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Chapter 4
Intercultural communication
Practising intercultural communication
Introduction to intercultural communication
The importance of intercultural communication
What is intercultural communication?
Defining culture
The effect of history and world view
The effect of socialisation
The effect of language
Language and culture
Language subtleties
Language relativity and the problems of translation
The effect of non-verbal communication
High-context and low-context cultures
Edward T. Hall
Hofstede’s four dimensions of culture
Power distance
Uncertainty avoidance
Patterns of dimensions
You talkin’ to moi? Computer-mediated communication with other cultures
World view
Non-verbal (mis)communication
Problems and solutions
Communication competence: a Western concept?
Infotrack Search Terms
Explanations to Case Study exercises
Practising intercultural communication
In this chapter we show that when practising intercultural communication to achieve
our goals as students and as professionals we must consider a range of perspectives.
We need to be sensitive to possible effects on communication of differences between
cultures, explained by researchers as relating to: high-context and low-context
cultures; power distance, individualism–collectivism and masculinity–femininity; and
non-verbal cues such as tone of voice, appearance and use of space. Since culture can
be defined to include attitudes, expectations, family roles, history, language, nonverbal communication, socialisation, traditions and world view, intercultural
communication has a very broad meaning. To practise intercultural communication
effectively requires us to be adequately informed about how to use verbal and nonverbal signals and to be open to checking our understanding with others in
intercultural, and indeed any, communication contexts.
Introduction to intercultural communication
Here is a straightforward, everyday conversation between Hong Kong businessman
Mr Lau, and his Australian counterpart Mr Clarke.
G’day mate. I’m Robert Clarke. My friends call me Bob. Here’s
my card.
Mr Lau:
Hello, Mr Clarke. I am William Lau. Very glad to meet you. How
was your trip? (exchanges business cards)
Mr Clarke:
Call me Bob. Good, thanks. (reading card: ‘Lau Wing-Leung’)
Oh, it’s Wing-Leung! Nice to meet you. I’ll call you tomorrow,
Wing-Leung, OK?
Mr Lau (smiling): Yes, I will expect your call. (both men depart)
Mr Clarke:
(Adapted from Scollon and Scollon 2001)
Meetings like this take place every day all over the world in offices, airports,
restaurants and the street. But this ordinary exchange between members of different
cultures has unforeseen problems that create tension and uneasiness, ultimately
leading to intercultural miscommunication. According to Scollon and Scollon (2001),
the reasons for this lie in the rules and regulations of the participants’ own cultures.
Mr Lau prefers initial business meetings to be formal and polite; thus the use
of the titles ‘Mr Clarke’ and ‘Mr Lau’ is a natural sign of respect for the occasion.
The Australian, Mr Clarke, is uncomfortable with using formal titles, and also wishes
to show his friendship by using first names. Mr Clarke correctly distinguishes Mr
Lau’s surname on his business card and then rashly uses his given name. In Chinese
culture, the decision to use given names is complex and is influenced by kinship, past
relationships and current situations. Mr Lau feels uncomfortable at being addressed as
Wing-Leung and so smiles (an acceptable form of displaying embarrassment in
Chinese cultures). Mr Clarke, however, feels secure in his cultural sensitivity and his
egalitarian gesture of goodwill. Mr Clarke also wants to show he is considerate of
Chinese culture and so avoids the English name in favour of the Chinese name. He is
surprised when his follow-up telephone call receives a cooler reception from Mr Lau
than he expected.
This short dialogue illustrates the problems faced in intercultural
communication. Firstly real cultural differences are encountered, and secondly these
issues must be dealt with in order to communicate successfully. In the above case,
both parties make intercultural ‘mistakes’ even though both men try to be culturally
sensitive. Mr Clarke’s partial knowledge of Chinese culture leads to his making the
situation more awkward, and if Mr Lau wished to be addressed as William Lau, then
perhaps his business card should have indicated this. Both men’s expectations of the
other are coloured by their own cultural norms, which they cannot escape.
The importance of intercultural communication
Many consultants, distinguished authors and writers of textbooks discuss the need to
understand other cultures because we live in a ‘global village’. In 1870 Jules Verne
wrote Around the world in eighty days; astronauts can now make the trip in under
eighty minutes, while the Internet user takes a mere eight seconds. The media has
given us a taste for other countries, and the cost of modern air travel is within the
budget of many people, so we are travelling overseas more regularly than ever before.
Holiday travel, business trips, family reunions and conferences in other parts of the
world are now commonplace for business travellers and tourists, with the big trip
overseas a rite of passage for many young people. The closeness of South-East Asia
means that Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam and Malaysia are favourite
destinations for many Australians and New Zealanders, while Japanese frequently
holiday on the Barrier Reef. We need to understand global cultures because we are
increasingly interacting with them in person or through technology.
But there is another reason why intercultural communication is important.
Australians live in one of the most multicultural societies in the world. Officially,
Australia’s population comprises a large mixture of ethnicities, with 23.3 per cent
(from the 1999 census) of Australians born overseas. If you add second- and thirdgeneration migrants, who were born in Australia, and the large number of tourists,
overseas students and visitors for short periods, then this figure is much higher. Thus
Australians frequently communicate with people whose cultures originate in other
parts of the world. However, many of us are totally unaware of our own uniquely
different cultural backgrounds when we ourselves communicate. Our deeply held
cultural norms or attitudes may not be conscious ones: the only time we are aware of
them is when other people break certain rules, disappoint us or even offend us. The
situation is similar with sub cultures within the one culture: football fans, teenagers,
senior citizens, company managers and ‘yuppies’ all have their own ways of
communicating and behaving.
What is intercultural communication?
The study of intercultural communication is a relatively young field, which forms a
part of communication research. The starting point is usually said to be the book The
silent language (1959) by the anthropologist, Edward T. Hall, who studied Hopi and
Navajo Indians, as well as other cultures. Hall developed several key concepts with
which he attempted to explain the problematic nature of non-verbal communication in
non- Western cultures. In particular, Hall popularised the field of proxemics, or the
study of interpersonal distance and its effects on communication in different cultures.
Hall’s main contribution to the field was to highlight the role that culture plays in
influencing human behaviour.
By the 1970s intercultural communication was firmly a part of the
communication studies, with specialised courses, numerous books and special
divisions established by the International Communication Association, and the
Speech Communication Association in the US. In 1983, Gudykunst edited the first
theoretical book, Intercultural communication theory, which was then followed by
several key chapters in communication handbooks of the time. Modern research into
intercultural communication still focuses on describing the processes involved rather
than attempting to develop general theories. One of the major challenges is defining
the term intercultural communication. An equally difficult task for communication
researchers, and one fundamental to the field, has been to define what is meant by
Defining culture
Culture is one of the most used but misunderstood concepts of recent times. It is used
by politicians, academics, managers, schoolteachers and students all the time, usually
as an explanation for abnormal behaviour. Linguists, anthropologists, sociologists and
organisational theorists have variously attempted to define culture and the lesser term
subculture. While we all seem to have some idea of what is meant by culture,
Defining it precisely is difficult. Informally, the word culture refers to a way of
thinking and acting that is somewhat related to people speaking a common language
(but not always). It encompasses traditions, family roles, expectations, attitudes and
non-verbal communication. The English-speaking communities of Australia, the
United Kingdom and the United States of America, for example, have distinct
cultures, while speaking the same language.
