Verbal Communication Styles and Culture
Abstract and Keywords
A communication style is the way people communicate with others, verbally and nonverbally. It combines both language and nonverbal cues and is the meta-message that dictates how listeners receive and interpret verbal messages. Of the theoretical perspectives proposed to understand cultural variations in communication styles, the most widely cited one is the differentiation between high-context and low-context communication by Edward Hall, in 1976. Low-context communication is used predominantly in individualistic cultures and reflects an analytical thinking style, where most of the attention is given to specific, focal objects independent of the surrounding environment; high-context communication is used predominantly in collectivistic cultures and reflects a holistic thinking style, where the larger context is taken into consideration when evaluating an action or event. In low-context communication, most of the meaning is conveyed in the explicit verbal code, whereas in high-context communication, most of the information is either in the physical context or internalized in the person, with very little information given in the coded, explicit, transmitted part of the message. The difference can be further explicated through differences between communication styles that are direct and indirect (whether messages reveal or camouflage the speaker’s true intentions), self-enhancing and self-effacing (whether messages promote or deemphasize positive aspects of the self), and elaborate and understated (whether rich expressions or extensive use of silence, pauses, and understatements characterize the communication). These stylistic differences can be attributed to the different language structures and compositional styles in different cultures, as many studies supporting the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis have shown. These stylistic differences can become, in turn, a major source of misunderstanding, distrust, and conflict in intercultural communication. A case in point is how the interethnic clash between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs can be exacerbated by the two diametrically opposite communication patterns they each have, dugri (straight talk) and musayra (to accommodate or “to go along with”). Understanding differences in communication styles and where these differences come from allows us to revise the interpretive frameworks we tend to use to evaluate culturally different others and is a crucial step toward gaining a greater understanding of ourselves and others.
It is widely acknowledged that people from different cultures communicate differently, and the differences in communication styles become major sources of misunderstanding, frustration, and conflict in intercultural communication. The communication styles of an individual, which combine both verbal and nonverbal elements, are shaped and reshaped by shared cultural values, worldviews, norms, and thinking styles of the cultural group to which they belong. Needless to say, understanding the fundamental patterns of communication styles as well as the underlying systems of thought that give rise to them will help to reduce cultural barriers that hinder intercultural relationships and collaborations. This article begins by introducing major theoretical frameworks that have been used to describe culture. Next, fundamental patterns of communication styles will be introduced, along with a discussion of the relationship between culture and language. Finally, implications of cultural differences in communication styles will be discussed.
Culture has been defined in many ways. Some commonly applied definitions view culture as patterned ways of thinking, feeling, and reacting, common to a particular group of people and that are acquired and transmitted through the use of symbols. Others view culture as a function of interrelated systems that include the ecology (e.g., the physical environment, resources, and geography), subsistence (e.g., how individuals use ecological resources to survive), and sociocultural systems (e.g., institutions, norms, roles, and values) (Erez & Earley, 1993). It is fair to say that culture includes both objective and subjective elements. These interrelated systems do not dictate culture; rather, we can use them as a general framework to understand culture and its relation to individual and collective actions.
A number of approaches have been used to describe and explain cultural differences. This article focuses on two approaches that are most widely accepted and relevant to our understanding of cultural variations in communication styles: value dimensions and thinking styles. Value can be defined as an enduring belief that a specific mode of conduct is socially preferable to an opposite or converse mode of conduct. Values form the basis for judging the desirability of some means or end of action. Once learned, values are integrated into an organized system of values that are relatively stable and serve a number of functions for individuals, such as predisposing them to favor particular ideologies, guiding self-presentations, influencing how they communicate, and evaluating and judging others’ decisions and behaviors. The most widely cited work on cultural values is Geert Hofstede’s work on dimensions of cultural values.
Thinking style, or cognitive style, can be understood as a way of thinking that influences how we feel and how we act; it’s how we process and categorize information, how we select information to store in memory, and how we make inferences or attributions about causality. Like cultural values, thinking styles direct an individual’s attention, guide his or her interpretation of the communication context, and influence his or her communicative choices. One influential theoretical framework to aid our understanding of cultural differences in thinking styles is Nisbett’s (2003) geography of thought theory, which explains how people in different cultures perceive the world differently, where such differences come from, and how thinking styles are related to cultural values.
