Communication is much more than just language and verbal exposition, and it reflects our culture, gender, and innate characteristics; it is possible to communicate more effectively by better understanding the intended audience and the nuances of nonverbal communication.
Communication is, at its core, any way one mind may affect another. It is imperative to be aware of culture while communicating because it affects how we convey information to each other and how we receive what is being communicated to us. The classic model of communication includes the message sender; the message; the medium (e.g., verbal, nonverbal); and the message recipient.
Culture has considerable influence over communication at all points along this process. The sender’s cultural framework is reflected in the content and means by which the message is conveyed. The message recipient relies on their cultural framework to decode the message, during which process selective perception affects how the message will be interpreted.
Culture is internalized through the experience of living within a family and community, forming the conscious and unconscious framework used by an individual to interpret their world. Cultures have some aspects that are easily visible and others that are more difficult to perceive.
Culture encompasses symbols (e.g., verbal, nonverbal); rituals (e.g., collective activities); values (e.g., what is good or bad; normal or abnormal); and heroes (e.g., real or imaginary; behavior models). In most cases, these are accessible to members outside of the cultural group and must be taken into account to communicate with group members effectively. Violations or misunderstanding of any of these crucial elements of culture renders the sender’s communication less effective or—if a significant violation—rejected.
Culture shapes communication, both verbal messages (e.g., words) and nonverbal messages[footnoteRef:1] (e.g., tone of voice, expression). [1: Messages are the “pieces of information” exchanged between individuals.]
- Verbal communication uses language to convey ideas.
- Nonverbal communication includes graphic and verbal methods, other than dialect, used to communicate. There are eight distinctive forms of nonverbal communication:
- physical appearance and attractiveness.
- body movement, including posture, facial expressions, and eye contact (kinesics);
- real contact with another person through touch (haptics);
- personal space and distance from one another (proxemics);
- voice or the way something is said, including tone, pitch, rate, height, and even silence (vocalics);
- the time or the way it is used (chronemics);
- scents or odors (olfactics);
Although it is easy to understand how cultural differences affect communication between diverse social groups, it is sometimes less clear how men and women within the same social group use language differently. The most significant difference is that men and women view the purpose of conversations differently: “[W]hile women use communication as a tool to enhance social connections and create relationships, men use language to exert dominance and achieve tangible outcomes (Merchant, 2012, p. 16)”.
Because men are goal-oriented (i.e., define their sense of self through achieved results) and women are relationship oriented (i.e., define their sense of self through their feelings and relationships), they communicate and resolve problems differently. Men focus on offering solutions, while women offer or seek empathy and advice. These differences can lead to misunderstandings when communicating with the opposite sex (Merchant, 2012, p. 16).
Communication is also made more difficult by having to pass through cultural perceptual filters. A perceptual filter is “the mental structure through which we organize and assign meaning to new information” (Bevan, 2020, Glossary).
It is this cultural perceptual filter that an individual uses to determine what importance to assign events and individuals and how to interpret what is seen or experienced (Bevan, 2020, p. 86). Most individuals are not consciously aware of their own perceptual filters, but they color and affect how we perceive our experiences and even how we behave.
The culture in which we were raised conditions us to express ourselves in ways that may not be in our best interest. For example, when Malcolm Gladwell examined how commercial airline pilots’ cultural backgrounds influenced how they communicated in the cockpit. Gladwell found that pilots were unable to communicate with each other and air traffic control because of their cultural norms effectively.
For instance, in the airline industry, when officers try to tell alert their captains to a problem, certain cultures impose that differential treatment is given to superiors. In order to do that, they used hints or even softened speech to get their points across, even in a situation that could be life threatening. Because of these cultural norms, these officers are unable to use clear and direct messages to notify their captains (Bevan, 2020, p. 64).
Paying closer attention to culture and our own perceptual filters can improve communication, especially if it can help us gain control over our nonverbal messaging. Cultures use nonverbal communication differently. These subtle messages influence the recipient’s interpreted communication. Minor variations in body language, speech rhythms, and even punctuality can create a misperception of the intended message and lead to mistrust of the motives among cross-cultural conversations. Nonverbal communication cues include:
- eye contact;
- gestures (e.g., the “OK” hand sign is considered obscene in other cultures); and
- interpersonal space (e.g., some middle eastern cultures interact with others at a closer distance than Americans).
In order to effectively communicate across cultural barriers requires: the development of cultural sensitivity (i.e., understand the message you are sending your audience); careful encoding (i.e., use the correct words, pictures, and gestures); the establishment of relationships; careful reception and decoding of the message; and appropriate follow-up actions.
Sometimes humans fail to communicate effectively, despite the greatest motivation. One humorous example is the famous marketing fails of multi-billion-dollar companies as they began to expand internationally. Among those “lost in translation” were:
- Pepsi spooked Chinese consumers when its slogan “Come alive with Pepsi” was translated to “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the dead” (Weinmann, 2011).
- In Spain, the slogan for Perdue chicken was mangled from “It takes a strong man to make a tender chicken” to “It takes an aroused man to make a chicken affectionate” (Weinmann, 2011).
- Hunt-Wesson translated “baked beans:” into French Canadian as “Gros Jos,” which is slang for “big breasts” (Weinmann, 2011).
- In the 1920s, Coca Cola wanted to introduce its product to China with a name that sounded similar to its English name. Unfortunately, the phonetic translation meant “bite the wax tadpole” (Weinmann, 2011).
In sum, it is crucial to understand how culture can impact both the sender and recipient of the message. It is necessary to try to understand and control the messages that are consciously and inadvertently being sent. However, it is also helpful to keep in mind that even huge companies with vast numbers of employees can flub their messaging.
- Adler, N. (2017). Communicating across cultures. The Cultural Dimension of Global Business, 95-126. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315411019-4
- Bevan, J. L. (2020). Making connections: Understanding interpersonal communication (3rd ed.). https://content.ashford.edu/
- Changing Works. (2020). Gender Language Differences. Changing Minds and Persuasion. https://changingminds.org/explanations/gender/gender_language.htm
- Merchant, Karima, ‘How Men And Women Differ: Gender Differences in Communication Styles, Influence Tactics, and Leadership Styles’ (2012). CMC Senior Theses. Paper 513. http://scholarship.claremont.edu/cmc_theses/513
- Mooij, M. D. (2013). Global Marketing and Advertising: Understanding Cultural Paradoxes. SAGE Publications.
- Weinmann, K. (2011, October 17). 13 Slogans That Got Hilarious When They Were Lost In Translation. Business Insider. https://www.businessinsider.com/13-hilarious-slogans-lost-in-translation-2011-10