Intercultural Communication Differences - 3 Essentials April 06 2015, 1 Comment

by Erich Toll

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To communicate effectively, it’s increasingly essential to have intercultural communication skills, as evidenced from news reports from the world’s largest government to local college campuses.

One of the main differences in intercultural communication is style, or the manner in which people speak in communicate. Here are 3 essential differences in style:

Formality- cross cultural communication problems often arise through differences in formality. In countries such as the United States and Australia, communication tends to be quite casual.

But in many other parts of the world, it’s quite formal indeed. The Japanese language has three different levels of politeness, the use of which is determined by status. Thus a businessman might use three different ways of speaking with his superior, wife, and subordinate.

French, German, and Spanish all have different versions of the word you, determined by factors such as age and familiarity. Indeed, English is rare in that it doesn’t distinguish between formal and informal pronouns.

The proper use of names and forms of address is another factor that impacts cross cultural communication in the workplace. In some countries, first names are used immediately. But in most, the family name is preferred.

Intercultural communication differences also arise in communication across technology. In some cultures, a visit or phone call is preferable to newer technologies. Emails or texts are seen as informal, and thus are often less effective forms of communication.

Pacing – another variable is pacing. In some countries, communication is slow with many pauses. But in places such as France, the pace might wear you down. Indeed you might be expected to interrupt your counterpart to show you’re paying attention.

It’s equally important to be aware of silence. In the Far East, conversation is interspersed with lengthy pauses, which indicate polite consideration to what is being said.

In contrast, Americans are often uncomfortable with silence, and move quickly to fill the void. As a result, they might appear impatient or insincere. So be aware of and try to adapt to differing conversational pacing.

Emotion – problems in cross cultural communication - and differences in intercultural body language - also arise from differing levels of emotion. In the Middle East, a conversation can easily turn into a heated shouting match with limbs flailing about. This is considered appropriate, as loudness is seen as strength.

In contrast, raising your voice or showing anger in Asia is likely to cause embarrassment and burn bridges.

Indeed, differences in intercultural communication include unwritten rules outlining when and how much emotion is acceptable. If you show too little emotion, you might come across as aloof and cold. If you show too much, you might be considered hotheaded and embarrass yourself.

In general, Japan, Northern Europe and North America are regions where emotions are kept in check. In contrast, you’re likely to find voices raised and emotions high in Latin America, the Middle East, and Southern and Eastern Europe.

Many people also enjoy a good argument. From Brazil to France to the Middle East, you’re likely to find passionate people who enjoy a lively exchange. Again, it’s a good idea to monitor emotional levels and adjust accordingly.

There are also different views on when certain emotions are appropriate. For example, an Asian doctor might laugh when giving a bleak prognosis. But this laughter is often used to convey nervousness or get out of an awkward situation.

Different cultures have different styles of communication; let’s review the most important points:
• The formality of communication varies from society to society;
• Interaction also varies in pacing, and the amount of silence within conversation;
• And emotions vary among people - some preferring colorful exchanges, others are more restrained.

For more information, see this Intercultural Communication video

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