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Donal Carbaugh defines culture as "a system of expressive practices fraught with
feelings, a system of symbols, premises, rules, forms, and the domains and dimensions
of mutual meanings associated with these." He also suggests culture is "a learned set of
shared interpretations about beliefs, values, and norms, which affect the behaviors of a
relatively large group of people." In each of these definitions, culture is linked to
communication and a wide range of human experience including feelings, identity, and
meaning-making. Communication is the vehicle by which meanings are conveyed,
identity is composed and reinforced, and feelings are expressed. As we communicate
using different cultural habits and meaning systems, both conflict and harmony are
possible outcomes of any interaction.

In today’s global business environment, more and more of us are required to

understand people who come from countries and cultures different from our own. While
there is no short and easy way to learn about a given culture in any depth, there are
some general principles that lead to success in communicating and conducting
business with people of backgrounds unlike our own.

Communication across cultures effectively improves your productivity and efficiency and
promotes harmonious work environment. Cross-cultural communication involves
understanding cultural differences and overcoming language problem.


Specifically, these problems are related to two kinds of cultural differences:

• Differences in body positions and movements

• Differences in views and practices concerning various factors of human


(1) Body positions and movements

Body positions and movements differ among cultures. For example, in some cultures,
people sit; in other cultures, they squat. Who is to say that sitting is more advanced or
better? Manners of walking differ among cultures. Communication with body parts
(hands, arms, head, etc.) varies by culture. Hand gestures differ by culture. So do eye
movements, touching and handshaking. Body motions or kinesics can be categorized
as follows:
Emblems - nonverbal actions that have a verbal translation into a word, phrase or
symbol. Gesture of thumb and forefinger to form a circle to say “OK” in US and to
indicate an obscenity in Brazil.

Effective displays - facial expressions such as a frown, a smile, or lips pulled down at
the corners.

Illustrators – nonverbal acts accompanying speech. Examples include an upturned

thumb to indicate that a ride is desired or pointing a finger to indicate a direction.

Adapters – nonverbal behavior that modifies or add to what is being said. For example,
folded arms may indicate disgust or that a person is feeling closed to others; a wave
may be used as a friendly greeting; leg swinging and finger tapping may indicate

Regulators – movements that maintain interaction and provide feedback. Head nods or
changing gaze can indicate that it is the other persons turn to talk. A head nod can also
indicate listening.

Culture Handshakes

Americans Firm

Germans Brusque, firm, repeated upon arrival and departure

French Light, quick, not offered to superiors, repeated upon arrival

and departure

British Soft

Latin Americans Firm, long-lasting

Asians Gentle; for some, shaking hands is unfamiliar and


(2) Views and Practices Concerning Factors of Human Relationships

Probably causing even more miscommunication than differences in body positions and
movements are the different attitudes of different cultures toward various factors of
human relationships. We will review seven major factors:

Time - views about time differs widely. Some cultures stress punctuality (monochronic);
but some do not (especially of the Middle East & some parts of Asia).
Space – space is viewed differently by different cultures. In some cultures, people want
to be far apart (North American); in other cultures, they want to be close (some Arabian
& South American).

Odors – some cultures view body odors as bad (American work hard to neutralize body
odor); others view them as normal (Asians take it as act of friendship).

Frankness - High-context cultures are more frank and explicit than Low-context
cultures. Germans and Israelis are even more frank than Americans.

Intimacy of Relationships – in many cultures, strict social classes exist, and class
status determines how intimately people are addressed and treated in communication.
Similarly, how people view superior-subordinate relations can vary by culture. The role
of women varies widely by culture. In North America, we continue to move toward a
generally recognized goal of equality. In many Islamic cultures, the role of women is
quite different.

Values – each culture has different values concerning such matters as attitudes toward
work, employer-employee relations, and authority.

Expressions of Emotions – social behavior varies by culture, such as practices

concerning affection, laughter, and emotion. Included is the degree of animations

Many more such practices exist. Some cultures combine business &social pleasures;
others do not. Some expect to engage in aggressive bargaining in business; others
prefer straightforward dealings.

Some Problems Caused by Cultural Differences

• You greet your Austrian client. This is the sixth time you have met over the last 4
months. He calls you Herr Smith. You think of him as a standoffish sort of guy
who doesn't want to get really friendly. That might be true in America, where
calling someone Mr. Smith after the 6th meeting would probably mean something
-- it is marked usage of language -- like "we're not hitting it off". But in Austria, it is

• A Canadian conducting business in Kuwait is surprised when his meeting with a

high-ranking official is not held in a closed office and is constantly interrupted. He
starts wondering if the official is as important as he had been led to believe, and
he starts to doubt how seriously his business is being taken

• A British boss asked a new, young American employee if he would like to have
an early lunch at 11 am each day. The employee said 'Yeah, that would be
great!' The boss immediately said "With that kind of attitude, you may as well
forget about lunch!" The employee and the boss were both baffled by what went
wrong. [In England, saying "yeah" in that context is seen as rude and


The tools we will examine here relate to communication and ways of seeing the self in
relation to others. They are:

• High-context and low-context communication, and

• Individualist and collectivism conceptions of self and other

High-context and Low-context Communication refers to the degree to which

speakers rely on factors other than explicit speech to convey their messages. This tool,
developed by Edward T. Hall, suggests that communication varies according to its
degree of field dependence, and that it can be classified into two general categories --
high-context and low-context. Field dependence refers to the degree to which things
outside the communication itself affect the meaning.

Following series is according to increasing degree (low context to high context) - Arab,
Japanese, Chinese, Greek, Mexican, Spanish, Italian, French, English, North American,
Scandinavian, German

Individualist and collectivism conceptions - In individualist cultures, individual

uniqueness, self-determination is valued. A person is all the more admirable if they are
a "self-made man" or "makes up their own mind" or show initiative or work well
independently. Collectivist cultures expect people to identify with and work well in
groups which protect them in exchange for loyalty and compliance.

Paradoxically, individualist cultures tend to believe that there are universal values that
should be shared by all, while collectivist cultures tend to accept that different groups
have different values.

Many of the Asian cultures are collectivist, while Anglo cultures tend to be individualist.


Observations may consist of Assessment of political situation of the state we are

dealing with, understand religious & folk beliefs, clothing & food preferences, learn
about business & economic institutes, how people greet there?, how people use
name/surname in conversation, what is the attitude towards touching the people, how
they express their feelings & emotions, how do they sit in corporate, how close they
stand with others, how do they accepts/reject offers, how do they make eye-contact with
others, etc.

• By studying other cultures

• Assume differences until similarity is proved

• Take responsibility at your own

• Show respect to other cultures

• Tolerate the ambiguity (avoid frustration)

• Look beyond the superficial

• Be patient and persistent

• Recognize your own cultural biases

• Be flexible

• Emphasize on common ground

• Send clear messages

• Deal with the individual (you are interacting with)

• Learn when to be direct & when to be indirect

• Treat your interpretation as a work in hypothesis (not as result)