There is another meaning of culture, which refers to activities of an artistic or
intellectual nature, such as attending the ballet, the opera or art galleries. This
meaning of culture is used when academics discuss artefacts of high culture and low
culture, such as chamber music versus pop songs. However, this second meaning of
culture is seldom used when discussing intercultural communication.
Many researchers break up culture into a series of constituent, sometimes
overlapping, parts, in order to better understand how culture affects communication
and vice versa, how communication can affect culture. One of the overlooked aspects
in such approaches is the impact that communication technologies such as the Internet
have had on intercultural communication (see ‘You talkin’ to moi? Computermediated communication with other cultures’ pp. 95–9). We believe culture can be
best understood if it is broken up into four main dimensions:
1 history and world view, including values, beliefs and religion
2 socialisation, including education, enculturation and personal growth
3 language
4 non-verbal communication.
We take the view that it is these (and other) aspects of specific cultures that
affect the quality and outcomes of intercultural communication. We will focus on the
effects of these four dimensions on intercultural professional activities between
Westerners and other cultures. In particular, many of our examples will compare
Asian and Western cultures, since many Western researchers view Asian cultures as
being the most dissimilar to their own.
The effect of history and world view
All of us have a world view. This is our perspective on how we stand in relation to
everyone else. For example, Australians seldom ask ‘Who am I as an Australian?’ or
‘Where do I stand as an Australian with respect to other races?’ Instead, Australians
(and most other cultures) usually display ethnocentrism by evaluating other cultures
from their own culture’s value system. Almost every culture acts the same way. Past
evidence of ethnocentrism in Australia can be found in the so-called White Australia
Policy: a documented history of racism. Overseas, some Australian tourists have
acquired the label ‘the ugly Australian’. They may have been protected within the
Australian world view, but their behaviour seems rather crude and obnoxious to
people in other cultures.
Many cultures respect their history, but some more than others. For example,
it has been said that Australians are not very mindful of their convict or Indigenous
past, preferring to concentrate on sporting prowess and a relaxed way of life. Asian
cultures, on the other hand, often have a deep regard for their country’s or culture’s
heritage and past. This is seen in religion, art and respect for ancestors, elders and
family. For example, if an Australian visits Korea, he or she will almost certainly be
told that Korea has a five-thousand-year-old history. In Westernised Hong Kong,
locals may still talk about the glory of Ancient China to emphasise a conservative
position. A long and continuous history forms an important part of the world view of
most of the Asian cultures, much of the Middle East, Russia, and many European
In general, in professional situations Australians of non-Asian backgrounds
are unlikely to stress their lineage from the Celts or Ancient Greece or Rome. Rather,
Australian professionals often desire short negotiations or a quick decision, and they
emphasise expediency in order to keep up with political, social and technological
change. Work happens now, and the organisation needs a decision in order to move
on to the next project. Work is linear and tied to the immediate present or not-toodistant past. We are talking here of last week.
In comparison, the historically centred Asian professional is likely to need a
slowerpaced meeting, or series of meetings. Work is an ongoing part of a person’s
social life, family context and employment, and decisions are likely to be influenced
by the effect on a person’s reputation and the good of the company, including its
future growth potential. Thus, an Australian might view a Japanese person as
ponderously slow and overly careful, while the Japanese person views the Australian
as rushing headlong into a decision and ignoring a range of important factors.
The effect of socialisation
Socialisation is the process by which we learn, are educated and grow into socially
responsible human beings. Beginning at birth, we learn ways of behaving from our
parents, our siblings, our friends, our teachers and the media. In totalitarian countries,
the government also plays a part in dictating the guidelines by which children are
raised and encultured. Enculturation is the term for the process of bringing up a child
informally without institutional input, while education is the official system of
schooling, usually starting around five years of age. There is yet another term,
acculturation, which is used by anthropologists to describe the way in which a
dominant culture imposes itself on a weaker culture, so that its members eventually
lose most of their culture. Because of the loss of culture, acculturation has strong
negative connotations for most researchers.
During a person’s lifetime, enculturation is not only provided by a child’s
family and relatives, but also by neighbours, peers and work colleagues. Children
carefully observe the behaviour being enacted around them and typically model that
behaviour unless told otherwise. The process does not stop with childhood, but
continues into the teenage years and adulthood. These patterns of learned social
behaviour include relating to those of higher and lower status, those older, younger
and the same age, and both boys and girls. The person learns how to be a boy or girl,
and eventually a man or woman in that culture. A person’s identity as a functioning
human being is also learned by this complex process of socialisation, which may
include certain rituals along the way. Rituals include such events as circumcision,
tattooing, body piercing, baptism and other religious ceremonies.
The effect of language
Language and culture
Language is probably the single most important dimension of a speaker’s culture.
When asked what distinguishes culture, a Chinese person will usually point to the
Chinese language, even though their place of residence may be Hong Kong, Taiwan
or other parts of the Chinese diaspora spread around the world. But an Englishspeaking Westerner will seldom say that English is what distinguishes his or her
culture. In fact, many people claim to have quite distinct cultures, even though they
share English as their mother tongue. One need only compare middle-class
Australians, upper-class English and African-American cultures who share a mother
tongue with distinct linguistic variations.
Language may be used for many reasons, but there is general consensus that
language has at least two main functions: an information function and a relationship
function. Scollon and Scollon (2001) stress that language usually serves both
functions in any context, but that different cultures give different weightings to the
importance of one function over the other. For example, Japanese culture places great
importance on the use of language to convey subtle aspects of feeling and
relationships, while Western culture emphasises its use to convey information. A
European exception is the Polish language, in which subtle forms of nouns and verbs
are used to convey highly personal aspects of a relationship. International education, a
global phenomenon, places great emphasis on the use of electronic technologies such
as email, videoconferencing, Internet bulletin boards and chat systems. These
technologies provide near-instant communication and stress the informational nature
of the message, with the relationship function almost disappearing.
Language subtleties
There is a tradition of communicating without language, strongly influenced by Zen
Buddhism. In Japanese, Korean and Chinese cultures it is believed that nothing
important can be communicated solely through verbal language. This is in stark
contrast to Western traditions of language usage, where the effective use of language
is seen as highly beneficial and is often the basis on which students pass exams,
managers are promoted and politicians are elected. In intercultural meetings, the
inscrutable silence of the Asian person is often misinterpreted as a negotiation trick or
a device to gain extra bargaining power, whereas it may simply be an indication of
contemplation and reflection.
Language relativity and the problems of translation
Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf were two American ethnolinguists who noted
that in different cultures there existed several words for key concepts that did not have
parallel translations in other languages. Sapir and Whorf proposed the theory that
language evolves to reflect the culture in which it is used, and that the linguistic
choices in part determine a particular culture’s ways of thinking and what is actually
observed in nature. Sapir said:
No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as
representing the same social reality. The worlds in which different
societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different
labels attached … We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely
as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain
choices of interpretation.
(Sapir 1929, p. 69)
Whorf, who was Sapir’s protégé, analysed the concept this way:
… the world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has
to be organised by our minds – and this means largely by the linguistic
systems in our minds. We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and
ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an
agreement to organize it this way – an agreement that holds throughout our
speech community and is codifed in the patterns of our language.
(Whorf 1940, pp. 213–14).
Few researchers have been able to demonstrate the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis,
namely that language moulds cognition, convincingly, although some new research
(cited by Skoyles 1999) has been carried out that appears to lend it support.
From the point of view of intercultural communication, the significance of the
Sapir–Whorf hypothesis is that between cultures and languages, there may be
impenetrable barriers of understanding simply because one language has been
developed to deal with situations and information quite different from those of
another language.
