to notice the important “subtleties” in conversation, groups can turn simple misunderstandings in communication styles and thought processes into conflicts.

High-context culture vs. Low-context culture

Members of high-context communication cultures (typically Eastern societies) rely on their pre-existing knowledge of each other and the setting to convey or interpret meaning. The personal characteristics of the parties involved and the nature of the interpersonal relationships are to be considered. Without the contextual bases, the speakers’ verbal messages are perceived to be pointless, awkward, or even deceitful. Explicit, direct messages are perceived to be either unnecessary or even threatening. The listener is to assume responsibility in understanding the message based on context and past knowledge.

In low-context communication cultures (typically Western societies) meaning is conveyed mainly through explicit words. The speaker should be direct in his or her communication, provide detailed information, and use unambiguous language. He or she does not assume pre-existing knowledge on the part of listener or expect the listener to consider heavily the setting. If a misunderstanding occurs, the sender of the message is often held responsible; he or she did not construct a clear, direct, and unambiguous message for the listener to decode easily.

Members of collectivistic cultures typically believe that courtesy often takes precedence over truthfulness to maintaining social harmony which is at the core of collectivist interpersonal interactions. As a result, members from collectivistic cultures may give agreeable and pleasant answers to questions when literal, factual answers might be perceived as unpleasant or embarrassing. For example, a Japanese man who is invited to a party but cannot go, or does not feel like going, would say yes, but then simply not go; a direct refusal could be seen as more threatening. The receiver of the message is expected to detect contextual clues and appreciate that the man did not directly refuse attendance.

Self-enhancement vs. Self-effacement

In individualistic, low-context communication cultures, socialization emphasizes the use of encouragement to promote individuals’ self-esteem and self-efficacy. Individuals directly express their desires and promote their self-images. They are open and direct about their abilities and accomplishments.

In collectivistic cultures, such as Japan and China, much of socialization emphasizes the use of self-criticism. Individuals use restraints, hesitations, modest talk, and self-deprecation when discussing their own abilities and accomplishments, as well as when responding to others’ praises. Self-effacement helps maintain group harmony because modesty may allow an individual to avoid offense. By playing down one’s individual performance and stressing the contribution of others, no one can be threatened or offended. The listener is expected to detect and appreciate the speaker’s modesty and intention to give more credit to others through self-effacement.

Elaboration vs. Understating

An elaborate style of communication refers to the use of expressive language, sometimes with exaggeration or animation, in everyday conversations. The French, Arabs, Latin Americans, and Africans tend to use an exaggerated communication style. For example, in Arab cultures, individuals often feel compelled to over-assert in almost all types of communication because in their culture, simple assertions may be interpreted to mean the opposite. The Arab tendency to use verbal exaggerations is considered responsible for many diplomatic misunderstandings between the United States and Arab countries.

The understated communication style involves the extensive use of silence, pauses, and understatements in conversations. The Chinese tend to see silence as a control strategy. People who speak little tend to be trusted more than people who speak a great deal; in understated style cultures, silence allows an individual to be socially discreet, gain social acceptance, and avoid social penalty. It can also save individuals from embarrassment. When conflict arises, using silence as an initial reaction allows people to calm down, exhibit emotional maturity, and take time to identify better conflict management strategies. Additionally, silence may indicate disagreement, refusal, or anger.

Featured image credit: Puzzle ball globe by Alexas_Fotos. Public Domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments


    The contrasting categories, eg ‘high-context/low context’ are pwerhaps useful and still in use in a variety of fields, but since the 90s have been contested as they seem themselves to be culture-specific, not properly tested in contexts and prone to reification/otherisation.

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