Can you talk about cultural differences in communication without referring to cultural differences in gestures?
Chances are that you can’t.
That’s because body language (gestures), which are nonverbal communication, determines how effective conversations will turn out. To a large extent— above 50%.
But this body language is often formed under the influence of culture. Wang Wen-Cheng (2011) Et al. stated that the relationship between communication and culture is complex yet directly connected.
Thus, as you read into this article, you’ll learn: what are cultural differences in communication, the types of cultural communication we have, and the different communication styles between cultures.
Introduction to cultural differences in communication
Indeed, technology has affected virtually every aspect of human lives, which includes how we communicate within and outside different cultures.
And more than ever, there is a need for businessmen and women to interact with clients, colleagues, and partners across the globe.
But to do that, they need to understand cultural differences inherent across various cultures and communication styles in today’s world. Especially those where the individuals they commonly interact with are— talking about their customers and business partners.
What are cultural differences in communication?
Cultural differences in communication have to do with the disparity between individuals involved in a communication process, considering their cultures.
And usually, this influences the style and outcome of communication in different ways and for various reasons. Some of which shall be considered in this article.
Types of Cultural communication
Having looked at what cultural differences in communication are… it’s time to explore the various types of cultural communication. And they include:
1. Intra-cultural communication
The prefix “intra” means within or inside. On this note, Intra-cultural communication is a type of cultural communication that occurs between at least two individuals, groups, and entities whose cultures are the same. That’s having similar cultural orientations and backgrounds.
A typical example of intra-cultural communication between person-to-person is the type of communication that takes place between you and your friend who grew up together in the same neighborhood or town.
2. Intercultural communication
Intercultural communication captures the communication between at least two people, entities, or groups from different cultural backgrounds. You can say it’s on the opposite side of intra-cultural communication.
A practical example of this type of cultural communication is the conversation between someone from the UK and one from China, even though they both seem to communicate in English.
The Chinese man or woman might have learned English along the way, which may not rule out his preconceived cultural orientation and its influence on his communication strategies.
3. Cross-cultural communication
While the word cross-cultural communication sounds the same as intercultural communication, they are not the same.
Cross-cultural communication involves comparing the pattern, styles, strategies, and other observable factors in the communication process between people or groups with different ways of thinking, belief, ethnicity, language, or any other cultural background.
For instance, a documented comparative study on how people from Indonesia communicate with those from Nigeria can be considered a piece of cross-cultural communication.
In other words, cross-cultural communication is a comparative field of study in communication that deals with subjects like cross-cultural nonverbal communication, amongst others.
4. International communication
International communication captures all types of communication that take place across international borders. That deals with sharing information, ideas, and messages and examining and developing patterns and strategies through verbal and nonverbal communication.
You can say international communication is macro and covers different sectors and aspects of life as far as the subject of communication is concerned.
Cultural difference examples
Karen Moustafa L. (2009) Et al. stated that culture influences what people communicate and how they communicate. In other words, there is verbal and nonverbal communication in different cultures around the world.
On that ground, below are some examples of cultural differences in communication—particularly taking nonverbal communication across cultures.
But why nonverbal communication?
“Only 7% of our communication depends on words, but our tone of voice takes up 38%. While our body language accounts for the remaining 55% of our communication, which is nonverbal communication,” says Albert Mehrabian, a professor in psychology.
(That’s the core premise of the communication model he developed, which got named after his name— Mehrabian’s communication model.)
Nonverbal communication in different cultures
No doubt, there are cultural variations across the globe, from one country to another. Or perhaps, from one continent to another.
So in this section, a few countries across the continents of the world shall be examined, while nonverbal communication and communication styles in different cultures are under the following headings:
Communication styles across different cultures
First and foremost, it is paramount that you know that communication style in culture is direct or indirect.
In a direct communication style, people express their thoughts explicitly and straightforwardly, without any guilt or feeling of not wanting to hurt the feeling of someone. While indirect communication is the reverse.
Below are communication styles across different cultures:
Communication style in the United Kingdom
Unlike the US (known for its direct communication style), Britain seems to have a balance. That’s because they practice mixed communication styles; both direct communication and indirect communication styles.
British people are said to have a direct communication style because they express how they truly feel and what they think. They portray transparency without allowing their emotions to constrain them in the name of preserving a relationship or not abruptly appearing insensitive or cruel to others.
India’s cultural cues and direct communication style
As a southern Asia country, India has a cultural orientation and an indirect communication style. The Indians can be very polite in their communication because of the cultural cues and orientation, which supports collectivism. And therefore, they tend to adopt an indirect way to pass their message.
That’s why a fellow from India may prefer to use silence to say his/her NO to a friend’s or colleague’s request for something they can’t or don’t do or engage in.
Interestingly, this same tendency reflects in their questioning because they do that with courtesy and value respect and authority. In other words, they regard hierarchy. In this, they share similarities with the British people.
