It’s a Small World After All

Learn how cultural differences affect our communication.

Lisa B. Marshall
4-minute read

My mother-in-law, Maria, lives in Central America, but right now she’s visiting with us. As much I enjoy having her here, we always tend to have difficulties communicating.

Here's an example conversation between us:

Me: Hey, want something to eat?

Her: Oh, good morning. How did you sleep?

Me: Fine. What would you like for breakfast?

Her: Hmm, what are you having?

Me: Oatmeal. What do you want?

Her: Well, oatmeal sounds good.

Me: Don’t you usually have toast and cottage cheese? Would you prefer that?

Her: Well, I eat oatmeal too.

Me: Would you like toast and cottage cheese?

Her: Oh, thank you very much, I’d love that!

As the conversation continues, each of us becomes more and more exasperated.

I just want her to tell me directly, what she wants for breakfast, while she wants me to focus on our social relationship, the morning greeting ritual, and consensus.

Differing Cultural Expectations

I know why this happens. Based on our cultural upbringing, we each have different communication expectations. And even though I am aware of our cultural differences, communication can still be difficult. But, I’ve found that understanding these differences seems to help.

Maria, comes from a culture where social relationships are very important and people are expected to fulfill societal roles. For her, community, respect for position, and greetings are all very important.

I, on the other hand, come from a family culture where most of communication is task-centered. Decisions and activities focus around what needs to be done. Words are very direct.

My poor husband, Armando, hears it from both sides. I say to him, "I wish she would just tell me directly what she wants or needs. I can't stand the guessing game." And of course, Maria complains to Armando too. "Lisa doesn't even say good morning or ask how I am doing. Can't she at least greet me properly? Why is she so rude?"


About the Author

Lisa B. Marshall

Lisa B. Marshall Lisa holds masters with duel degrees in interpersonal/intercultural communication and organizational communication. She’s the author of Smart Talk: The Public Speaker's Guide to Success in Every Situation, as well as Ace Your Interview, Powerful Presenter, and Expert Presenter. Her work has been featured in CBS Money Watch, Ragan.com, Woman's Day, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, and many others. Her institutional clients include Johns Hopkins Medicine, Harvard University, NY Academy of Science, University of Pennsylvania, Genentech, and Roche.