These differences are compounded when the communication across cultures is highlighted.* Here are a few examples:
- In some cultures, to point out a mistake or even a slight oversight is practically an insult.
- Different cultures have different perceptions of closeness and personal space. To stand too closely or to speak from too far away is viewed as threatening behavior.
- A loud voice is viewed in some cultures as a prelude to a fight, whereas in another culture it may be necessary in order to indicate enthusiasm for a subject.
- Direct eye contact, which we in the West prize as being the ultimate expression of communication attentiveness and effectiveness, is considered invasive by some cultures. This is especially true between men and women because so much communication goes on through the eyes alone.
- While Americans stress the importance of dealing with conflict face-to-face, to approach a personal conflict head-on would be to invite shame, if not embarrassment, in some cultures. Putting something in writing, thus creating some objective distance, is preferable for these people.
Language use varies greatly among individuals, the sexes, generations, races, socioeconomic groups, and cultures. Even the simple word yes can be a source of misunderstanding. Among some groups, saying yes is tantamount to signing your name in blood. For others, a yes means Probably I'll consider it." When dealing with others in a situation that demands common understanding, it may be necessary to ask for further elaboration.
Decision-making styles are different depending upon your cultural upbringing. Some cultures prize unanimity above all; for others, a simple majority is enough; and in others, independent leadership is more appreciated than delegating authority. We have a lot to learn as we approach one another. To assume that our method - or even the methods that seem to work with one cultural segment - should be applied to other cultural groupings, within our country or elsewhere on the planet, is a gross misperception.
As we work together on a task, some cultures and some individuals will place a great emphasis on establishing relationships as the basis for a successful outcome. For others, it is natural to simply get to work, allowing the relationships to build as the job unfolds. For either type to expect the other to change is asking a lot. Look around; observe yourself. Find out what you are doing and what others seem to want. Learn to adapt and compromise; put yourself in the other person's shoes.
Because our learning styles are different, so too will be our ways of communicating about issues. Some members of a group might look to logic and library research as their first line of attack, while others will not feel they know a situation until they have visited the people and places under investigation.
Such differences are cause for celebration, because they show just how vast human potential is. Yet obviously they can also create conflict among the sexes and races and cultures - socially, professionally, and intimately. Ultimately, we all belong to the same human race, with the same fears, desires, and needs. Our survival depends on our willingness to understand and be understood.
* This material is well-summarized in "Working on Common Cross-Cultural Communication Challenges," by Marcelle E. DuPraw, National Institute for Dispute Resolution and Marya Axner, consultant in leadership development and diversity awareness. Their overview is posted at www.wwcd.org/action/ampu/crosscult.html#PATTERNS.