Fortunately, few linguists agree completely with the hypothesis. Rather than
linguistic determinism, the notion that language determines thought and that people
can think only about objects, events and processes through the symbolised language
that they speak, they prefer to discuss linguistic relativity: the notion that language
influences thought but does not determine it. Thus although some terms in one
language are virtually untranslatable, most ideas can be translated from one language
to another.
The relationship between language and experience is also dealt with in
Chapter 2 of this text and is of course important as a way of looking at language
within any one culture, even the culture of professional speech and writing (see pages
32–4). You will find that the two treatments of this topic complement each other.
The effects of non-verbal communication
In Chapter 3 we discussed non-verbal communication, especially in relation to
professional activities such as discussions, meetings, interviews and speeches. Our
argument in that chapter is that the more conscious we are of our own and other
people’s nonverbal cues as they relate to verbal messages, the more we will maximise
effective communication and narrow the ‘communication gap’.
In this chapter we highlight the role played in cultural and national differences
by non-verbal communication. Needless to say, the professional person who travels
internationally is constantly confronted with differences in manner, social behaviour,
workplace protocols and negotiation techniques. These may be embarrassing, even
intimidating, and may reduce the clarity of communication necessary for effective
Non-verbal communication can be conceptualised as any form of
communication that does not use the written or spoken word. It is more than just body
language, since it includes use of time, space, furniture and clothing. Non-verbal
communication accompanies verbal communication more often than not. Try
imagining a nod or smile that was not a reaction to some verbal signal, or a rude hand
sign that did not accompany a swearword. Non-verbal communication is integrally
related to language use, and as such forms a distinctive part of intercultural
There are many different forms of non-verbal communication, and many ways
of categorising this behaviour. In Chapter 3 we classify non-verbal communication
into five main categories:
kinesics (or movements of our bodies and body language)
proxemics (or use of space and territory to communicate)
chronemics (or time as communication)
haptics (or touching behaviour).
vocalics/paralanguage (or variations in our voices to create or reveal mood and
In Chapter 3 we made some generalisations about cultural differences in nonverbal behaviour (see pages 71–2). In this chapter we analyse more closely the
potential for this form of communication to help or hinder effective communication
between cultural and language communities, especially in professional contexts.
Kinesics (see pages 60–2) is what we commonly call body language and refers to
those movements of our body that communicate meaning. Our eyes and face convey a
wide range of meanings in interpersonal meetings. In the opening scene of this
chapter, Mr Lau uses a smile to convey his embarrassment, but this smile is
interpreted incorrectly by Mr Clarke. According to psychologists, smiles are
universally recognised in every culture in the world. But while smiles may be easily
recognised, their true purpose may not be understood, as is the case with Mr Lau, who
uses a smile to mask his embarrassment.
Asian people tend to smile or even laugh more easily than Westerners in
response to minor embarrassments or anxieties. Westerners sometimes misinterpret
this behaviour as agreement and are therefore ignorant about the source of subsequent
difficulties. One interpretation of this so-called nervous smiling or laughter is that
Asian people are trying to preserve the interpersonal harmony of the situation. Many
Australians have no such need since their culture reinforces individualism rather than
group welfare. Thus, in any given social situation, an Australian who smiles or laughs
is usually expressing emotion, not unconsciously covering up an awkward situation.
The accepted form of greeting new acquaintances, colleagues or friends is
very different around the world. In the West, shaking hands is the most common form
of greeting for males, with the cheek kiss commonplace between females and
sometimes between males and females. In Asia, the bow is a very commonplace
greeting between people from all walks of life. However, bowing is not the same in
each country, with Japanese and Korean people exhibiting more frequent and deeper
bows compared to Chinese people. Shaking hands is also practised, especially in
Japan, where there is considerable Western influence as more and more Westerners
make contact with previously traditional companies and institutions. Even within
Australian culture, the practice of handshaking is changing, particularly with respect
to women, whose hands were seldom shaken 20 years ago. In France, Italy, Spain and
Latin American countries, the handshake between men and women often gives way to
a double-cheeked kiss. This level of familiarity is not normally practised in Asian or
English-speaking countries, but given the multicultural nature of Australia, it is
becoming more popular with younger people.
Dress and appearance
The way in which we dress, the hairstyles we adopt, and the make-up and jewellery
that we choose to wear are all indicators of our status and our socio-economic class.
Dress and appearance are important signifiers of our social identities, but we are
constrained by the acceptable limits of our culture. We can think of dress and
appearance as a sort of uniform that we choose to adopt in order to belong to a
particular group of people in society. Thus, some professional people wear suits in the
workplace. In fact such people are called suits by some students and nonprofessionals. Even within the business subculture of business people, there are
classification systems based on the limited alternatives of business attire. Someone
wearing a designer-label suit instead of an off-the-rack suit may indicate that they are
of particular status within the company. In some workplaces professional women
have a wider palette of attire to choose from, including choices of hairstyles, makeup, accessories and jewellery. Even the choices of shirt colour, shoes or brief case can
be signifiers of the professional status of the individual.
Hairstyles and the wearing of tattoos and body piercings are yet another area
of wide variability even within English-speaking nations and at different periods in
time. For example, short-cropped, spiky hair for men was very fashionable in the 50s
and during World War II. Strangely, short hair is not as popular in Latin America and
Spain at present, with male long hair still signifying machismo throughout much of
the Spanish-speaking world. Tattoos and piercings became very popular among young
people in the late 90s, due to many pop stars being tattooed and/or pierced. Given
many UK celebrities being tattooed or pierced, the acceptability of tattoos and/or
piercings is somewhat higher in England as opposed to Australia.
Proxemics studies the use of space: both interpersonal space and the space within
rooms, buildings, precincts and cities. The use of space varies enormously between
different cultures and is a constant source of confusion in intercultural
communication. The leading researcher in this field was Edward T. Hall, whose work
we discussed in Chapter 3 (pages 62–4).
Edward T. Hall was the first scholar to categorise the interpersonal distances
used by Americans. Obviously none of our family and friends use any one distance all
the time with us. Everyone constantly moves in and out of different spatial zones.
Hall was in fact depicting an average distance, but the problem with Hall’s zones is
that they really only apply to Anglo-Americans during the 1950s. If we were to
examine Latin American or Japanese cultures, then their relative distances are
typically smaller than Hall’s four interpersonal zones. Mediterranean Europeans,
Asians, females and equal-status professionals (e.g. a group of doctors, a group of
lawyers) also tend to stand nearer to each other than Hall’s categories would have us
Hall’s categories are useful in order to describe relationships, which may be
symbolically represented by distance between people. The categories are also able to
explain the discomfort experienced, for example, when an Australian’s interpersonal
space is violated by a member of another culture, say an Italian, who expects a
smaller interpersonal distance. When the Italian keeps moving closer to feel
comfortable, the Australian unconsciously backs away. Similarly, in populationdense, crowded areas of Asia, such as Hong Kong and Bangkok, the overcrowding a
farmer from outback Australia feels will not be experienced to the same degree by the
Proxemics may also be applied to furniture; the way that it is arranged around
a room reflects cultural attitudes towards family life. For example, space is a scarce
resource in Japanese homes, hence much furniture is hidden from sight or arranged
around the edges of a room to allow for a multiplicity of room functions. Western
furniture tends to be organised around the middle of rooms, endowing each room with
a single function. In most Australian living rooms, for example, the furniture is
arranged around the television set, which is on the same level as the seated family
members. The television set (and its related peripherals such as the video or DVD
player) therefore constitutes the room’s main focus, while in other cultures the
television may be disguised in a closet or lowered on to the floor level, giving it a less
conspicuous status. Similar intercultural analyses can be made about differences in
the location of the computer, both at work and in the home.
