Crosscultural (mis)communication

I’m currently reading some very interesting information about language, culture and particularly crosscultural communication. The ability to speak a foreign language fluenty doesn’t necessarily make for smooth and trouble-free communication with native speakers of that language. There are many differences in the way people use language, such as in volume, intonation, pitch and tone, and also in the topics they discuss, the way they take turns in a conversation and whether they express their opinions directly or indirectly. These differences may also occur among speakers of the same language.

Here are a few examples of potential crosscultural misunderstandings:

When you first meet someone in Germany it’s common and appropriate to discuss such topics as politics and religion, however in the UK and USA doing so might be perceived as intrusive and rude.

Among Chinese communities, it’s normal to discuss financial matters, even with people you’ve just met, though this would isn’t necessarily a welcome topic elsewhere.

The British and Americans generally take it turns to speak during a conversation, however Germans may start speaking while others are speaking in order to demonstrate their interest and enthusiasm.

In Japan it’s common to say “hai!” or make other appropriate noises while someone else is speaking to show that you’re listening. If you’re not used to this, it sounds like the listener is trying to hurry the speaker up so that they can have you say.

When an American says to you with “Hi, how are you”, he or she is not usually asking about your health – it’s just a greeting. This is one that often catches me out.

    Have you experienced any crosscultural communication difficulties recently?

This entry was posted in Language.

15 Responses to Crosscultural (mis)communication

  1. TJ says:

    ….. here …in Kuwait …. when you talk about language matters people will say ….. “huh?”

    hehe this is it?

  2. A Steephill says:

    Ive personally come across some communication issues such as these just moving from the america north east to texas, texans have different ways of expressing themselves in everyday communication. For instance, the “How are you?” greeting im familiar with of the northeast, meaning little and being merely a greeting, the texans regard as a conversation initiator and an actual question. Ive found this to be a common difference in the south, with folk being warmer and more open with one another straight off.

    On a cross cultural scale these problems of communication can be worse by fairly nuanced body language. Insults and otherwise may mean something different or nothing at all to you.

  3. céline says:

    Yes! In France, we clap whenever whichever team is playing against England has a good chance of scoring, whereas here, it is not deemed appropriate.

  4. Frost says:

    I’ve been reading a very interesting book called “Finland, Cultural Lone Wolf.” It covers a number of aspects of Finnish culture, including mannerisms and social behavior. The author discusses how Finns move very little, will never interrupt, and always wait paitently for their turn before they say anything. They choose their words very carefully and are not prone to “filler” conversation or exclamations.

    Since I’ve started the book, I’ve become more aware of how I interact with others and it’s definitely aroused my interest in speech and body language as a whole.

  5. Frost says:

    Oops, I meant “patiently.”

  6. Yitzhakofier says:

    In Israel we find it rude to say you know someone. Because the verb “to know” (Lada’at) in regards to a person insinuates you’ve had relations with them. Instead we say like “Ani makir otkha” or, I am aquainted with you.

  7. Weili says:

    A Steephill:

    Not necessarily true about “how are you” having a more actual meaning in Texas. I rarely encounter or see/hear people in Houston taking the greeting of “how are you” literally. Most people would simply reply with “how are you” as well. But then again, this is Houston so maybe things are different in the rural areas.

  8. Jared says:

    In western Washington State, the greeting “How are you?” is often a real question. The ritualistic answer is generally something along the lines of “Not bad; how are you?” but this is not mandatory. “Fine” is also appropriate. You can also choose not to answer the question and go right into conversation, but the other person knows he has done his duty by the rules of etiquette, and that is enough for him.

  9. AR says:

    In India, after saying “hi” or an equivalent greeting, one must wait for the other person to return the greeting before one can continue with “How are you?”.

  10. Adam says:

    Here in Nevada, while at work, I often hear greeting a co-worker with “How are you?”, following by the response: “…I’m here (sigh)”.

    It seems to be used by a negative person to mean “I’m not doing well at all, but at least I got myself out of bed this morning”. If a person uses this response once, he or she will use it every time, and that’s why I think of the person as negative, instead of someone just having a bad day.

    By the way, Simon. How are you?

  11. In Italian it is pretty common to use the imperative tense for inviting somebody to do something, without appending “please” immediately after. This by no means sounds rude, nor as a command, as it might in English. The context and especially the voice pitch make the difference.
    The same word “please” in Italian is used more sparingly, i.e. only for requests that do imply the other person’s help/time/good will/etc., not for something expected to happen normally. E.g. placing an order at a bar or at a restaurant does not necessarily elicit the speaker to say “please” after the choice, unless specifically willing to sound very polite. For the same reason, no cash desk assistant (in a store) nor waiter (in a food establishment) will ever say “please” in asking the due sum to a customer, as if informing him/her about the bill rather than asking for it.
    Also the expression “thank you” works more or less in the same way.
    These subtle differences sometimes can make Italians abroad sound a little discourteous, and visitors here (in Italy) somewhat over-polite.

  12. Simon says:

    Adam – I’m fine. When I got back from Ireland I was feeling very tired after a week of intensive socialising in Gleann Cholm Cille, but have more or less recovered now.

  13. Lev says:

    In Russia, when a guest is offered something, e.g. to eat or to drink, it is customary that he refuses twice and is offered again twice, and the third time he agrees (or refuses, and this time it’s taken seriously).

  14. Sam says:

    As an American, I realize that “how are you?” is not a genuine question. If we truly want to know how someone is, we have to intensify the question or repeat it as in, “How are you…really?” Another strategy is to rephrase it such as “How are you feeling?”

    At the same time, it’s really rude not to answer. The normal answer is something like “fine” even when it’s obvious that you are anything but fine.

  15. Lleij Samuel Schwartz says:

    Actually, here in Bangkok, I teach a course about this very subject at the university where I lecture. I could go on for hours about this subject…but as I do this for a living, I’ll have to ask you pay the tution fee first. 🙂

    BTW…The Thai version of the American, “How are you?” is “ไปไหน” or “ไปไหนมา” (bpai nai /bpai nai maa)? Literally, “Where are you going/Where have you been?” A common mistake is to take this question literally and give a run down of your whole evening, when the person who asked the question really doesn’t care. It’s just what Thais say to be friendly. The correct answer is something like, “ไปเที่ยว” (bpai tiiow – Lit. Going out [for pleasure]). Thais also use “กินข้าวหรือยัง” (gin kow rue yang), literally “Have you eaten yet?” in the same manner.

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