Dimensions of Cultural Values
Based on a study of 88,000 IBM employees in 72 countries, between 1967 and 1973, Hofstede (2001) identified four dimensions of cultural values: (a) individualism-collectivism, with individualism defined as a loosely knit social framework in which people are supposed to take care of themselves and their immediate families only, and collectivism defined as a tight social network in which people distinguish between ingroups and outgroups, expect their ingroup to look after them, and in return they owe absolute loyalty to it; (b) power distance, defined as the extent to which a society accepts the fact that power is distributed unequally; (c) uncertainty avoidance, defined as the extent to which a society feels threatened by uncertain and ambiguous situations; and (d) masculinity-femininity, defined as the extent to which the dominant values in society are “masculine”—that is, assertiveness and the acquisition of money and things, and not caring for others. Later, Hofstede and Bond (1988) added a fifth dimension, dynamic Confucianism, with long-term orientation refers to future-oriented values such as persistence and thrift, whereas short-term orientation refers to past- and present-oriented values, such as respect for tradition and fulfilling social obligations. The individualism-collectivism dimension alone has inspired thousands of empirical studies examining cultural differences.
More specifically, people in individualistic societies, such as the United States, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and most of the northern and western European countries, tend to emphasize individual rights, such as freedom, privacy, and autonomy. They tend to view themselves as unique and special, and are free to express their individual thoughts, opinions, and emotions. They value independence and self-reliance and emphasize individuals’ responsibility and inner motivation, also described as having an internal locus of control. Individualists also value equality; they do not differentiate between ingroups and outgroups, applying the same standards universally, also known as universalism.
In comparison, people in collectivistic societies, such as most of Latin American, African, and Asian countries, and the Middle East, tend to view themselves as part of an interconnected social network. They emphasize the obligations they have toward their ingroup members, and are willing to sacrifice their individual needs and desires for the benefits of the group. Collectivists also emphasize fitting in; they value a sense of belonging, harmony, and conformity, and are more likely to exercise self control over their words and actions because they consider it immature or imprudent to freely express one’s thoughts, opinions, or emotions without taking into account their impact on others. They care about their relationships with ingroups, often by treating them differently than strangers or outgroup members, which is also known as particularism.
In high power distance societies, such as many Latin American countries, most of African and Asian counties, and most counties in the Mediterranean area, people generally accept power as an integral part of the society. Hierarchy and power inequality are considered appropriate and beneficial. The superiors are expected to take care of the subordinates, and in exchange for that, the subordinates owe obedience, loyalty, and deference to them, much like the culture in the military. It is quite common in these cultures that the seniors or the superiors take precedence in seating, eating, walking, and speaking, whereas the juniors or the subordinates must wait and follow them to show proper respect. Similarly, the juniors and subordinates refrain from freely expressing their thoughts, opinions, and emotions, particularly negative ones, such as disagreements, doubts, anger, and so on. It is not surprising that, except for a couple of exceptions, such as France, most high power distance societies are also collectivistic societies. In contrast, in low power distance cultures, most of which are individualistic societies, people value equality and seek to minimize or eliminate various kinds of social and class inequalities. They value democracy, and juniors and subordinates are free to question or challenge authority.
People from high uncertainty avoidance cultures, such as many Latin American cultures, Mediterranean cultures, and some European (e.g., Germany, Poland) and Asian cultures (e.g., Japan, Pakistan) tend to have greater need for formal rules, standards, and structures. Deviation from these rules and standards is considered disruptive and undesirable. They also tend to avoid conflict, seek consensus, and take fewer risks. On the other hand, in low uncertainty avoidance cultures people are more comfortable with unstructured situations. Uncertainty and ambiguity are considered natural and necessary. They value creativity and individual choice, and are free to take risks.
