Cultural Communication: How to Communicate Effectively Across Cultures

In today’s globalized world, it is more important than ever to be able to communicate effectively across cultures. Cultural communication is the process of exchanging information and ideas between people from different cultures. It is a complex process that requires an understanding of different cultural values, norms, and communication styles.

There are a number of factors that can affect cultural communication, including:

  • Cultural values: Different cultures have different values, such as individualism vs. collectivism, high-context vs. low-context communication, and direct vs. indirect communication.
  • Cultural norms: Different cultures have different norms, such as how much eye contact is considered polite, how close people should stand when talking, and how much physical contact is acceptable.
  • Cultural communication styles: Different cultures have different communication styles, such as how much emotion is expressed in communication, how direct or indirect communication is, and how formal or informal communication is.

If you want to be an effective communicator in a globalized world, it is important to be aware of the different factors that can affect cultural communication. You should also be willing to learn about different cultures and adapt your communication style accordingly.

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Understanding The Key Differences Impacting Cross-Cultural Communication

To reduce a high level of misunderstanding, keep the following in mind.

One of the anthropologists who really understood the impact of cross-cultural communication was Edward Hall. He came up with many ideas now widely accepted cross-cultural values that affect communication at a very fundamental level. A number of these are presented below.

The Impact of Low and High Context

Context refers to the impact of the situation. In a high-context culture, people read more of the important elements affecting communication from the surrounding environment, body language, and facial expressions. In such a culture, fewer words need to be spoken and more meaning is carried on nonverbal channels.

David Roberts (1796–1864): Isle of Graia Gulf of Akabah Arabia Petraea
David Roberts (1796–1864): Isle of Graia Gulf of Akabah Arabia Petraea

You can often see this in movies. American movies tend toward lots of dialogue, there is very little dead air time where there are no conversations, where no one is speaking. Chinese movies, especially mainland Chinese movies, place more emphasis on nonverbal elements such as the face.

Many in a low context culture complain that someone from a high context as being vague, evasive, uncooperative, and so on. A person from high context culture would likely be discomforted since they commonly assume they are being understood when they are not and continually wonder why the low-context version uses 500 words to communicate meaning when 50 would have worked.

Polychronic and Monochronic

Workers on the first moving assembly line put together magnetos and flywheels for 1913 Ford autos, Highland Park, Michigan

Proposed my Hall, this characteristic refers to the tendency for people to focus on one task at a time (monochromic) or to do multiple things at the same time (polychronic). Europeans and Americans tend to be more monochromic while people in Asian and Latin cultures tend to be more polychronic. A common type of multitasking activity would be to walk and talk to a friend, drive and converse on the mobile or a factory worker on the assembly line can carry on a conversation while putting together a part. it appears that multitasking is not that much of a problem when the tasks at hand require very little attention.

However, some cultures have discovered that people don’t do very well in carrying two or more tasks at the same time. For example in the United States, studies have shown that people who are talking on their mobile have a greater probability of getting in an accident than when they are just concentrating on the road. So many states have banned talking on mobile unless you’re using a hands-free device. The same thing goes for texting. People can’t text and drive at the same time without having a higher probability of getting into an accident.


Image by: Pdpics

Another Hall concept is known as proxemics. Proxemics is simply a word for space. It’s how people perceive and utilize the space around them. For example, today we see a situation where executives reward themselves with huge spacious corner offices with large windows. But as workers, we have small cubicles. How small? Well, from an employer and perspective the smaller the better. And there is some evidence that cubicle size in America has actually been declining. In the 70s, you might’ve gotten between 500 and 700 ft.², Today, it’s down closer to 200 square feet.

Your perception of space also varies depending on the environment you grow up in. Someone who grew up on a farm would obviously be uncomfortable for a period of time in a city with higher population densities such as Shanghai, New York, or Tokyo.

Another aspect of proxemics is what people commonly referred to as personal space. This is a zone that we carry with us around us. You might call this a comfort zone. There’s a certain space that will vary from culture to culture that is considered to be your “private property.”

If someone comes into the space, you feel rather uncomfortable. For many cultures, this is about one arm’s length. But in cultures with greater population density, this could be closer to 6 inches.

And of course, the perception of personal space depends on the situation is one is in. We all can get rather close to strangers in an elevator and that’s perfectly okay. But that level of closeness would not be okay when we’re in the hallway or on a street.


Hendrikje Kühne und Beat Klein: Collage of postcards called Time

Chronomecs has to do with our perception of time, how much time we have to get something done, and the urgency with which we look at things. For example in many cultures in the developed world, “Time is money.” Time has become associated with their income streams. This makes sense if you’re an accountant, consultant, or lawyer. However, it makes less sense in a culture where you made money from growing food or raising cows. The important cycle is related to the growing cycle–spring, summer, fall, and winter.

A modern public corporation and its executives operate under a different set of time assumptions. They work in a three months cycle since that’s when they report their quarterly earnings. And so executives, whose pay is often related directly or indirectly, to profits live and breathe based on the next quarter’s earnings.

