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Cultural Communication Styles

Cultural Communication Styles

Author: marlene johnson

At the end of this tutorial, the learner will understand that communication symbols and styles vary in meaning and application between cultures

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Video Transcription

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When we speak to another person, we use words, both spoken and written, and a variety of non-verbal means of communication. Different cultures have different meanings for both verbal and non-verbal symbols. I'm Marlene, and in this tutorial I'd like to talk with you about some of the differences in communication styles that are culturally derived.

So we all use symbols to communicate. Now, a symbol is just a representation of a concept in a tangible form. It could be a gesture, it could even be a letter of the alphabet. Or if you're texting, you might use some sort of shorthand, something like u instead of the word you, or LOL, laughing out loud. Now, people in the group who are using this have to understand that LOL stands for laughing out loud. But texting has come up with its own symbols that people who are used to using them understand. If you're not used to using them, even though you speak English and you might text, you may not be able to decipher a particular message.

So we all use symbols differently. And there are different meanings to different symbols in different cultures. So we can run into misunderstanding. Now, that can be particularly true with non-verbal communication. And, of course, non-verbal communication relies on non-word symbols, things like gestures, tone of voice, eye contact. I think it's interesting a very common gesture can have several different meanings depending on culture. For example, this symbol right here, which means OK in the United States and in Britain, means money in Japan. In Russia it's zero. And you would not want to do that in Brazil, because it's an insult. So the very same gesture, symbol, if you will, has a variety of meanings depending on the culture.

Now, this could be true with other nonverbal ways of communication. For example, here in the US there is a certain distance that we feel comfortable standing with people. And if someone starts to move into what we call our personal space, we move back. We get uncomfortable, whereas in other cultures standing more closely together is considered natural and normal. So you could find yourself talking to someone from a culture where standing close, even if they don't know you, is considered the norm. And for you it's not, and you might find yourself moving across the room as you try to get more distance. So things like this can cause misunderstanding.

Even in terms of verbal communication, which of course is the spoken or written word, there can be misunderstandings. And it might be based simply on tone of voice. In some cultures, speaking in more animated way indicates interest, whereas perhaps in the United States you might want to speak, some people in some cultures may feel like they want to speak a little in a more contained manner, particularly in a business meeting.

Even the use of a word can be taken wrong. I know here coming from the United States it's quite common to refer to ourselves as American. And if you go to even Canada or South America and use that term, in many cultures it's a bit insulting. It sounds ethnocentric, because they are also Americans. So it's preferable to call yourself a North American or someone from the United States, to come out and name the country.

So words, gestures, spatial distance, these are all examples of misunderstandings that can happen because the meaning of a particular symbol, whether it be verbal or non-verbal, can be taken differently in different cultures. Even something as simple as a handshake, here that is considered very friendly for someone we've just met, to put out your hand and shake your hand. In some cultures that is totally inappropriate. You would bow instead.

So becoming more aware of these differences can be very helpful in terms of preventing conflicts or conflicts that could escalate because of things people do that they may be unaware of that they're doing that carry a meaning that was unintended. Or it can certainly impede communication, because you could be sending the wrong symbols, saying things or communicating things that you never intended. So symbols, both verbal and non-verbal, can be problematic in intercultural communication unless there is an awareness and understanding of the meaning for a particular culture. I've enjoyed this tutorial, and I look forward to next time.

Terms to Know
Non-Verbal Communication

Communication using a variety of physical codes.


A representation of a concept in a tangible form.

Verbal Communication

Communication using the code commonly called spoken or written language.