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Aspects of Cross Cultural Communication

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There are several parameters that may be perceived differently by people of different cultures. These may include:

High and low context cultures: Context is the most important cultural dimension and also immensely difficult to define. The idea of context in culture was an idea put forth by an anthropologist by the name of Edward T Hall. Hall breaks up culture into two main groups: High and Low context cultures. He refers to context as the stimuli, environment or ambiance surrounding the environment. Depending on how a culture relies on the three points to communicate their meaning, will place them in either High or Low context cultures. For example, Hall goes on to explain that low-context cultures assume that the individuals know very little about what they are being told, and therefore must be given a lot of background information. High-Context cultures assume the individual is knowledgeable about the subject and has to be given very little background information.

Non Verbal, Oral and Written: The main goal behind improving intercultural audiences is to pay special attention to specific areas of communication to enhance the effectiveness of the intercultural messages. These specific areas are broken down into three sub categories; Non-Verbal, Oral and Written messages.

Non-Verbal contact involves everything from something as obvious as eye contact and facial expressions to more discrete forms of expression such as the use of space. Experts have label the term Kinesics to mean communicating through body movement. Huseman, author of Business Communication, explains that the two most prominent ways of communication through Kinesics is eye contact and facial expressions.

Eye contact, Huseman goes on to explain, is the key factor in setting the tone between two individuals and greatly differs in meaning between cultures. In the Americas and Western Europe eye contact is interpreted the same way, conveying interest and honesty. People who avoid eye contact when speaking are viewed in a negative light, withholding information and lacking in general confidence. However, in the Middle East, Africa, and especially Asia eye contact is seen as disrespectful and even challenging of one’s authority. People who make eye contact, but only briefly, are seen as respectful and courteous.



Facial expressions are their own language by comparison, and universal throughout all cultures. Dale Leathers, for example, states that facial expression can communicate ten basic classes of meaning.

The final part to Non-Verbal communication lies in our gestures, and can be broken down into five subcategories; Emblems, Illustrators, Regulators, Affect Displays, and Adaptors. Emblems and Illustrators are the easiest to communicate since Emblems refer to sign language (such as the “Thumbs Up” which is one of the most recognized symbols in the world) and Illustrators mimic what we speak (such as gesturing how much time is left by holding up a certain amount of fingers). Regulators act as a way of conveying meaning through gestures (raising up one’s hand for instance indicates that one has a certain question about what was just said) and become more complicated since the same regulator can have different meanings across different cultures (making a circle with ones hand for instance in the Americas means O.K but in Japan the gesture is symbolic for money, and in France conveys the notion of worthlessness). The last two, Affect Displays and Adaptors, are the two the individual has very little to no control over. Affect Displays reveal emotions such as happiness (through a smile) or sadness (mouth trembling, tears) where Adaptors are more subtle such as a yawn or clenching fists in anger.

The last Non-Verbal type of communication deals with communication through the space around us, or Proxemics. Huseman goes on to explain that Hall identifies three types of space; Feature-Fixed Space, Semifixed Feature Space and Informal Space. Feature-Fixed space deals with how cultures arrange their space on a large scale, such as buildings and parks. Semifixed Feature Space deals with how we arrange our space inside said buildings, such as the placement of our desks, chairs and plants. Informal space is the space that we place importance on. Talking distance, how close people sit to one another and office space are all examples. A production line worker will often have to make an appointment to see his supervisor however the supervisor is free to visit the production line workers at will.

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Oral and written communication is generally easier to learn, adapt and deal with in the business world for the simple fact that each language is unique. The one difficulty that comes into play is Paralanguage, “Language refers to what is said, Paralanguage refers to how it is said. Even though, logically, the same words should convey the same meaning the volume, rate, and emphasis placed on those words can change the meaning of the phrase. The example given by Huseman took the sentence “I would like to help you” and simply by placing the emphases on the words I, Like, Help, You in four different sentences changes the meaning of the phrase.

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Respecting Our Differences and Working Together

In addition to helping us to understand ourselves and our own cultural frames of reference, knowledge of these six patterns of cultural difference can help us to understand the people who are different from us. An appreciation of patterns of cultural difference can assist us in processing what it means to be different in ways that are respectful of others, not faultfinding or damaging.

Anthropologists Avruch and Black have noted that, when faced by an interaction that we do not understand, people tend to interpret the others involved as "abnormal," "weird," or "wrong." This tendency, if indulged, gives rise on the individual level to prejudice. If this propensity is either consciously or unconsciously integrated into organizational structures, then prejudice takes root in our institutions -- in the structures, laws, policies, and procedures that shape our lives. Consequently, it is vital that we learn to control the human tendency to translate "different from me" into "less than me." We can learn to do this.

We can also learn to collaborate across cultural lines as individuals and as a society. Awareness of cultural differences doesn't have to divide us from each other. It doesn't have to paralyze us either, for fear of not saying the "right thing." In fact, becoming more aware of our cultural differences, as well as exploring our similarities, can help us communicate with each other more effectively. Recognizing where cultural differences are at work is the first step toward understanding and respecting each other.

Learning about different ways that people communicate can enrich our lives. People's different communication styles reflect deeper philosophies and world views which are the foundation of their culture. Understanding these deeper philosophies gives us a broader picture of what the world has to offer us.

Learning about people's cultures has the potential to give us a mirror image of our own. We have the opportunity to challenge our assumptions about the "right" way of doing things, and consider a variety of approaches. We have a chance to learn new ways to solve problems that we had previously given up on, accepting the difficulties as "just the way things are."

Lastly, if we are open to learning about people from other cultures, we become less lonely. Prejudice and stereotypes separate us from whole groups of people who could be friends and partners in working for change. Many of us long for real contact. Talking with people different from ourselves gives us hope and energizes us to take on the challenge of improving our communities and worlds.


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