The study of proxemics extends to examining organisational distribution of
rooms, staff, hardware and office furniture. The position of the managing director’s
office at the top of the building; the arrangement of chairs at a business meeting or in
a school classroom; the use of space in an apartment complex or even a whole city –
these are all indicative of a culture’s prevailing attitudes and values towards the users
and/or owners of that space. The sense of strangeness that is often termed culture
shock, and which occurs when we travel to exotic locations, is due, in part, to these
intercultural differences in the use of space.
English-speaking Westerners generally regard time as an inflexible entity, with only a
small degree of latitude. When business people make appointments in Australia, they
are normally expected to be on time, give or take five minutes: a generally allowable
period of lateness. Other cultures are much more flexible about time, with business
people sometimes being up to 30 to 45 minutes late for meetings.
It is important to be aware of cultural norms about the use of time because
people make judgements about others’ attitudes, credibility and reliability based on
‘being on time’. In Western contexts people usually apologise if they are more than
five minutes late for an appointment – as a sign of respect with a view to restoring any
damage to their reputation. So in Western cultures professionals are expected to keep
to the scheduled times for appointments, meetings and leave taking. If time ‘rules’ are
broken by being late or using the set time inefficiently, professionals may be judged
to be incompetent or unreliable. As professionals in global contexts, we need to be
aware of the variety of expectations and uses of time throughout the world.
The term haptics in its broadest sense relates to the sense of touch and derives from
the Greek term haptikos, ‘able to touch’. The study of haptics forms a part of
psychology which has developed a sense of touch. We rely on our sense of touch to
do everyday tasks such as using a touch-tone phone, finding second gear in a manual
car, or playing a musical instrument like a guitar or a piano, which all rely heavily on
the tactile cues we receive. Much research comprises finding the best way to use these
tactile cues and so become a better driver or guitar player.
Haptics is also applied to compare different cultures. Anglo-Saxons are a lowto non-contact culture in the professional setting. Australians, the British and
Americans tend not to touch each other in normal conversation. Asian cultures are
somewhat similar. On the other hand, African, Mediterranean, Arab, Russian and
South American cultures are high-contact. It is common for Latino friends to kiss
each other on the cheek to say hello, and to touch or grab the arm or hand of their
friend while talking. It is common for Latinos to hug, to shake hands and touch the
arm, or to place a hand on the other’s shoulder while communicating. The crosscultural result of this difference in the use of touch is that Australians often feel that
high-contact cultures touch to a degree that is uncomfortable, threatening or insulting
to them. Italians and Latinos may feel that Australians are cold, unfriendly or
rejecting. As professional communicators, we need to be aware of these culturally
sensitive differences in touch behaviour.
Paralanguage or paralinguistics is the study of how we use tonal variation of our
voices to emphasise certain words or phrases. Paralinguistic behaviour is always
concurrent with language usage and includes vocalisations such as um and ah,
loudness, speed, intonation, rhythm, pronunciation, use of pauses, and vocal accent or
timbre. The main problem for intercultural communicators is that often non-native
speakers will accompany a language such as English with the paralanguage that is
more suitable for the speaker’s mother tongue, thus giving a false impression of the
speaker’s emotional state of mind.
For example, the instructional video Crosstalk at work (BBC, 1991) depicts
the speech and intonation patterns of an Indian speaker using the English language to
ask questions of an English clerk. The paralanguage, which expresses questioning
behaviour in Hindi, sounds very aggressive when heard by native English speakers.
The rhythm and intonation of the voice communicate the wrong message, even
though the words are quite meaningful and acceptable. Westerners hearing the
paralanguage ignore the meaning of the words and wrongly attribute to the speaker
the emotion of irritation. So they may respond in either a conciliatory or equally
irritable fashion. The Indian speaker receives an unexpected response to his questions
and thinks all Westerners are rude.
A similar situation has been experienced by one of the authors of this book,
when confronted by an Arabic student who was asking in English for clarification of
the marks for an assignment. Using a typical Arabic intonation pattern, the student
seemed to be hostile and needing to be placated. The only way to disprove this
assumption was to actually ask the student how she was feeling at the time. To our
surprise the student replied that she was very happy with her mark, but was
attempting clarification of the lecturer’s handwritten comments, which she could not
There are no rights or wrongs in these intercultural communication incidents.
We could blame the Indian or Arabic person for not using the correct paralanguage, or
we could blame ourselves for misinterpreting the exact meaning. Similarly, we could
blame either Mr Lau or Mr Clarke from the example at the start of this chapter for
their cultural insensitivity. But blame is not the appropriate attitude in many cases.
Understanding all possible cultural factors in such meetings is an impossible task
unless one is born and raised in all possible cultures. We believe that we need to
withhold judgements that are based on non-verbal communication until we have
confirmed these judgements by using language. Thus, if you are feeling irritation
about the nonverbal responses of another person, you should investigate whether your
feelings are justified or merely a response to non-English paralanguage.
Case Study 1: The Ugly Australian
Having traveled in Europe and Great Britain during the seventies and eighties we
discovered a certain term to describe Australians who tended to congregate together
overseas – the Ugly Australian. The origin of the term is unimportant, yet it fairly
accurately describes some young Australian males and females who live together in
Earl’s Court, London, who take Contiki bus tours, and who inhabit European camping
grounds. There are definitely ugly American and ugly German equivalents to the loud
Australian. His antisocial behaviour includes drinking to excess, singing, vomiting,
and sometimes the baring the buttocks from out of the window of moving vehicles.
The strange thing is that the Ugly Australian is most usually an ordinary ‘ocker’ at
home – ugly behaviour manifests itself most noticeably overseas but not so much in
Australia. Thus, many young Aussies who go abroad for the very first time tend to be
viewed with some disdain by some foreigners.
Activity: In the classroom break up into small groups according to nationality.
Australians should role-play the Ugly Australian. Other nationalities may role-play
other characteristics. The Australian groups should try to script a short play that
epitomises drunken behaviour in a setting such as an overseas pub or camping
ground. Other nationality groups may also try to enact an embarrassing part of their
particular culture.
Discussion: Why is there a need for this behaviour by some young Australians on
their first trip overseas? Is this behaviour isolated to overseas locations? (See end of
chapter for one possible explanation.)
High-context and low-context cultures – Edward T. Hall
In his book Beyond culture (1997), Hall divided all cultures into high-context or lowcontext cultures. He maintained that all behaviour, including verbal and non-verbal
communication, was either affected by the cultural context (high-context) or
minimally affected by such context (low-context). Americans, Australians, the
British, Scandinavians, Swiss and Germans all come from low-context cultures; they
react directly to verbal and non-verbal messages. However, for people from
Mediterranean, Korean, Vietnamese, Japanese, Chinese, Middle Eastern and Latin
American cultures, the context of the message is just as important as, and in some
cases more important than, the message itself. Some researchers have said that Hall’s
two categories are really a continuum of context and there are middle-of-the-road
cultures that seem to fit both high- and low-context definitions. African cultures are
an example of these.
High- and low-context cultures differ in their approaches to power hierarchies,
social relationships, work ethics, business practices and time management. The
dominant values of high- and low-context cultures are significantly diverse (see
Exhibit 4.1) and may be the source of many intercultural problems and conflict.
