Topic 3 Cultural differences in communication

Certain forms of nonverbal communication have different meanings in different cultures. For example, a gesture or motion that means one thing to people in the United States may mean something entirely different in Japan. Whereas an American is likely to point with an index finger, a Japanese person will more likely gesture with a hand, as pointing with an index finger is considered to be rude in many Asian cultures.

An important cultural difference when it comes to nonverbal communication is the display of emotion: Some cultures are more restrained than others and refrain from excessive displays of emotion in public or at all. Some cultures may also suppress facial emotion, believing an animated face to show a lack of control over one’s emotions.

Eye contact is another aspect of nonverbal communication that differs across cultures. In the United States, direct eye contact is generally considered to be a sign of trustworthiness and interest in an individual’s words. However, in some instances, a prolonged gaze may be considered by some to be a sign of sexual interest or attraction. In countries such as Japan, eye contact is generally avoided, as direct eye contact may be considered to be disrespectful. Yet in Arabic cultures, the opposite is true: eye contact is believed to show interest and honesty.

Communication is vital as the culture is different

Some gestures or customs might be understood differently around the world. For example knocking on the forehead/head in France, Italy and Germany means “you are stupid”, in Spain and the United Kingdom – “I have an idea”, and in Argentina and Peru – “think, please” or “I am thinking”. This is because of the cultural code which includes (in addition to the language codes of the culture) also norms and behavior patterns, evaluation criteria, signs that are not governed by syntactic rules, etc.).

Communication styles in different cultures

In some of the cultures the context of the message (gestures etc.) plays bigger role than in the others. High-context cultures are for example Japanese, Arabic and rely more on non-verbal communication. The low-context culture, relying more on the explicit verbal communication are for example German and German-Swiss.


Sometimes a language might not be understood if it is not the native one of interlocutors

Key terms in international communication – in a situation of intercultural communication, it is worth determining how do we understand the key terms in the conversation, especially the ones which are known to be ambiguous. This should be done in order to avoid apparent disputes originating in a different understanding of the signs or words. Even if there is a real divergence of positions between the interlocutors, a defining the meaning of key terms is also needed to avoid misunderstandings where the divergence occurs and what is it. Apparent agreement is also possible – this is a situation in which the interlocutors agree to verbal expressions, but understand them in a different way.

Different level of expressiveness in cultures – The difference between animated and restrained cultures concerns admissibility and role, expressing personal emotions and attitudes in communication. Animated cultures are characterized by high expression. Raising the voice, frequent interruptions of the speech, touching each other (e.g. patting), long looking into the eyes during the conversation are allowed. By representatives of restrained cultures this might be sometimes seen as too loud, pushy, and talkative. For representatives of restrained cultures, the most important is the verbal statement regarding the subject of the discussion. Expressing the accompanying emotions and attitudes is not that important here. They speak much quieter than representatives of animated cultures and do not interrupt the statements of others.