In masculine cultures, such as Mexico, Italy, Japan, and Australia, tough values, such as achievements, ambition, power, and assertiveness, are preferred over tender values, such as quality of life and compassion for the weak. In addition, gender roles are generally distinct and complementary, which means that men and women place separate roles in the society and are expected to differ in embracing these values. For example, men are expected to be assertive, tough, and focus on material success, whereas women are expected to be modest and tender, and to focus on improving the quality of life for the family. On the other hand, in feminine cultures, such as most of Scandinavian cultures, genders roles are fluid and flexible: Men and women do not necessarily have separate roles, and they can switch their jobs while taking care of the family. Not only do feminine societies care more about quality of life, service, and nurturance, but such tender values are embraced by both men and women in the society.
Finally, the long-term orientation, based on the teachings of Confucius (also called Confucian Dynamism), deals with a society’s search for virtues. Societies with a long-term orientation, such as most East Asian societies, embrace future-oriented virtues such as thrift, persistence, and perseverance, ordering relationships by status, and cultivating a sense of shame for falling short of collective expectations. In contrast, societies with a short-term orientation foster more present- or past-oriented virtues such as personal steadiness and stability, respect for tradition, and reciprocation of greetings, favors, and gifts.
The Geography of Thought
The cognitive approach views culture as a complex knowledge system. From this perspective, the key to understanding culture is to know the rules and scripts that guide action—how do people make sense of their communication environment, and how does this influence patterned action? An important line of research that expands our understanding of cultural differences in cognitive patterns is Nisbett’s programmatic studies of thinking styles in cross-cultural psychology.
By comparing the ecologies, economies, social structures, metaphysics, and epistemologies in ancient China and ancient Greece, Nisbett (2003) proposed a Geography of Thought theory to explain how Easterners and Westerners think differently and why. According to Nisbett, the ecology of ancient China consisted of primarily fertile plains, low mountains, and navigable rivers, which favored agriculture and made centralized control of society relatively easy. As agriculture required people to stay in the geographical region and collaborate with each other on tasks such as building an irrigation system that could not be achieved individually, complex social systems were needed to manage resources and coordinate efforts. Human relationships, therefore, provided both the chief constraint in people’s social life and a primary source of opportunities. As generation after generation of people in farming communities must consider all kinds of social relationships when making important decisions, when they were confronted with a conflict of views, they were naturally oriented toward avoiding the conflict or resolving the contradictions in a neutral way, known as “the middle way.” Hence, East Asians are considered holistic thinkers and dialectical thinkers.
The ecology of ancient Greece, however, consisted mostly of mountains descending to the sea, which favored hunting, herding, and fishing. These occupations required relatively little cooperation with others. Nor did they require living in the same stable community. Therefore, Ancient Greeks were able to act on their own to a greater extent than ancient Chinese. In addition, the maritime location of ancient Greece made trading a lucrative occupation. The city-state also made it possible for intellectual rebels to leave a location and go to another one, maintaining the condition of a relatively free inquiry. As a result, ancient Greeks were in the habit of arguing with one another in the marketplace and debating one another in the political assembly. As less emphasis was placed on maintaining harmonious social relationships, the Greeks had the luxury of attending to objects and people without being overly constrained by their relations with other people. Over time, they developed a view of causality based on the properties of the object, rather than based on the larger environment. Hence, ancient Greeks were considered logical and analytical thinkers.
Analytical thinking is field-independent. Analytical thinkers attend more to focal objects and specific details; what is going on in the environment is less important. They also tend to place focal elements into a cause-effect, linear, or sequential frame, assuming that there is a clearly definable cause leading to the observed effects. On the other hand, holistic thinking is field-dependent. Holistic thinkers tend to perceive events holistically or within a large context. They assume that there is a coherent whole and individual parts cannot be fully understood unless they are placed within the interdependent relationships. Metaphorically, whereas analytical thinkers view the world as a line, holistic thinkers view the world as a circle.
To provide support for his theory, Nisbett and colleagues conducted a series of experiments to assess whether East Asians would differ from Americans in their attentional patterns. For example, in one of the experiments, they presented animated underwater scenes to two groups of participants, from the United States and Japan, respectively, with a mixture of active objects (e.g., fish), inert objects (e.g., snails), and background objects (e.g., seaweeds), and asked them to describe what they saw (see Masuda & Nisbett, 2001). They found that (a) Japanese participants made more statements about contextual information and relationships than Americans did, and (b) Japanese participants recognized previously seen objects more accurately when they saw them in their original settings rather than in the novel settings, whereas this manipulation had relatively little effect on Americans. These findings provided substantial support for cognitive differences between Easterners and Westerners.
