Tuesday, January 1, 2008

How Culture Affects Communication

© Tracy Novinger 2008

… during all of the waking hours that we spend with other human beings we "speak" volumes through the behavior our culture has drilled into us.

When we visit another country where a different language is spoken, it is obvious that it is necessary for someone to speak the other’s language in order to surmount this barrier and verbally communicate. What is not so obvious, however, is that cultural barriers are greater than language barriers and they frequently provoke reactions that are both negative and emotional. What is considerate behavior in one country may be rude in another. What is a sensitive issue to one culture, to another may not be a point of any consequence. Therefore, we really need to learn to “speak” the culture.

Communication specialists estimate that some two-thirds to three-fourths of our communication takes place nonverbally through behavior. Behavior itself is learned from our culture and all behavior communicates. Since we cannot stop behaving in one way or another, we cannot stop communicating. Therefore, during all of the waking hours that we spend with other human beings we "speak" volumes through the behavior our culture drilled into us.

Most of us assume that our own culture’s ways are the natural order of things and we tend to see cultures that are different as less evolved. We think that people would all act the same way if they were behaving properly. When we come in contact with people from other cultures, we may experience indignation or irritation when a person appears to be uncooperative or “rude.” We are frustrated when a person with whom we are having a conversation just doesn’t get something that seems simple, and we feel that foggy sense of disconnection when we do not have a clue as to what was just said or why, even though we thought we understood the words.

Although we think that free will governs our actions, most of the time it does not. Our culture is a stern taskmaster. It imposes its rules of behavior on us from the moment we are born. We learn when to speak up and when to keep quiet. We learn that some facial expressions meet with approval and others provoke a reprimand. We are taught which gestures are acceptable and which are not, and whether we can publicly unwrap a gift; we learn where to put our hands during a meal, whether or not we can make noise with our mouths when we eat, which table utensils to use or not use, and in what fashion we may use them. We learn how to address people in a manner approved by our culture, what tone of voice to employ, what posture is censored and what is praised, when and how to make eye contact and for how long, and countless other things that would be impossible to remember consciously and use all at the same time when interacting socially. As a consequence, this communicative behavior is learned so well that it sinks to a subconscious level, so that when we interact with others we operate on a sort of automatic pilot.

We rarely take note of what we consider “normal” behavior. It is behavior that deviates from our own cultural rules that captures our conscious attention. However, what is especially significant is that, without thinking, we almost always negatively evaluate any behavior that differs from our own, because we ourselves were trained by negative feedback. To use a common expression, we “take offense.” However, we can consciously choose not to take offense. One of the most useful tools we can use when we engage in cross-cultural communication is to be alert for any negative reaction to a person or situation that we experience. We can mentally stop, take a breath, and treat this reaction as a red flag that signals “different cultural convention.” Suspending reaction helps us sidestep the instant negative judgment that provokes irritation or anger; it allows us to consider that the offending behavior may be proper in its own place. In addition, it is certainly possible to learn the most significant rules for behavior prescribed by a foreign culture so that we ourselves can communicate more effectively, as well as better interpret what someone is trying to communicate to us.

When it comes to culture, different does not mean defective.

© Tracy Novinger 2008

See Intercultural Communication: A Practical Guide by Tracy Novinger, available through www.utexas.edu/utpress or http://www.amazon.com/. Focuses on U.S.-Mexico communication issues.

This article published in the January 2008 issue of Another Day in Paradise magazine (http://www.adip.info/).


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Hi. I wanted to drop you a quick note to express my thanks. I've been following your blog for a month or so and have picked up a ton of good information as well as enjoyed the way you've structured your site.

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Culture have great impact on communication.

Anonymous said...

How beautifully you have described and gave an illustration of culturally different environment that plays vital role in our relationship often with somebody from other cultural background. I wish to apply these perceptions in my own life while I will be doing my studies in the states.

Tracy Novinger said...

I wish you good luck on your studies in the U.S., which I am sure you will have. I quote the beloved American writer, Mark Twain: Ït is amazing how much good fortune hard work creates."

Unknown said...

I like this article. Thank you tracy

Tracy Novinger said...

Thank you for your feedback.

Mqhele M'tawarira said...

Thank you Nancy. It is true, 'difference does not mean defective'

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Tracy Novinger said...

See the book "Intercultural Communication" in the right-hand panel of this blog. Or look up [Intercultural Communication Tracy Novinger] on amazon.