EXHIBIT 4.1 Dominant values of high-context and low-context cultures
High-context (group orientation)
Low-context (individual orientation)
Harmony with nature
Past or present orientation
Focus on relationships
Mastery over nature
Personal control over the environment
Future orientation
Time dominates
Human equality
Knowledge of high- and low-context cultures is important to our understanding of
how culture can influence one’s own and other people’s style of communication. For
example, the dominant style of communication in the Australian (low-context) culture
has the following characteristics:
The vast majority of information is explicitly stated; for example, an apology
needs to be clearly articulated. In a high-context culture the same message can be
communicated through a variety of non-verbal gestures, such as a smile, a sigh, a
shrug or a frown.
Australians prefer directness and openness, with some degree of freedom of
emotional expression. Spontaneity and casualness characterise informal
relationships. Within this context, successful communication mainly requires an
understanding of the explicit norms of behavior. In such low-context cultures,
success also requires knowledge of implicit norms and expectations.
Within reason, Australians expect others to challenge the status quo. Polite
questioning of the boss or authority figures suggests one is perceptive, has
personal power and may help bring about change. Independence, selfdetermination, and personal confidence are highly prized whatever the level of
employment. As a contrast, in high-context Japan subordinates tend to defer to
the boss’s decision. Of course, in all cultures, personal dynamics affect what is
regarded as the rule.
Non-verbal communication cues such as posture, gestures and facial expressions
are very useful communication tools and are encouraged. For example, eye
contact is perceived to be important in validating recognition and communicating
interest. It is also seen as assertive and shows that one has nothing to hide. The
exact opposite is true of high-context cultures where expressions of emotion are
often hidden from view.
Hofstede’s four dimensions of culture
Probably the most extensive intercultural study was performed by the Dutch
researcher Geert Hofstede (1984), who studied employees of the multinational
company IBM. Hofstede surveyed 117 000 participants from 53 separate cultures and
then re- surveyed 29 000 of these people several years later to check on the validity
and reliability of his findings. He theorised that people have mental ways of behaving,
like internal programs, which are developed during childhood and then reinforced by
the culture.
Through statistical analysis and reasoning, Hofstede identified four
dimensions that can be used to distinguish cultures around the world: power distance,
uncertainty avoidance, individualism–collectivism, and masculinity–femininity.
However, one should view Hofstede’s findings with some scepticism because his
sampling methods were not random. Most of his participants were male, of a
particular social class, and all worked for one large multinational company.
Hofstede’s results may simply be a descriptive map based on gender, level of
education and organisational factors. The data was also collected more than thirty
years ago and cultures may have changed since then due to developments in media,
global travel and information technology.
Power distance
Power distance refers to the fact that in various cultures people react differently to
status differences and social power. Some cultures, e.g. New Zealand, Denmark,
Israel and Austria, prefer low power distance indexes (PDIs) and minimise
inequalities in terms of job status, social class or wealth. Managers in these cultures
typically want to be ‘one of the group’ and be addressed by first names. Decisions
may be questioned and challenged in these cultures, resulting in fl at organisational
structures with relatively few hierarchical levels. As a contrast, the cultures of Arab
countries, Guatemala, Malaysia and the Philippines have high PDIs and believe that
individuals have rightful places in society and that authority figures should not be
challenged. Interestingly, although China was not represented in the survey, Hong
Kong recorded higher PDIs than Japan.
Uncertainty avoidance
Uncertainty avoidance refers to how certain cultures adapt to change and cope with
uncertainties in their societies. How much a culture avoids uncertainty becomes a
measure of cultural anxiety or fear with respect to unpredictable events. In countries
such as Sweden, Denmark and Hong Kong, the cultures seem to have low uncertainty
avoidance indexes (UAIs), meaning that they cope very easily with unexpected
problems and also have a relatively small number of rituals and rules that govern
social conduct and human behaviour. These cultures, according to Hofstede, are more
tolerant of dissent and social deviance, and encourage new ideas and innovation in
work. High-UAI countries include Greece, Guatemala, Portugal, Uruguay and Japan.
These cultures promote or even demand consensus in terms of social goals and
disapprove of any deviant behaviour. Australia has a relatively low UAI, appearing
near the middle of the whole range of this dimension.
Individualism–collectivitism refers to the extent a culture values individual autonomy
as opposed to collective teamwork. Australia, Belgium, the Netherlands and the USA
have high scores on the individualism index (IDV), which translates into an
individualistic culture that looks after family but little else. Privacy, independence and
the self are all-important characteristics of these cultures. Decision-making is based
on the individual, with competition being the norm in terms of job selection and
promotion. Low-IDV countries include Hong Kong, Indonesia, South Korea,
Thailand and Mexico. These countries have a strong collectivist orientation, which
values the group over the individual. Such cultures have a ‘we’ consciousness and
emphasise belonging to a group or many groups.
Masculinity–femininity refers to the way that cultures prefer assertiveness and
achievement (masculinity) to nurturance and social support (femininity). The
alternative label for this dimension is achievement–nurturance. The cultures of
Austria, Italy, Japan and Mexico have high masculinity indexes (MASs) and strongly
believe in achievement and ambition. In these cultures business and professional
people tend to judge others according to their level of performance and the amount of
material goods that they possess. People in high-MAS cultures also believe in
ostentatious shows of manliness or machismo. Low-MAS cultures such as Chile,
Portugal, Sweden and Thailand adhere less to external achievement and shows of
manliness and more to things like quality of life and empathy for the less fortunate.
The term feminine is somewhat misleading, since these cultures prefer equality
between the sexes and less-prescriptive gender-based roles.
Patterns of dimensions
One of Hofstede’s most controversial findings was that there were patterns to how the
four dimensions appeared around the world. Hofstede suggested climatic, geographic
and economic reasons for these cultural differences. Climate, measured by latitude,
was shown to have a correlation with certain power-distance scores and masculinity–
femininity scores. For example, people who live in warmer climates tend to prefer
high power-distance and masculine behaviour. People who live further from the
equator tend to have lower power-distance scores and a more feminine outlook on
Exhibit 4.2 contains a summary of points of difference between mainstream
Australian cultural values and those of other cultures. The statements are not
prescriptive, and the reader is invited to discuss them.
EXHIBIT 4.2 A comparison of intercultural behaviours in Australia and other
Legal contracts
In Australia
Contracts are legally binding
and enforceable by law.
Social customs
Australians tend to be forgiving
of violations of their own social
customs by foreigners.
In other cultures
Contracts may not always be
regarded highly. They may not be
enforceable under international
law. Caveat emptor (‘let the buyer
beware’) may be the response.
Other cultures may be more
unforgiving than Australians, e.g.
a gift may be seen as a bribe in
some cultures. Informal attire
Use of space
Use of time
Class systems
Equality of
Australians prefer lots of
personal space.
Australians prefer to be on
time and quickly get down to
business in a meeting.
Australians try to make friends
very quickly, and regard their
business acquaintances as
possible friends.
Class is not a predominant
issue in Australia.
Formal business attire is
important. An exception would
be academic settings.
Many Australians are not deeply
religious and lack knowledge of
other religious beliefs.
Most Australians are practically
oriented. If something has no
practical value, it is usually
thrown out.
Efficiency is usually measured
in terms of costs and benefits.
While resistant to change,
Australians will accommodate it
Australians will entertain
competition in business.
While ostensibly formal in their
dress, Australia is among the
least-formal cultures in the
Australians still have a long
way to go, but Australians are
closer to equal opportunity
than many other cultures.