Analytical thinkers also tend to be logical or polarized thinkers. They prefer logical arguments that apply the law of non-contradiction, which excludes the middle between being and non-being—something either exists or does not exist. A proposition can be weakened or falsified by demonstrating that it leads to a contradiction. In contrast, holistic thinkers tend to be dialectical thinkers. They prefer dialectical arguments that apply the principles of holism, which assumes that the world consists of opposing entities and forces that are connected in time and space as a whole. Since everything is connected, one entity cannot be fully understood unless we take into account how it affects and is affected by everything else. Unlike polarized or logical thinking that excludes the middle state, dialectical thinking seeks to reconcile opposing views by finding a middle ground. Dialectical thinkers accept grey areas, assuming that things constantly change.
Nisbett’s theory about cultural differences in logical and dialectical thinking also received empirical support. For example, Peng and Nisbett (1999) conducted a series of experiments and found that (a) dialectical thinking is reflected in Chinese folk wisdom, in that dialectical proverbs are more preferred by Chinese than by Americans; (b) in response to a conflict situation, a significantly greater percentage of Chinese participants prefer a dialectical resolution than Americans; and (c) when two apparently contradictory propositions were presented, Americans polarized their views, whereas Chinese accepted both propositions.
High-Context and Low-Context Communication Cultures
A communication style is the way people communicate with others verbally and nonverbally. It combines both language and nonverbal cues and is the meta-message that dictates how listeners receive and interpret verbal messages. Scholars have proposed different typologies for describing communication styles. Of the theoretical perspectives proposed to understand cultural variations in communication styles, the most widely cited is the differentiation between high-context and low-context communication by Edward Hall (1976).
Hall’s high-context and low-context communication is inspired by Bernstein’s (1966) conceptualization of restricted and elaborate codes. Bernstein hypothesizes that our speech patterns are conditioned by our social context. Restricted codes involve transmission of messages through verbal (words) and nonverbal (intonation, facial features, gestures) channels. They rely heavily on the hidden, implicit cues of the social context, such as interpersonal relationships, the physical and psychological environments, and other contextual cues. Jargons or “shorthand” speeches are examples of restricted codes where speakers are almost telegraphic in conveying their meanings: Succinct, simple assertions are used “against a backdrop of assumptions common to the speakers, against a set of closely shared interests and identifications, against a system of shared expectations; in short, [they] presuppose a local cultural identity which reduces the need for the speakers to elaborate their intent verbally and to make it explicit” (Bernstein, 1966, pp. 433–434). Code words used by doctors, engineers, prisoners, street gangs, or between family members and close friends are highly implicit in meaning and are known primarily to the members of such groups. Elaborated codes, on the other hand, involve the use of verbal amplifications, or rich and expressive language, in transmitting meaning, placing relatively little reliance on nonverbal and other contextual cues. The verbal channel is the dominant source of information for transmitting elaborated codes; context is not critical in understanding elaborated codes.
Although restricted and elaborated codes are universal styles of communication, according to Hall (1976), cultures differ in the importance they place on words, and one communication style tends to be more predominant in one culture than another. Hall differentiated between high-context and low-context communication cultures and argued that low-context communication is used predominantly in individualistic cultures, whereas high-context communication is used predominantly in collectivistic cultures. Specifically, high-context communication occurs when most of the information is either in the physical context or internalized in the person, with very little information given in the coded, explicit, transmitted part of the message. Members of high-context communication cultures rely on their pre-existing knowledge of each other and the setting to convey or interpret meaning, which reduces their reliance on explicit verbal codes. Explicit, direct messages are considered either unnecessary or potentially face threatening. It is the receiver of the message who assumes responsibility for inferring the hidden or contextual meanings of the message.
In contrast, in low-context communication most of the meaning is conveyed in the explicit verbal code. Members of low-context communication cultures expect the message sender to be direct, provide detailed information, and use unambiguous language because they do not assume pre-existing knowledge of the people or the setting. If there is miscommunication or misunderstanding, the sender of the message is often held responsible for not constructing a clear, direct, and unambiguous message for the listener to decode easily.
