Communication 101

03 Cross-Cultural Communication

Communication 101

The Basic Elements of Communication
Scroll

Introduction

You are already proficient at communicating within your own culture, and you are learning how widely communication preferences can vary across cultures.

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.

Throughout this section we’ll provide a variety of scenarios and tips to help you form and sharpen pre-existing communication skills to be better prepared for answering difficult questions about the United States and its citizens.

Communication Elements

Basically, communication is made up of two main elements.

1. Nonverbal – Body language and gestures

You will observe posture, facial expressions, hand gestures, eye contact, personal space, and dress before you even start talking to someone.

Illustration of a handshake
Collage of dialogue bubbles
2. Verbal – What’s actually said and how it’s said

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.

Illustration of a handshake
+
Collage of dialogue bubbles
=
Illustration of a woman talking very close to another woman in an office. The woman being talked to looks uncomfortable.

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.

Nonverbal Communication

Even in your native language and within your home culture, lots of meaning is conveyed by nonverbal components. Take a look at this example.

Transcript
Video Transcript
Speaker
Thanks (spoken in a happy, pleasant tone)
Thanks (spoken in a frustrated, almost sarcastic tone)

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.

Each time two people interact they’re sending nonverbal signals—from how and where they’re standing in relation to each other (are they standing close together, or do they prefer more space) to the expressions on their faces, the amount of eye contact they’re making, what they’re wearing, and what they’re doing with their hands. All of these elements combine to provide information about a person. First impressions are formed quickly and often through nonverbal signals.

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.

Gestures
Concept of Time
Personal Space
Gender Implications

Gestures

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.

Head Toss

Sketch of Head Toss
A head toss can mean many things. In the United States, it’s usually a directional cue—what you’re looking for is "over there." But in some Mediterranean countries and across much of the Middle East it means “no,” and in India it means “yes.”
Understanding some of the different meanings gestures have in different locations will help you to avoid confusion. In some cases this knowledge can keep you from inadvertently offending someone.
Imagine this icon

Time

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.

Imagine This...

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.

Video Description

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.

Personal Space

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.

Imagine This...

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.

Video Description

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.

Very
Close
Moderately
Close
Arm’s
Length
* These are generalizations based on proxemics studies by Edward Hall

Very Close

  • Latin America and the Caribbean
  • Africa
  • Middle East/Arab cultures, if the speakers are the same gender
  • Southern Europe
Silhouettes of two young women standing very close to one another

Moderately Close

  • United States and Canada
  • Australia and New Zealand
  • Northern Europe
  • Russia
Silhouettes of two young women standing a little less than an arm's distance apart

Arm’s Length

  • Southeast Asia
  • Central Asia
  • Japan, China, South Korea
  • Middle East/Arab cultures, if the speakers are different genders
Silhouettes of two young women standing more than an arm's distance apart
There is a fair bit of nuance surrounding personal space—different rules guide space between close friends and between people of the same and opposite genders.

Over time, as you build a working knowledge of personal space preferences in a new culture, you will learn how to navigate these nuances.

Man handing another man a glass

Gender

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.

Physical Touch Across Genders
In some cultures, physical contact across gender lines can pose serious risks, often especially for the woman. Proximity and eye contact between genders are also culturally determined.

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.

Female and male symbols
X
Physical Touch and Same Gender
Most Americans are not used to seeing two male friends walk down the street together holding hands. However, in other cultures, this kind of affection among men is considered normal and carries no sexual connotation.

In these cases, men hold hands to show a sign of solidarity and friendship.

Two businessmen holding hands
X
Kissing on the Cheek
In most Spanish speaking countries, it is customary to greet someone with either one or two kisses on the cheek. This is not simply reserved for family and friends, as it is common to greet someone in this way upon meeting for the first time.

Americans, particularly when introducing oneself to someone of another gender, typically maintain more personal space.

Woman greeting man by kissing his right cheek
X

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.

Imagine this icon

Taboos

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.

In Japan and China, never stick your chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice. This is how rice is offered to dead ancestors.
Illustration of rice in a bowl with chopsticks stuck in it
Think of nonverbal communication as like the key on a map—without it you can still have a sense of where you’re going, but things are a lot clearer if you’ve got the key at your disposal. Many times the nonverbal cues are more meaningful than even the spoken words. Knowledge of the meaning of nonverbal communication within a culture makes things easier to navigate.
The more you observe and learn how to interpret nonverbal communication in a new culture, the better you’ll be at understanding its meaning and using that nonverbal behavior yourself. Over time you’ll be able to read nonverbal cues when responding to a difficult question in order to better tailor your response.