Using a standard written
document is usually seen as
the best medium. Reports,
memorandums and letters have
a standard recognisable format.
may be viewed as disrespectful.
Other cultures may not require the
same amount of personal space.
Other cultures may view time
flexibly. They may start meetings
slowly, with social discourse.
Other cultures may not make
friends easily. They may view
all business acquaintances with
a degree of social distance.
Other cultures may have a strict
social hierarchy that cannot be
While important, dress
expectations may not be the same
in other cultures.
Other cultures are likely to be more
religious than their Australian
Other cultures retain practices that
have little practical value but are
integral to their heritage.
Other cultures may not see profits
as the main measure of success.
Enjoyment or satisfaction may be
more highly regarded.
Other cultures may be totally
resistant to any kind of change.
Other cultures may not be
accustomed to competition at all,
e.g. State-controlled monopolies.
Other cultures may have strict
rules governing dress, language
usage and behaviour.
Many other cultures openly
practise discrimination based on
age, sex, religion and ethnicity.
Written communication is not
universally seen as the medium
of business. The content or the
writing style of Western documents
may be offensive to some cultures,
e.g. most Japanese documents are
apologetic and place the writers in
inferior positions to the readers.
Thus Western documents are seen
as too bold or direct.
Source: Adapted from Sprinks & Wells 1997.
Case Study 2: Customs of other cultures
It is an obvious fact that different cultures have very different customs to ours. What
is often perplexing is how to act appropriately when we are with someone from
another culture. The following is funny look at how Europeans act at lunch time.
A group of Italian, Hungarian, Polish, German, Spanish and English tourists went to a
café in a small Italian town at lunchtime. They were all on their way to catch a bus to
visit another town. As the Italians were hungry, they ordered bruschetta, pasta and
wine; the Spaniards ordered sandwiches and short black coffees. In contrast, the
Hungarians and Poles started eating home-made sandwiches and ordered cappuccino.
The Germans did not even go inside to eat their neatly-wrapped, store-bought
sandwiches. Everybody wanted to hurry the Italians. The Italians responded that the
other nationalities ruined their 'eating culture'. The Englishman sat at the table with
the others, and to everyone’s horror, pulled out a newspaper and started reading. The
Poles and Hungarians were very speedy except at paying, but in the end it was thanks
to the Germans that they all managed to catch the bus, since the Germans kept track
of the time!
Activity: S. Paul Verluy (University of Antwerp) has contributed a series of
intercultural scenarios, which have been reprinted below. Break up into small groups,
each group take one scenario, and discuss the possible causes of intercultural conflict.
Scenario 1: In 1991, I was a student at a university in Pennsylvania, USA. I lived on
campus and I shared a room with an girl from India. Many times at night, while we
were studying, she asked me: ‘Petra, do you feel like drinking a Coke?’ And I replied
‘yes’ or ‘no’. But invariably, her next question always was: ‘Could you get me one?’
So whether I wanted something from the vending machine or not, I went four floors
downstairs, and brought her what she wanted. It didn’t bother me, it just surprised me
that someone would ask for this on regular basis instead of helping herself. (Petra K,
Czech Republic)
Scenario 2: Valentina and I went looking for my cousin Paola on campus where she
was taking her classes. There we met Yuko and a Japanese friend of hers. SinceYuko
lived in the same house as Paola and they were also in the same class, I asked her
whether she had recently seen Paola. She said no. I gently asked her to say to Paola
that we were looking for her, if she happened to meet her. I noticed that after this
request Yuko and her friend stood there instead of continuing their walk, but I did not
pay much attention and walked away. After fifteen minutes we came back the same
way. From afar, I noticed that Yuko and her friend were still standing exactly in the
same place as before. They were still waiting for Paola! (Raffaella P., Italy)
Scenario 3: In my class there are some thirty Americans, and four Indonesians
including me. When the professor asks questions in class, none of the Indonesians
will raise their hands and volunteer for an answer, even if they know it. Typically,
only the Americans participate in the classroom discussion. The professor called one
of us one day and asked why we were not participating in the discussions. He
attributed our passiveness to a lack of interest in the subject. (Omar H., Indonesia)
Scenario 4: I met a Hungarian girl the first week I got here in Europe. When we
introduced ourselves she kissed me on the cheek. It felt strange to me that someone I
did not know would show so much affection. We met on two more occasions, and
each time she kissed me. Some time later I arrived back from a long vacation and met
her again. I gave her a big hug, but she froze like a statue. The rest of the conversation
seemed a little uncomfortable, although the next day things were back to normal.
(Brad D., USA)
Scenario 5: Kei, a Chinese friend I met in England, announced that she was coming
over to Spain for a visit, and I wanted to introduce her to my parents also. I liked the
idea of her visit but I was worried about the behavior she might exhibit in front of my
fairly conservative parents. After her arrival she had her first meal with me alone, and
again she did not mind burping or farting in front of me, and even if she used to say
‘excuse me’ I found it terribly rude. Thinking of a polite way to express my
dissatisfaction without hurting her, I started shaking my legs like one does when one
is nervous or upset. Kei said: ‘Ana, don’t shake your legs like that, don’t you know
this is really impolite?’ (Ana S., Spain)
Scenario 6: The new teacher was exasperated when he came to marking the essays
from her multinational class. The Australian and American students had all written
focused essays which related directly to set essay topic. They had mostly successfully
argued for or against the topic. The Korean and Japanese student essays however
were all over the place. In many cases the topic was not even mentioned in the essay.
How could these students have gotten through the selection process to attend the
university in the first place? (Ray Archee., Sydney).
You talkin’ to moi? Computer-mediated communication with other
Online communication between cultural and national groups is increasing. In this
section we discuss the importance of being competent at intercultural communication
using electronic channels of communication.
Here is a typical interchange in an international chat room.
Greetings from Sydney. Wanna chat? I work for an Australian
Greetings from Honolulu. Yes, I work at the University of Hawaii as a
graduate tutor. I am in my final year of my doctoral dissertation.
Great :-), what area of research?
I am studying oceanography.
I would like to ask you a question.
I am doing some research – can you tell me the Japanese word for
‘start’ on a computer?
You are very rude. I think you are taking advantage of me. If you want
know the answer to this question, then you should consult a dictionary!
I am sorry I offended you, good-bye.
This is a fictitious re-enactment of a real chat discussion that occurred on the
Internet chat system called ICQ (short for I Seek You). Thousands of such discussions
occur daily on dozens of global chat systems, such as MSN Messenger, AOL, IRC,
Yahoo! Chat and CU-SeeMe. What is remarkable about the excerpt is the unresolved
misunderstanding that terminates the conversation. The underlying causes of the
conflict are perplexing. A possible cause might be the cultural differences between the
two participants. Another explanation could be the mismatch between the perceived
social context of ICQ and the unexpected work-related question. A third explanation
is that Japanese expatriates are often isolated in foreign countries and are much more
sensitive than Japanese people on their own soil.
Most professionals would agree that the Internet has enabled us to
communicate more effectively with our professional colleagues, both locally and
overseas. The ease, the speed and the convenience of email, bulletin boards, chat
systems and instant messaging have revolutionised our professional practice. But
there is one area of concern that gets overlooked: how does online communication
affect intercultural communication? Does our Western, informal and very direct use
of computer-mediated communication (CMC) technologies conflict with the way
other cultures use these technologies? Or has the whole world become a homogenous
community, each country indistinguishable in terms of their online communication
Five thousand years of civilisation cannot be changed by a mere decade and a
half of Internet usage. Enthusiasm for online communication can sometimes be naïve
and misplaced when it comes to communicating with members of other cultures. With
vastly increased opportunities for communication to take place, we believe that there
is an equivalent increase in the amount of miscommunication that is occurring
between cultures. However, we cannot be certain of this, because there is very little
research that has studied the intersection of communication technology and
intercultural communication.