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Direct and Indirect Communication

A common source of cross-cultural frustration is that during a normal conversation we typically communicate indirectly or directly. With direct communication, individuals are very specific and take out as much of the guesswork as possible. Someone might say, “I want to take form 1305B from Terry’s desk and walk it over and put it on Tim’s desk before three o’clock.” Obviously a very direct and specific statement. It’s well-formed so the person knows what to do. They know the nature the form, where people are located, the time. Of course, the other person has to have a good memory and be conscientious.

Conversely, an indirect communication style related to the same example above would come out something like, “Get it over to him as soon as possible.” You notice in the indirect case, a person makes even more assumptions than the person speaking more directly.

From the standpoint of cross-cultural communication, some cultures are more direct, and other cultures to be more interactive. Americans are considered a very direct culture, the Japanese more indirect. As a general rule, people in the West End tend to be more direct while those in Asia tend to be more indirect.

Also, you may find that women tend to be more indirect than men. For example, men tend to use more statements, while women use more questions. A man might say, “Let’s go eat,” while the woman might say, “What shall we eat.”

Semantic Confusion

Semantic confusion occurs in a cross-cultural setting when two individuals have different meanings to the same word. This is a huge problem. Some reasons are presented below.

How Language is Taught

Raphael (1483–1520): Scuola di Atene The School of Athens
Raphael (1483–1520): Scuola di Atene
The School of Athens

Often, teachers and the books they use dumb down and oversimplify the meaning of a word. And sometimes central meaning is not communicated at all. This is the case with the Chinese word guanxi, which is always commonly translated into English as “relationship.” However, guanxi is a more complicated value, relationship is only one-half of this important to understand. The other part of this cultural value relates to what we called the “law of reciprocity.”

In guan xi, it’s not enough to just develop a relationship, one must also understand the nature of reciprocity; know how to give and receive favors; create and erase obligations. In fact, one often sees a great deal of cross-cultural misunderstanding with cultural values since these are complex concepts that play out differently in different situations.

What Words Really Mean

Just because two individuals say the same word, and nod in agreement doesn’t mean that each is semantically congruent. In the West and many Asian cultures, “rich” is assumed to be money as evidenced by material possessions such as a big car and house. In another culture, such as the Masai is related to the number of cows one has and the wives one can afford. They are somewhat the same, but really very different since rich in one case is measured by dead material objects and in another case, by the amount of life and living things one is responsible for. You see this in the movie Avatar where the meaning of rich for the corporation was a rock and for the natives, it was a tree.

Semantic Confusion and Multiple Meanings

Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890): The Starry Night
Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890): The Starry Night

Normally, when he learned a new word or you only learn one meaning. But most commonly used words have more than one meaning. An example of this is the English word “value,” which has at least eight different meanings.

Sometimes, there is a single meaning of a word in a dictionary. But a good dictionary always provides multiple meanings and examples used in a context. Still, some words tend to be misunderstood. This is the case with the English word “love.”

When someone says the words “I love you,” it’s very hard to know what is meant by that. To give you one example, some people associate love as a condition, as in, “I only love you as long as you buy me things.” Other people use the word love as unconditional love and I love you means there are no conditions attached. Often you see this type of love between a mother and her baby.


Claude Monet (1840–1926): La Gare Saint-Lazare de Claude Monet
Claude Monet (1840–1926): La Gare Saint-Lazare de Claude Monet

Context confusion is another common source of cross-cultural misunderstanding. Often the meaning of a situation is very very different depending on the culture one grew up in.

One of the more interesting cross-cultural differences relates to the role of the family in a business. In Asian cultures, having a family member in your business is a very important and commonly occurring phenomenon. However, in the West, family and business tend not to mix very well — like trying to mix water and oil. In an Asian context, small-medium enterprise is a vehicle where family members earn a living. In fact, there is an old saying that goes, “A Chinese business stops growing when the founder runs out of family.” But to the American way of thinking, employing family members leads to nepotism and business failure.

Serial and Spiral Logic

Optical illusion, faces and vase
Optical illusion, faces, and vase

Comparing the thinking patterns of East and West, one sees a more serial, step-by-step, thinking process used in the West, while in the East there is a more indirect, spiral talk-around process. Some metaphors might be very helpful.

If you’re going to shoot an arrow, you would want to hit the exact center of the target. In a conversation with serial logic, you start with the main point that you want to make and then elaborate. But in spiral logic, you first shoot around the center or the target, the bull’s-eye getting to the main point at some point. In the West, one might have a meeting with your boss and the first topic of conversation is a raise. But in the East, it may be 30 min. before salary comes up.


Hall, Edward (1966). The Silent Language. The Silent Language impacted the public, the scholarly community of intellectuals and social scientists, and Edward Hall’s career. The Silent Language was an impressively popular book, with 505,000 copies sold during the period from 1961 to 1969. Source: Wikipedia

Hall, Edward (1990). Understanding Cultural Differences: Germans, French, and Americans,

Moran, Robert (2010). Managing Cultural Difference: Global Leadership Strategies for Cross-Cultural Business Success Managing Cultural Differences.

Rogers, Everett M., Hart, William B., & Miike, Yoshitaka. (2002). “Edward T. Hall and the History of cross-cultural Communication: The United States and Japan.” Keio Communication Review, 24: 3-26.

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