Researchers have provided considerable empirical evidence for the influence of individualism and collectivism on the use of high-context and low-context communication styles. On a conceptual level, collectivistic and individualistic values shape the norms and rules that guide behavior in these cultures. As members of individualistic cultures are socialized into major societal values such as independence, freedom, and privacy, they tend to acquire independent self-construals, viewing themselves as unique and unconstrained individuals, free to express themselves and be direct. Therefore, they are more likely to prefer a sender-oriented, low-context communication style. On the other hand, as members of collectivistic cultures are socialized into major societal values such as interdependence, relational harmony, and connectedness, they tend to formulate interdependent self-construals viewing themselves as part of encompassing social relationships whose behaviors are largely influenced by the thoughts, feelings, and actions of others in the relationship. Therefore they are more likely to prefer a receiver-oriented, high-context communication styles. On an empirical level, with data collected from the United States, Japan, Korea, and Australia, Gudykunst and colleagues (1996) found evidence that the individualistic and collectivistic values of members of these cultures are associated with their independent and interdependent self-construals, both of which mediate the influence of national culture on their high-context and low-context communication styles.
The differences between high-context versus low-context communication can also be explained by cultural differences in thinking styles. The long tradition of the study of rhetoric in the United States and many European cultures reflects the cultural pattern of logical, rational, and analytical thinking. Attention is given primarily to the verbal message, independent of its communicative context. Speakers and listeners are viewed as separate entities who enter a relationship through the transmission of messages. A primary responsibility of the speaker is to express his or her ideas and thoughts as clearly, logically, and persuasively as possibly, so that the listener, regardless of his or her background and pre-existing knowledge, can fully comprehend the intended meaning of the messages.
The systematic study of speech has not been as fully developed in collectivistic cultures as in individualistic cultures. In East Asian cultures in particular, a holistic approach dictates how people evaluate speech. The words are considered only part of, and are inseparable from, the total communication context, which includes the personal characters of the parties involved and the nature of the interpersonal relationships between them. In this holistic approach, verbal messages are means for enhancing social connection and harmony rather than promoting the individuality of speakers. Verbal messages are also important, but the emphasis is not placed on the technique of constructing and delivering clear verbal messages for maximum persuasiveness. Instead, verbal messages should conform to culturally defined rules or social expectations, based on already established social relationships or on the positions of the communicators in the society. It is therefore important to be sensitive to subtle and implicit contextual cues surrounding the communication process to encode and decode meaning. Without the contextual bases, the speakers’ verbal messages are perceived to be pointless, awkward, or even deceitful.
Direct and Indirect Communication Styles
A case in point, to illustrate the difference between high-context and low-context communication cultures, is the difference between direct and indirect communication styles. A direct communication style, typically practiced in low-context communication cultures, is one in which messages reveal the speaker’s true intentions, opinions, and needs, whereas an indirect communication style is one in which the verbal message is often designed to camouflage the speaker’s true intentions, opinions, and needs; in other words, the speaker does not mean what he or she literally said. The indirect style reflects a cautious attitude towards the expression of negative and confrontational verbal messages; people tend to use moderate or suppressed expressions for such messages whenever possible. According to Gudykunst and Kim (2003), members of collectivistic cultures tend to be concerned more with the overall emotional quality of interactions than with the meanings of specific words or sentences. Courtesy often takes precedence over truthfulness, which is consistent with the collectivistic cultures’ emphasis on maintaining social harmony as the primary function of speech in interpersonal interactions. As a result, members from collectivistic cultures tend to give an agreeable and pleasant answer to questions when literal, factual answers might be perceived as unpleasant or embarrassing. For example, a person who is invited to a party but cannot go, or does not feel like going, would say yes, then simply not go, because a direct refusal is considered more face threatening. The message receiver is expected to detect and appreciate the message sender’s desire to protect mutual face through the use of an indirect refusal.