The Internet enables us to communicate effectively with professional
colleagues, locally and overseas but what are the problems involved?
Case Study 3: Using the Internet to communicate across cultures
Thorne (2003) studied cross-cultural communication between American students and
French students and teachers using a variety of mediated communication tools.
In the first scenario, there was misunderstanding between an American student and a
French correspondent concerning the style and tone of responses. Thorne notes that
these messages are “characterized by different discourse styles that play themselves
out on national, institutional and personal levels”. There are cultural expectations
around how people should communicate in the medium of e-mail. Americans, in their
search for understanding the lives of the French, expected trust and solidarity to
develop through direct contact with French counterparts on the basis of shared
personal experience. This was not shared by French respondents. This illusion of
familiarity was given by their everyday use of the Internet and created somewhat false
expectations of what those exchanges would be like.
The second scenario highlighted how significant instant messaging (or IM) is for
American students. The students were asked to use e-mail with their ‘keypals’ but
students who changed to IM to communicate found their conversations and
confidence improved while those who stuck with e-mail found that the conversations
became stagnant. IM allowed for naturalistic conversations leading to the
development of genuine interpersonal relationships.
In the third scenario, Thorne explicitly addressed how American students do not
prefer to use e-mail, and usually only speak with their friends via IM. E-mail is said to
be a tool for communication between organisational power levels and different
generations. E-mail is assumed to take effort while IM is much easier, and more
natural communication.
Discussion topics:
1. Is e-mail or IM, in fact illusory when it comes to forming friendships or
relationships online?
2. Have you ever been surprised when you met someone you had previously only
known online?
3. Do you prefer IM or e-mail or perhaps SMS? Why?
4. Is e-mail really only useful for business people, or oldies?
World view
For many anthropologists and sociologists, a person’s world view is an important
determiner of their communication expectations. Because work happens in the
immediate present, Australian or other English-speaking organisations emphasise fast
decisions and negotiations, before moving on to the next project. Thus, when we use
email we prefer fast turnarounds and equally quick decisions. This expectation may
be totally at odds with Asian partners, who may feel pressured to make premature
decisions due to the demands of the technology, or who may simply defer answering
our demanding emails.
On the Internet, our true identities are most often hidden, unless we choose to
reveal who we really are. Celebrities, politicians, CEOs and professionals all have
email addresses that disguise their real identities. However, in many cultures,
understanding the identity of the other person is imperative to understanding how to
act towards that person. The status of that person, their role in the organisation, their
decision-making power and their personality are all, to some extent, important
considerations that are usually totally absent in mediated communication.
As discussed earlier (page 89), in the 1960s Edward T. Hall divided the world’s
cultures into two categories: high-context and low-context. If this theory is also
applicable to online communication, this may explain why CMC technologies are
problematic for some cultures. Low-context cultures such as those of America, Britain
and Australia do not usually use social contexts as a way of determining the most
appropriate way of replying to messages. But in high-context cultures such as those of
Japan, Russia and Latin America, the context conveys as much information as, or
even more than, the exact meaning of the message being discussed. When we receive
an email message, participate on a listserv or peruse a bulletin board, we are not
usually looking for context. The identities of other participants are almost
unimportant, compared to their words– argument, ideas and prose style are more
important than who they are. This is exactly the opposite approach to that of someone
from a high-context culture, whose whole upbringing requires a clear, unambiguous
social structure in order for any communication to occur. Without the context, the
high-context person is lost for words.
Probably the most obvious feature of intercultural CMC is the strong likelihood that
Australians will be writing in English; this will be a foreign language for most of our
international colleagues. Difficulties with English grammar will lead to mistakes,
which may give us a less than favourable impression of our overseas colleagues.
Moreover, while we might proclaim the wonders of email, our informal manner of
writing email messages may contribute to the interpretation burden on our nonEnglish-speaking partners: the use of English colloquial expressions should be
avoided at all costs.
Our use of language has other problems. Given that language has an
informative function and a relationship function, what happens when we use CMC
with a foreign colleague who is attuned to the social functions of the language, not the
information provided? Westerners do not normally ask about family and health in
business meetings or professional online communication. We tend to get to the point
very quickly, express our individual viewpoints, and expect a prompt reply that
affirms or contradicts our conclusions. We do not expect our local colleagues to talk
about the weather, their health or their fathers’ or mothers’ well-being. Could it be the
case that online, we are tacitly seen as rude and uncaring, devoid of humanity and
only worried about individual gain, by many of our overseas partners?
Non-verbal (mis) communication
A person’s use of non-verbal communication is a highly visible feature of their
cultural identity. A person’s body language, their use of personal space and their
appearance are obvious differences when we physically encounter people from other
cultures. A less obvious difference is their speech patterns, and features such as tone
of voice, vocal inflections, rhythmic phrasing, accent and word choices, which are
strong indicators of their culture, class and socio-economic group. Apart from the
simplest devices, such as emoticons, paralinguistic features are usually completely
missing in online communication. Thus, when professionals communicate solely via
technology, their relationships are entirely based on the written word.
Using CMC, we create a persona via the keyboard, with eventual problems
occurring when there is a considerable mismatch between our screen identity and our
real selves. Synchronous chat systems are especially prone to this kind of distortion
and exaggeration because we are severely limited in the kinds of non-verbal emotion
we can portray. Attempts at linguistic subtlety such as sarcasm or irony may simply
be viewed as criticism. In the introductory transcript, an ordinary question was
interpreted by a Japanese expatriate as inappropriate for the relationship. Yoko’s
description of the mistake was to call the simple question ‘rude’. Bruce is surprised
since he cannot escape the accusation, and without the availability of non-verbal
communication any explanation would be brutally long-winded and self-defeating.
Once the accusation was made on the chat system, the fledgling relationship was
unable to be rescued.
Humour is often used by Westerners as a way of breaking the ice in tension-filled
situations or achieving group cohesion, and is thus sometimes used in online
communication. Unfortunately, humour is not a universally accepted way of doing
business; with many cultures having very specific ideas about what is humorous and
what is not. Humour may even be viewed as disrespectful in certain situations. In
China it is disrespectful to make fun of one’s colleagues or superiors; in Slovakia
humour is inappropriate until after the meeting; in Denmark sarcasm is a preferred
method of joke-making; in Mexico jokes about one’s family are totally off-limits.
Any attempt at levity in intercultural exchanges is a highly risky behaviour, and
probably should not be attempted when using CMC technologies.
Problems and solutions
These complex problems are not easy to solve. One solution is to try to adopt the
other person’s style of online writing, their way of thinking or joking, and to
undervalue your own natural tendencies. We think this solution is misguided and
bound to fail. A better solution is to be less extreme in your own cultural inclinations,
and to be more sensitive to the possible alternative explanations inherent in the
electronic message.
If given the choice of a real-time online meeting, a bulletin board post or an
email, Asian people would probably choose the slower medium, since it allows for a
more deliberate, more considered reply or even series of replies. Thus, we can model
our collaborative partner’s potential responses by leaving the discussion open, by
asking open-ended questions and not necessarily asking for a decision as soon as
possible. CMC is devoid of non-verbal communication, but we can add bracketed
actions (laughs), ellipses (...) and emoticons (e.g. :-) ) to our email. If in doubt, one
should always courteously ask for clarification, perhaps using a non-CMC medium.
