People perceive others using their individual frame of reference to interpret verbal and nonverbal communication, and culture has a large influence on this frame of reference and the ability of two people to mutually communicate. Different cultures have different customs for acceptable topics of expression, and adherence to or violation of cultural norms can affect how a person’s behavior is perceived (Costigan, Bardina, Cauce, Kim, & Latendresse, 2006). Although a person attempts to communicate with specific words and actions, successful communication relies on the interpretation and comprehension of the person receiving the communication. Cultural rules and conventions influence how communication is interpreted; and children learn to communicate within their cultural construct from parents, teachers, and peers as they become more socially adept (Costigan et al., 2006). Therefore, cultural norms are ingrained in a person’s communication style and method. Variations of cultural communication can affect levels of expressiveness, tone of voice, directness, implied meanings, and nonverbal communication such as eye contact, physical proximity, and touch (Costigan et al., 2006). According to Briley, Morris, and Simonson (2005), the language a person speaks can affect their identity, behavior and decisions. When bilingual individuals switch from one language to another it affects how they communicate and behave, and it also affects how they interpret the behavior of others (Briley, Morris, & Simonson, 2005). This shows how strongly people associate culture with communication, and how effortlessly they influence one another.
One aspect of communication that can be affected by culture is the implication of unspoken meaning and whether or not a person is direct in their verbal communication. According to Sanchez-Burks et al. (2003), Eastern cultures endorse more formality and attention to status which leads to indirect communication and reliance on unstated meanings, especially in the workplace. However, American culture promotes direct communication in the workplace, and disapproves of the need for deciphering the difference between semantic and intentional meanings (Sanchez-Burks et al., 2003). This difference in communication style could lead to misunderstandings in the workplace between people from American and Eastern cultures. Someone from the East may expect their unstated and intentional meaning to be clear when communicating with an American, but the American may only detect the semantic meaning. According to Sanchez-Burks et al. (2003), indirectness in interpersonal communication greatly contributes to misunderstandings. Culture can also affect how people communicate in a group setting, and this can also lead to misunderstandings. Individualistic cultures promote competition and independence, and in a group this leads individualists to be less inhibited or subordinate (Nibler, & Harris, 2003). However, collectivist cultures value harmony and cohesion which leads collectivists in a group to avoid conflict when making decisions or completing tasks (Nibler, & Harris, 2003). A group comprised of collectivists and individualists could lead to miscommunication due to these conflicting values and cultural standards for social behavior.
Avoiding or decreasing cultural miscommunications are important in a multi-cultural world and there are ways to ensure successful cross-cultural communication. One should be conscientious of the nonverbal messages they are sending along with the message they intend to communicate (Kaplan, & Cunningham, 2010). Awareness of nonverbal language and how it is construed in different cultures can help one communicate intentions and correctly interpret the reactions of others (Kaplan, & Cunningham, 2010). Another key to successful cross-cultural communication is through active listening and verifying that one understands what has been said (Kaplan, & Cunningham, 2010). According to Kaplan and Cunningham (2010), restating the message back to the speaker in one’s own words and reflecting the speaker’s emotions can ensure that both people in the conversation understand what is really being said. Paying attention to cultural differences and being sensitive to one’s own knowledge or ignorance of these differences is a good starting point for effective cross-cultural communication.
Briley, D. A., Morris, M. W., & Simonson, I. (2005). Cultural chameleons: Biculturals, conformity motives, and decision making. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 15(4), 351- 362.
Costigan, C. L., Bardina, P., Cauce, A. M., Kim, G. K., & Latendresse, S. J. (2006). Inter-and intra-group variability in perceptions of behavior among Asian Americans and European Americans. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 12(4), 710-724. doi:10.1037/1099-9809.12.4.710
Kaplan, S., & Cunningham, C. (2010). Eight quick tips for improving global cross-cultural communications. The Diversity Factor, 18(2), 33-38.
Nibler, R., & Harris, K. L. (2003). The effects of culture and cohesiveness on intragroup conflict and effectiveness. The Journal of Social Psychology, 143(5), 613-631.
Sanchez-Burks, J., Lee, F., Choi, I., Nisbett, R., Zhao, S., & Koo, J. (2003). Conversing across cultures: East-West communication styles in work and nonwork contexts. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85(2), 363-372. doi:10.1037/0022-35184.108.40.2063