Communication style in Brazil
As you know, Brazil is the continent of South America. They have an exuberant cultural orientation and are expressive with their emotions in and during communication. Though people from Brazil don’t love to get entangled in conflicts, they would leave a conversation that can ignite fights and move into comfortable ones that pose no threat of conflicts.
Nonverbal communication in different cultures
1. Facial expressions as part of cultural differences in communication
United Kingdom cultural cues in terms of facial expressions
While people from the UK have a good sense of humor and introduce sarcasm between conversations to lighten things up, they know how to keep a straight face.
In other words, they hardly show their emotions through facial expressions.
2. Personal space as part of cultural differences in communication
India’s cultural cues as regards personal space
With a conservative culture, the Indian people value the personal space of others, and by default, would give arm’s length distance when conversing with another—any foreigner, in the case of intercultural communication.
United Kingdom cultural cues as regards personal space
As regards the subject of physical space, there seem to be no cultural differences in communication between the British people and Indians. That’s because people from the UK preferably demand arm’s length distance when engaged in physical interactions, though not as profound as what you have in India.
Brazilian cultural cues as regards personal space
Contrary to what is obtainable in India and Britain, the Brazilians, being jolly fellows, see physical contact as no big deal. Thus, body contact like hugging, kissing, backslapping, and others are publicly acceptable.
Generally, women greet one another by hugging and kissing each other, starting from the left cheek. On the other hand, men give handshakes themselves while maintaining eye contact.
However, should a lady wish to shake hands with a male figure, she initiates by extending her hand first.
3. Eye Contact as part of cultural differences in communication
Eye contact as nonverbal communication in the United Kingdom
The British people encourage direct eye contact during communication. But when done without shifting gazes from time to time can be found irritating and out of touch.
Eye contact as nonverbal communication in India
Similar to what you have in the United Kingdom, for the Indian people, direct eye contact can be provocative and insulting if gazes don’t get diverted during interpersonal interactions. It’s even worse when accompanied by winking and whistling.
That’s because they see both to suggest sexual interest and desire, especially during communication between opposite genders.
Eye contact as nonverbal communication in Brazil
They don’t seem to have predefined red flags as regards this subject.
4. Gestures as part of cultural differences in communication
In India, with both hands on your hips while you’re standing portrays anger or readiness to engage in verbal combat (to argue) with someone or a group. Also, touching someone’s head can be considered insensitive and offensive because the head is seen as the most sacred part of the human body.
Gestures in Britain are reserved and somewhat polite. But there are some cultural cues and nonverbal communication that is frowned at.
An example of such is doing the V-sign with your index and middle fingers, having your palm facing inward. It’s seen as offensive because they believe that’s a way of saying “up yours.”
However, that gesture with your palm outward could mean victory or peace.
For Brazilians, rubbing your hands together at a matter or an occurrence during an interaction may mean “not a big deal”. Also, thumb-up means approval, which seems to be universal.
However, using the “OK hand” gesture is considered rude and repulsive.
6. Active listening as part of cultural differences in communication
Traditionally, people from Britain are known as polite listeners. They barely interrupt when someone is speaking, except they need clarification about what has been said by the speaker.
Similar to what’s obtainable in Britain (UK), India listens actively, too. And they may do this through constant nodding during a conversation and acknowledging what the speaker is saying.
However, that doesn’t usually mean understanding.
Active listening requires patience and may mean holding your emotions for a while. But people from Brazil don’t seem to have that energy because of their exuberant nature in expressing their emotions. So there most likely will be interruptions in the communication process.
Cultural differences in communication & Other nonverbal communication across cultures
In India, exposing the soles of your feet to others or using your feet to touch someone is considered extremely rude. But why?
Simply because they see their feet as a less sacred (unclean) part of the body. They are of the viewpoint that feet interact with the earth’s surface and seem to pick up various specks of dirt and germ the ground.
But that doesn’t seem to be a big deal for those from the UK and Brazil.
Also, a fellow would present a gift with his right hand and may not welcome a gift that got presented with a left hand. Why?
That’s because the Indians believe the left hand is to do the “left-hand” jobs such as removing wax from your ears and blowing your nose. This stigma is attached to the left hand because people use it to clean themselves after defecation.
PS: Countries adapted in this article to explain the examples of cultural differences that exist around the globe; were not selected out of any preference or prejudice. Also, note that the information documented here is from consultation with different resources. Therefore they’ve shared for informational purposes, with no intention to downplay the culture of these countries.
A final thought on cultural differences in communication
Having looked at nonverbal communication and culture, taking a few countries in the world, it’s crucial that learning the cultural variations will help you (and any other person) communicate effectively with people of different cultural backgrounds.
Karen Moustafa Leonard, James R. Van Scotter, & Leonard (2009). Culture and communication: cultural variations and Media effectiveness. Administration & Society; 41(7), 850-877.
Wang Wen-Cheng, Lin Chien-Hung, Chu Ying-Chien (2011). Cultural Diversity and information and communication impact language learning. International education studies. Vol 4; No 2.