Verbal Communication across Cultures

Cultural Variations in Non-Verbal Communication – The Consumer ...

Types of verbal communication in different cultures influence communication style. These  can and do create misunderstandings in conversations among people.

This writing will explain some types of verbal communication in different cultures. Verbal communication refers to communication that uses words.

It is not possible or necessary to know everything about the way a cultural group communicates before having contact with that group. It can take years to understand verbal style differences.

However, if you can anticipate differences in communication styles, your judgments about people will be more accurate and you will have fewer cross-cultural misunderstanding. Types of verbal communication in different cultures can be characterized in these categories:

High Involvement and High Considerate

Many people from cultures that prefer high involvement styles tend to be talk more, interrupt more, expect to be interrupted, talk more loudly at times, and talk more quickly than those from cultures favoring high considerateness style.

Many high involvement speakers enjoy arguments and might even think that others are not interested if they are not ready to engage in a heated discussion.

On the other hand, people from cultures that favor high considerateness style tend to speak one at a time, use polite listening sounds, refrain from interrupting, and give plenty of positive and respectful responses to their conversation pattern.

Most teachers of English as a Second Language (ESL) in multicultural classrooms have observed that some students become very involved in classroom conversation and discussion, whereas others tend to participate only in a hesitant manner.

The challenge for the teacher is not to allow the high involvement group to dominate discussions.   

Incorrect Judgments of Character

The judgments that people make about regional differences within a country are similar to those they make about people from another culture.

The reactions to this kind of verbal communication in different cultures are not usually reasonable fashion: “The way she speaks is different from my way of speaking.

She must have had a different cultural upbringing. I won’t judge her according to my standards of what is an acceptable communication style”.

Instead, people tend to make judgments such as, “She’s loud, pushy, and domineering,” or “He doesn’t seem interested in talking. He’s very passive and uninvolved.” The people interacting are forgetting that their respective cultural styles are responsible, in part, for their mannerisms and habits of communication.

The important differences in communication create problems of stereotyping and incorrect judgments among members of diverse groups.

Directness and Indirectness

Another categories of verbal communication in different culture is directness and Indirectness. Cultural beliefs differ as to whether directness or indirectness is considered positive.

There are several expressions in English that emphasize the importance of being direct: “Get to the point!, Don’t beat around the bush!, Let’s get down to business!” These sayings all indicate the importance of dealing directly with issues rather than avoiding them.

One way to determine whether a culture favors a direct or indirect style in communication is to find out how the people in that culture express disagreement or how they say, “No.” In Japan, there are at least fifteen ways of saying, “No,” without actually saying the word.

Similarly, Japanese considers it is rude to say directly, “I disagree with you,” or “You’re wrong.”

Conversation Structures

Another type of verbal communication in different cultures is the way people converse. Some foreigners have observed that when Americans hold a conversation, it seems like they are having a Ping Pong game.

One person has the ball and then hits it to the other side of the table. The other player hits the ball back and the game continues. 

If one person doesn’t return the ball, then the conversation stops. Each part of the conversation follows this pattern: the greeting and the opening, the discussion of a topic, and the closing and farewell.

If either person talks too much, the other may become impatient and feel that the other is monopolizing the conversation. Similarly, if one person doesn’t say enough or ask enough questions to keep the conversation moving, the conversation stops.

Ping-pong and Bowling Conversation Style

“Ping-Pong” conversation style is different from bowling style. Each participant in bowling style waits politely for a turn and knows exactly when the time is right to speak.

One’s turn depends on status, age, and relationship to the other person. When it is time to take a turn, the person bowls carefully. The others watch politely and do not leave their places in line or take turn out of order.

No one else speaks until the ball has reached the bowling pins. In Japanese conversation, long silences are tolerated. For Americans, even two or three seconds of silence can become uncomfortable. 

The American who is used to the “Ping-Pong” style of communication is probably going to have some difficulties with someone whose conversational style is like a bowling game.

According to some Japanese, Americans ask too many questions and do not give the other person enough time to formulate a careful answer.

The American, however, is not doing something “wrong” or insensitive on purpose. The Japanese feels that the American is pushy and overly inquisitive because of the differences in cultural conditioning.

Ethnocentric Judgments

The other kind of verbal communication in different cultures is the judgments that people make about each other are often ethnocentric. 

That is, they interpret, judge, and behave in a way that they assume to be normal, correct, and universal. However, normal and correct are often mean what is normal and correct in one’s own culture.

When two people from different cultures communicate, they must continually ask themselves, “Do people understand me the way someone from my own culture would understand me?” there may be a gap between what a person is communicating and how people understand the message.

People cannot assume another culture seem to be communicating in what you feel are mysterious ways, consider the following points: 

  • It is possible that the way they speak reflects a cultural style.
  • Your success in developing cross-cultural rapport is directly related to your ability to understand others’ culturally influenced communication styles.
  • Your ways seem as mysterious to others as their ways seem to you.
  • It is often valuable to talk about cultural differences in communication styles before they result in serious misunderstandings.


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