Module 3: Communicating Across Cultures
January 16 2012
What is Culture?
- Our culture is a learned set of assumptions that shape our perceptions of the world, and of appropriate values,
norms, attitudes, and behaviours.
- Perceptions about gender, age, and social class are culturally based about:
Physical appearance and ability
Regional and national characteristics
- No culture is monolithic, and cultural diversity is not restricted to ethnicity.
- Communication difficulties arise because we take our cultural behaviours for granted, and because we assume
they are “normal”.
What is Canadian Culture?
- Canada is a country of diverse cultures.
- Canada is becoming the most culturally diverse country In the world, home to more than 200 different ethnic
groups, and with a foreign-born population second only to Australia.
- Toronto is “the most ethnically diverse city in the world… home to more than 80 ethnic groups speaking 100
- Without our immigrant population, Canada would not have had the labour force necessary to prosper during the
boom times of the late 20 and early 21 centuries: “skilled immigrants who arrived in the past 10 years
accounted for 70% of the growth in Canada’s labour force during the same period.”
- Millennial multitasking includes answering cell phones at a business lunch, in meetings, and even in the middle
of a conservation.
- Older people will be an important audience demographic for you, as their values (and expectations) continue to
shape what is considered appropriate business communications and culture.
- Cultural sensitivity is not only emotionally intelligent, but also financially smart: people you work with and for
are not just like you; being aware of others’ norms and values enables you to shape your message for positive
- The rapidity of change and the economic effects of globalization demand effective intercultural communication.
- Foreign trade is essential to the growth of both individual businesses and Canada’s economy.
How does Culture Affect Business Communication?
- Cultural Assumptions and expectations determine both the form and the content of every business
interaction. - High-context cultures most of the information is inferred from the context of a message; little is “spelled
out.” Chinese, Japanese, Arabic and Latin American cultures might be considered high context.
- Low Context cultures context is less important; most information is explicitly spelled out. German,
Scandinavian, and the dominant North American cultures might be considered low content.
- As David Victor points out, high context and low context cultures value different kinds of communication and
have different attitudes toward oral and written channels.
- Low-context cultures favour direct approaches and perceive indirectness as dishonest or manipulative.
o The written word is seen as more important tan spoken agreements, so contracts are binding but
promises may be broken.
o Details, logic and time constraints matter.
Low Context (e.g., Germany, Canada,
High Context (e.g., Japan, United Arab United States)
Preferred communication strategy Indirectness, politeness, ambiguity Directness, confrontation,
Reliance on words to communicate Low High
Reliance on nonverbal signs to High Low
Importance of written word Low High
Agreements made in writing Not binding Binding
Agreements made orally Binding Not binding
Attention to detail Low High
- Communication is also influenced by the organizational culture and by personal culture, such as gender, race
and ethnicity, social class and so forth.
- Essential cultural insights for Global Business Success. Values, Beliefs, and Practices
- Values and beliefs, often unconscious, affect our response to people and situations.
- Cultural assumptions also affect people’s spiritual, religious, and political beliefs, and these, in turn, shape
personal and professional communications.
Cultural Contrasts in Motivation
North America Japan Arab Countries
Emotional appeal Opportunity Group participation, company Religion, nationalism, admiration
Basis of Individual achievement Group achievement Individual status, status of class or
Material rewards Salary, bonus, profit sharing Annual bonus, social services, fringe Gifts for self or family, salary
Threats Loss of job Loss of group membership Demotion, loss of reputation
Values Competition, risk taking, Group harmony, belonging Reputation, family security, religion
- Nonverbal communication communication that makes meaning without words – permeates our lives.
Facial expressions, gestures, pauses, vocal intonations, etc.
- Misunderstandings are even more common in communication across cultures, since nonverbal signals are
- Learning about nonverbal symbols gives you the information you need to project the image you want, and
makes you more conscious of the signals you are interpreting.
- Posture and body language show self-concept, energy and openness.
- North American open body positions include: leaning forward with uncrossed arms and legs, with the arms
away from the body.
- Closed or defensive body positions include: leaning back, arms and legs crossed or close together, or hands in
- Canadians of European background see eye contact as a sign of honesty.
- Dropped eyes are a sign of appropriate defence to a superior.
- We assume that if language fails, we can depend on gestures to communicate with non-English speaking people. Space
- Personal space is the distance people want between themselves and other people in ordinary, non-intimate
- People who are accustomed to lots of personal space and are forced to accept close contact on a crowded
elevator or subway react in predictable and ritualistic ways: they stand stiffly and avoid eye contact with others.
- Humans crave touched.
- A person who dislikes touch may seem unfriendly to someone who’s used to touching.
- A toucher may seem overly familiar to someone who dislikes touch.
- In north American culture, touch can be interpreted as power: more powerful people touch less powerful
- In North America, the size, placement, and privacy of a person’s office indicate status.
- People who don’t know each other well may feel more comfortable with each other if a piece of furniture
- Being “on time” is seen as a sign of dependability.
- Part of the miscommunication stems from a major perception difference: people in many other cultures want to
take the time to establish a personal relationship before they decide whether to do business with each other.
- Monochronic cultures people do only one important activity at a time
- Polychronic cultures people do several things at once.
Other Nonverbal Symbols
- Clothing, colours, age, and height to name a few – carry nonverbal meaning.
- In Canada, certain styles and colours of clothing are considered more “professional” and more “credible”.
- Certain cloths and fabrics – silk and linen, carry nonverbal messages of success, prestige, and competence.
- Colours can carry cultural meanings. (example; wear black to funeral, brides wear white).
- Height connotes status in many parts of the world, executive officers are usually on the top floors. Oral Communication
Cultural Contrasts in Business Introductions
North America Japan Arab Countries
Purpose of Establish status and job Establish position in group; Establish personal rapport
introduction identity; network build harmony
Image of individual Independent Member of group Part of rich culture
Information Related to business Related to company Personal
Use of language Informal, friendly; use first Little talking Formal; expression of admiration
Values Openness; directness; action Harmony; respect; listening Religious harmony; hospitality;
- No conversational style is better or worse than another, but people with different styles may feel uncomfortable
without knowing why.
- Daniel N. Maltz and Ruth A. Borker believe that differences in conversational style might be responsible for the
miscommunication that sometimes occurs in male-female conversations.
Understatement and Exaggeration
- The british have a reputation for understament.
Example: Someone good enough to play at Wimbledon may say that he “plays a little tennis”.
- The US generally exaggerate.