It’s a Small World After All

Learn how cultural differences affect our communication.

Lisa B. Marshall
4-minute read
It really is a small world, and it seems it’s getting even smaller. If you want to work, play, and communicate more effectively it helps to understand cultural communication differences.

What I’ve noticed, is that our family situation is playing out more and more in the community around me. At work, at school, and even in our immediate families many different cultures are represented. It really is a small world, and it seems it’s getting even smaller. If you want to work, play, and communicate more effectively it helps to understand cultural communication differences.

I recognize that no two people from the same culture will respond in the same way, but generalizations can help, in the sense that they are clues. This episode is intended to help you understand how culture impacts communication.

There’s a model for cultural communication that I’ve found very helpful in framing the differences between my mother-in-law and myself. It was developed by an anthropologist named Edward Hall. He talked about the idea of high- and low-context communication cultures. Hall said that in high-context communication, in general, many things are left unsaid. And cultures that favor low-context communication will pay more attention to the literal meanings of words than to the context surrounding them.

High-Context Communication

In high-context communication, people are relational, collectivist, and intuitive. Less is verbally explicit or written. It is often used in long term, well-established relationships that depend on trust. Group harmony and consensus are preferred over individual achievement.

In general, context is more important than the words. This means subtleties in the tone of voice, facial expression, gestures, posture, and even the family’s history and status all carry significant parts of the conversation. Talk around the point (not to the point) is typical.

Low-Context Communication

In low-context communication, people value logic, facts, and directness. People are individualistic and action-oriented. Discussions are based on facts and end with actions. Communicators are expected to be concise and efficient. People strive for precise words and intend them to be taken literally.

One thing that I think is important to note is that everyone uses both high-context and low-context communication at different times. Your cultural background, relationships, and circumstances dictate the extent to which you rely on the literal or the implied meanings.

Sequential or Synchronic Time

Another cultural difference that affects communication is time. Some cultures view time synchronically. It is viewed as a force that can’t be controlled; it’s just a constant flow to be experienced. While other cultures think of time sequentially, a commodity to spend or save.

[[AdMiddle]During one business trip I had meetings in both Germany and Spain. The difference between the countries in relationship to time was striking. In Germany, the meeting schedule was very precise; including start, end, and break times. And those times were very strictly adhered to. I still remember how surprised I was when the break time arrived and the speaker stopped talking quite abruptly. When I was in Spain it seemed almost like the opposite. Although the meeting was scheduled to start at 9:30, most attendees didn’t start arriving until 10:30 or so. This was followed by an hour of socializing and then around noon, we finally starting talking about the business at hand.

So what’s the bottom line? When it comes to communication, what’s proper and correct in one culture may be ineffective or even offensive in another. Our culture tells us what is normal or what is strange or wrong. Of course, no one culture is right or wrong, or better or worse. They're just different. The key to successful cross-cultural communication is to develop an understanding and respect for the differences.

This is the Lisa B. Marshall. Passionate about communication your success is my business.

Hey gang, if you enjoyed this episode be sure to check out the free bonus resources I included in the resources section of the transcript. Be sure not to miss the very interesting cross-cultural faux pas stories I included. And if you like the show, please write a review on iTunes. Thanks for your all your support. I sincerely appreciate it.

If you have a question, send e-mail to publicspeaker@quickanddirtytips.com. For information about keynote speeches or workshops visit lisabmarshall.com


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Two Women Talking image courtesy of Shutterstock


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.