What follows is an overview of the basic elements of communication and a breakdown of some of the more complicated components that are influenced by culture. There are some common communication preferences that may be unfamiliar to you, or that may signal things other than that which you’re accustomed to.
Basically, communication is made up of two main elements.
You will observe posture, facial expressions, hand gestures, eye contact, personal space, and dress before you even start talking to someone.
In your own language, you know how to interpret verbal messages. In a new culture and language, it can be more difficult to decipher the intended meaning. These challenges are not insurmountable, however, and we’ll provide some tips to help you overcome them.
Combining both the nonverbal and verbal components creates the base from which most communication springs.
Let’s take a look at nonverbal and verbal communication in more detail. Both of these combined give you a clearer picture as to what a person is trying to communicate. We’ll focus first on the nonverbal component.
Even in your native language and within your home culture, lots of meaning is conveyed by nonverbal components. Take a look at this example.
One simple word could have dozens of actual meanings due to the interplay of nonverbal elements.
Sometimes an entire message is delivered without any corresponding verbal components. The interpretation of the message can become complicated when connecting across cultures and languages and responding to difficult questions.
Whether you’re conscious of this or not, you’re always reading other people’s nonverbal signals. What’s tricky is that one gesture can mean many things in different cultures.
Understanding gestures in a different area of the world can be challenging because gestures don’t mean the same thing in every culture. Some gestures you would assume don’t have any meaning at all could actually be very meaningful. Others that are familiar to you might mean something very different in another culture. Here are a few examples.
How people conceive of time varies greatly across cultures. While Americans are often concerned with promptness and deadlines, many people in other cultures have a more fluid understanding of how the clock works.
You’re invited to a party that starts at 8:30 pm. You decide it’s best to try and get there on time, but you wind up arriving a few minutes late so you begin to think about ways to apologize for not arriving promptly.
When the host answers the door, she seems surprised to see you and you notice that she’s still not dressed for the get together. She says that no one else will be there for a while, but you’re free to sit and wait while she gets ready.
View of the interior of an upscale high rise apartment living room. There are refreshments and glasses set out on the coffee table and console in preparation for a party.
A young, casually dressed, smiling woman enters from the right and announces "Hello! I'm here for the party!"
A second woman, the party host, enters from the left dressed in only a bath towel and looking rather annoyed. She stops midway across the room, crosses her arms across her chest and looks at the first woman disapprovingly.
The expression on the first woman's face changes to puzzlement and a question mark appears in a thought bubble above her head.
Different views of time impact everything—from when movies are shown, to how business is conducted, to what you can expect from your friends and acquaintances when you tell them to meet you.
Culture sets the rules for the amount of personal space people need in order to feel comfortable. The way in which an individual uses personal space is a form of nonverbal communication.
You’ve noticed something that occurs between one woman in your office and whomever she happens to be in a conversation with. Whenever there is a pause in the conversation, she moves in closer.
After a few exchanges, the woman usually has the person she’s speaking with pinned to a wall. She is within a foot or less of the other person, and that person is uncomfortably trying to disengage.
View of the interior of an office. Two women are standing in front of an office cubicle and desk, several feet apart. The woman at the left begins speaking to the woman on the right, but the woman at the right does not reply. The woman at the left then moves much closer to the other woman, to within about a foot of distance, and begins speaking again. The expression on the woman at the right changes from smiling and happy to puzzled and uncomfortable at the lack of personal space between them.
What’s normal for some people can be uncomfortable for others.
As you have seen in the example, the physical space between people can determine and influence behavior, communication, and social interaction. Let’s take a look at some general norms for personal space in other cultures.
Over time, as you build a working knowledge of personal space preferences in a new culture, you will learn how to navigate these nuances.
The rules around how men and women interact with each other and among themselves vary widely from country to country. This should come as no surprise, given differences in history, religious beliefs, and socio-economic practices.
The expectations around personal space and touching vary widely when gender is part of the equation. It will be helpful to gain a sound understanding of the expectations surrounding nonverbal communication between genders. Let’s look at some examples of cultural differences in gender-related nonverbal communication.
For example, if a man were to touch a woman in public in a conservative Middle Eastern country, or to interact in ways that are acceptable in western cultures, this action could put the woman at risk of severe social disapproval or sanctions.
In these cases, men hold hands to show a sign of solidarity and friendship.
Americans, particularly when introducing oneself to someone of another gender, typically maintain more personal space.
Gender taboos around the world are often due to cultural or ideological notions of respect and purity which can often seem disrespectful to many Americans’ sense of equality. Trying to maintain an open perspective and understanding the cultural roots of such behavior will aid you in managing the differences.
Our world is a very diverse place, and every country—and every cultural group within that country—has its list of forbidden words, behaviors, and beliefs around certain people, places, and things. Taboos are often strongest for social interactions, business procedures, and during festivals and holidays. To create a comprehensive list would be impossible. However, to give you a sampling of taboos around the world, take a look at the following examples.
Trying to communicate in a different language is daunting and it can make the simple acts of running errands, asking for directions, or requesting services very difficult. It also adds another level of complexity to answering a difficult question.
However, people are often more receptive than you’d suspect when you’re trying to find a way to communicate with them in their language. A few small things can go a long way when in a country where the language is a hurdle.
Try to learn a few words and phrases in the local language, even if it’s just “hello,” “goodbye,” “please,” and “thank you.” Most local people will appreciate your efforts and be forgiving if you make mistakes. That said, you should know how to say “I’m sorry” as well.
Once you’ve mastered some of the local language, you can take it a step further by speaking in idioms, utilizing relatable humor, and even discussing local music.
Learn an idiom! These sayings often provide deep insight into cultural values. They can also serve as a way for you to adjust your communication style during an interaction to ease tension and relate to the person you’re speaking to.
These expressions show something about the way people think in their native tongue and can highlight whether a culture values speaking directly or indirectly.