Communication theory extols the virtues of two-way communication. We think
withholding judgment and sensitively questioning overseas colleagues about their
points of view is the only way to fully understand their online ideas. Unfortunately, it
is too late for Bruce and Yoko.
Communication competence: a Western concept?
One of the key concepts that this book encourages is the notion of communication
competence. Thus we have been describing and explaining a variety of ways of
communicating appropriately, both in writing and in speech, to achieve our
professional goals in the most efficient way. This notion of communication
competence is very much a Western idea, which probably began with the Greek
philosophers Socrates and Aristotle.
In Asia, it was Confucius whose writings and ideas have had such a great
influence, not only on China, but also on Japan, Korea and South–East Asia.
Confucianism is not about communicating with your audience or persuading anyone
to change their mind, but about individual and group spiritual enlightenment. While
communication competence is a necessary part of many Western university students’
degrees, and an expected skill in the real world, this is not necessarily the case in
many other countries, whose cultures and work ethics depend more on kinship ties
and traditional values of family, respect and honour.
Infotrack Search Terms
Intercultural communication, cross-cultural communication, international
communication, transnational communication
Discussion questions and exercises
On the Web, look up a well-known brand such as Coca-Cola or McDonald’s or a
product such as jeans or trainers. Using Google, do a search for different
countries’ websites, e.g. American sites, Australian sites and Japanese sites.
– How are the websites presented differently?
– What colours are predominantly used in different countries?
– Why do different nationalities create different-looking websites for the
same product?
When you are on a trip in a foreign country, how much about that country’s
culture should you know? Conversely, how much of a culture should a new
immigrant know when he or she arrives in a country? For example, how much of
Australian culture should a new immigrant to Australia know on arrival?
Are there any cultural practices that are reprehensible in your culture? For
example, what cultural practices are reprehensible to Australians? Are there any
Australian cultural practices that may be difficult for a foreigner to understand?
How would you deal with this in terms of intercultural communication?
If someone comes to your home country to live, should they entirely give up
their own culture? If not, how much should they retain? For example, should a
new immigrant to Australia be required to learn English? Why, or why not?
What are possible implications for implementing such a requirement:
a for the immigrant?
b for the Australian government?
for education providers?
Are there any universal cultural values that transcend particular cultures?
Ask your class members if they know of words for surfing or barbecue in
languages other than English. Ask them if they have more than one word for
particularly important concepts in their own cultures. Share these with the whole
class and identify similarities and differences across cultures. Discuss whether
such differences might affect communication and professional practice.
Use the Internet to study intercultural differences on the Usenet via Google’s
‘Groups’, or on ICQ, IRC or a webchat channel.
Culture can also be applied to companies and organisations. Describe the culture
of the organisation you work for or the institution you are studying with. Use
categories introduced in this chapter to structure your description. Explain which
categories were most useful or valuable for your investigation.
Explanations to Case Study exercises
Case Study 1: There is no known reason why the Ugly Australian or Ugly American
exists. However, many Australians and Americans are very naïve and inexperienced
with traveling. The requisite big trip overseas for many Australians is the first time
they have left their country and is undeniably nerve-wracking. Culture shock could
result in anxious Aussies resorting to those crass behaviours that were once used
when leaving the family home for the first time.
Case Study 2:
Scenario 1: My Indian friend came from a wealthy Indian family living in Nepal.
Their house was full of young Nepali girls and boys who lived with them as servants.
And now she was in America, on her own, doing her own laundry, tidying up her
room, so at least she found someone to bring her a can of Coke, to keep a trace of her
old living standard. People from high Power Distance, low Individualism countries
have no qualms issuing orders to others and being obeyed. People from low Power
Distance, high Individualism cultures are used to helping themselves rather than
ordering others around.
Scenario 2: We realised that Yuko would not leave unless we did something. So I
went to them and gently told them that ‘it was OK, now Valentina and I would wait
for Paola’ and thanked them for their patience. They thanked us profusely (for
releasing them from their duty, I suppose) and then they walked away. Japanese
communications patterns are based on understatements and reading indirect
messages. Therefore, if you formulate a vague request, a Japanese person may
interpret it as an indirect way of issuing a formal command. Add to that possible
language problems and the fact that ‘waiting’ does have the same connotations
universally: you have the necessary ingredients for this minor, but embarrassing
intercultural misunderstanding.
Scenario 3: In Indonesia, raising our hands to participate in a class discussion is not
our custom. However, we are more than willing to answer questions when the teacher
points to us or calls our name in class. In some cultures, a class is mainly a lecture by
the professor with the students learning through listening; in other cultures
interaction and discussion is felt to be an essential part of the learning process.
Scenario 4: It seems that a kiss was to her what a handshake is to me; and a hug was
too intimate for her, yet I feel that it is less intimate than a kiss. Codes of conduct that
regulate touching, hugging and kissing behavior are obviously culture-specific. Is
there any way to know in advance which greeting rituals are appropriate in a given
culture? Who should adapt to whom? Is Brad supposed to adapt to the Hungarian
girl’s habits and expectations, or the other way around?
Scenario 5: What is polite or impolite is not universally the same in every culture. Do
you tolerate Kei’s behavior or would you try to change it?
Scenario 6: Essay writing is a cultural activity. Westerners learn to write in a linear
fashion, usually employing inductive reasoning and ending up with a stated
conclusion. Eastern cultures, and some European cultures, employ different
strategies, which may resemble a circle or spiral, with the conclusion never stated,
only implied. Sources of authority, referencing procedures, citations, and quoting are
viewed very differently throughout the world (see Kaplan 1966).
References and further reading
BBC, Great Britain 1979, Crosstalk: Multi Racial Britain, video 30mins.
Gudykunst, W.B. & Mody, B. (eds) 2002, Handbook of International and
Intercultural Communication, 2nd ed, Sage, Thousand Oaks: California.
Hall, E.T.1959, The Silent Language, New York, NY: Anchor Books.
Hall, E.T. 1997, Beyond culture, New York, NY: Anchor Books.
Hall, E.T. 1983, The Dance of Life, New York, NY: Anchor Books.
Hofstede, G. 1984, Cultures consequences: International differences in workrelated values, Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
Hofstede, G., Neuijen, B., Ohayv, D.D. and Sanders, G. 1990, 'Measuring
organisational cultures: a qualitative and quantitative study across twenty cases',
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Language Learning, Vol. 16, pp 1-20.
Lustig, M.W. and Koester, J. 1999, Intercultural Competence: Interpersonal
communication across cultures, 3rd ed, New York: Longman.
Marcus, A. and Gould, E. 2000, Crosscurrents: Cultural Dimensions and Global
Web User-Interface Design Interactions, July/Aug, vol 7, (4) pp. 32-46.
Pinto, D. 2000, Intercultural Communication: A Three-step Method for Dealing
with Differences, Garant, Leuven.
Salamensky, S.I. (ed) 2000, Talk Talk Talk : The Cultural Life of Everyday
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Scollon, R., and Scollon, S.W. 2001, Intercultural Communication: A discourse
approach, 2nd ed. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.
Skoyles, J.R. 1999, The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis: new surprising evidence.
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Thorne, S. 2003, ‘Artifacts and Cultures-of-use in Intercultural Communication’,
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