Verbal Communication

The language barrier is what most people immediately think about when they’re talking about cross-cultural communication.
Woman with illustrated letters pouring out of her open mouth

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.

Speak the Language

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.

Shop owner speaking to a customer
Try to laugh at yourself—if you make mistakes it will likely turn into a funny story for the future.
Imagine this icon

Wordplay

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.

Idioms

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.

U.S. flag
“The squeaky wheel gets the grease.”
Irish flag
“What is nearest the heart is nearest the mouth.”
Chinese flag
“The first to raise their voice loses the argument.”

Tone and Volume

In some locations, the tone and volume of conversation doesn’t seem to match what you might think is “normal.” What may seem like a long-standing feud between two older gentlemen, who are standing on the corner flailing their arms at each other and speaking loudly, may actually be a very friendly conversation about gardens and the weather. A lot depends on conversational norms, which can vary greatly from your expectations.
Two older men wearing hats and holding canes. One is seated on a bench and the other is standing.
Understanding these basic communication elements will ultimately aid you in dealing with difficult questions, but before you can get there, you’ll need to recognize the context in which you’re communicating.
Japanese man sitting at a bar in Shinjuku.

Imagine This...

You are in a grocery store in Rome and want to buy a bag of peanuts, but you don’t know where they are located. You think you know how to ask for them in the native language, so you go up to someone who works at the store and ask, “Where are the bags of peanuts?” The employee looks at you, confused, and then starts to laugh.

She tells you that you’ve just asked, “Where are the bags of spiders?” In Italian, the word “peanuts” and the word “spiders” sound very similar. You both burst out laughing. When you regain your composure she points you to the peanuts.

Imagine This...

Bus stop with a bus driving by.

You are at a bus station and you don’t know which bus is yours, so you point to the nearest bus and ask a young man if that is the one going to your destination. He clicks his teeth, lifts his chin, and tilts his head back. You know he just told you something, but don’t know what it is.

It turns out the man was responding negatively to your question. As the animation shows, the head toss is a common gesture in many cultures. It’s good to get to know what different gestures mean in different locations. You should consider the ones you use regularly, as well, since some may not translate at all or may not mean what you intend.

Imagine This...

Zoom in on man with hand over his heart.
You are a woman and have just arrived in a Muslim nation. You are being introduced to a town elder with whom you will be working. You extend your hand to shake hands with the man. He avoids contact with your hand, places his hand across his heart, and looks down.

In many countries in Africa and the Middle East, while men touch each other more often and more freely than is customary in western nations, it is improper for a man to touch a woman who is not a family member in public.

About this Resource

Representing the United States—and Americans—while living and working abroad is an honor and privilege. At the same time, it can be overwhelming and intimidating to answer questions on behalf of a nation and its people, especially considering the diversity of the American experience. Every American living or working abroad needs the skills and confidence to answer difficult questions politely and substantively, while at the same time respecting the many cultural realities of all interpersonal encounters.

This interactive resource, So You’re an American? A Guide to Answering Difficult Questions Abroad, is designed to build skills and confidence in responding to difficult questions about culture and nationality. Specifically, this resource focuses on handling everyday inquiries from curious folks around the globe. Have you ever jumped in a taxi and been confronted with “Why do Americans love their guns so much?” or some such question mired in history, culture, and values? Or, have you been at a local market trying to purchase a gift and been surprised that what should have been a 10 minute encounter has turned into a 45 minute ritual of tea, presentation of goods, and detailed explanations of the craftsman’s process?

So You’re an American? A Guide to Answering Difficult Questions Abroad is an online resource created by the Department of State’s Foreign Service Institute for all Americans living and working abroad who are eager to prepare for the many informal and unofficial questions they will receive while overseas. Throughout this resource, you will explore cross-cultural communication techniques as well as various aspects of culture through self-paced activities, videos, and simulations. Participants will develop confidence in their ability to navigate difficult questions and conversations, including knowing how to disengage appropriately. This resource limits its scope to non-foreign policy questions, as those demand answers from official sources.