Whereas an indirect communication style fares well in collectivistic cultures, individualistic cultures, such as the United States and most European cultures, generally prefer a more direct communication style. Good and competent communicators are expected to say what they mean and mean what they say. A person who speaks dubiously or evasively about an important matter is likely to be perceived unreliable, if not dishonest. A high degree of social approval is given to those who are capable of expressing ideas and feelings in a precise, explicit, straightforward, and direct fashion. If misunderstanding occurs, the message sender tends to assume the primary responsibility for failing to construct and deliver an unambiguous message. Message receivers in these cultures rely on the specific words that are said to decode meaning, rather than paying attention to the relational or identity aspect of the message that is never explicitly stated.
Self-Enhancement and Self-Effacement Communication Styles
Another dimension of communication styles that differentiates between high-context and low-context communication cultures involves the degree to which positive aspects of the self are attended, elaborated, and emphasized in interpersonal interactions: A self-enhancement communication style is used when an individual is open and direct about his or her abilities, contributions, or accomplishments, whereas a self-effacement communication style is used when an individual uses verbal restraints, hesitations, modest talk, and self-deprecation when discussing his or her own abilities, contributions, or accomplishments, or when responding to others’ praises. In collectivistic cultures, such as Japan and China, much of socialization emphasizes the use of self-criticisms by identifying one’s shortcomings, deficits, or problems that prevent one from meeting consensual standards of excellence shared in the society. According to Akimoto and Sanbonmatsu (1999), self-effacement helps maintain group harmony because modesty may allow an individual to avoid offense. By playing down one’s individual performance and stressing the contribution of others, no one can be threatened or offended. In these high-context communication cultures, the message receiver is expected to detect and appreciate the message sender’s modesty, as well as the intention to enhance others’ face through self-effacement. It is generally assumed that praises should come from others and the use of self-effacement is often expected to result in the message receiver’s positive, rather than negative, evaluations.
In individualistic, low-context communication cultures, however, much of socialization emphasizes the use of encouragements to promote individuals’ self-esteem and self-efficacy. Self-enhancement helps to promote individuality because it allows an individual to directly assert thoughts, express desires, and promote his or her self-image. For example, research shows that European Canadians are more satisfied with themselves than Japanese (Heine & Lehman, 1999). In addition, due to an analytical thinking style, members of low-context communication cultures are likely to interpret self-effacement messages at their face value. For example, research shows that European Americans perceive Japanese Americans who engage in self-effacing behaviors as low in competence, whereas Japanese Americans do not perceive them as reflecting negative self-evaluations; rather, they describe their behavior as appropriate for the communication context (Akimoto & Sanbonmatsu, 1999).
Elaborate and Understated Communication Styles
The difference between high-context and low-context communication cultures can be further illustrated through the distinction between elaborate and understated communication styles, which involves the degree to which talk is used: An elaborate style refers to the use of expressive language, sometimes with exaggeration or animation, in everyday conversations, whereas an understated style involves the extensive use of silence, pauses, and understatements in conversations. Unlike previous dimensions of communication styles that can be treated as dichotomies and entail opposing cultural values and cognitive styles, this dimension can be considered a continuum, with the United States falling somewhere in the middle. The French, Arabs, Latin Americans, and Africans tend to use an exaggerated communication style. For example, in Arab cultures, individuals often feel compelled to over-assert in almost all types of communication because in their culture, simple assertions may be interpreted to mean the opposite. The Arab proclivity to use verbal exaggerations is considered responsible for many diplomatic misunderstandings between the United States and Arab countries (Martin & Nakayama, 2013). Similarly, compared with European Americans, whose communication style tends to be restrained and subdued, African Americans’ interaction style is often emotionally animated and expressive. Therefore, inter-ethnic miscommunication may arise when African Americans perceive European Americans as verbally detached and distant, and European Americans may perceive African Americans as emotionally threatening and intimidating.
On the other hand, many Asian cultures, such as the Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, and Thai, tend to use an understated communication style. For example, whereas European Americans tend to see talk as a means of social control and are more likely to initiate conversations with others when opportunities present themselves, the Chinese tend to see silence as a control strategy. People who speak little tend to be trusted more than people who speak a great deal; therefore, in such cultures silence allows an individual to be socially discreet, gain social acceptance, and avoid social penalty. Silence may also save individuals from embarrassment. When conflict arises, using silence as an initial reaction allows the conflict parties to calm down, exhibit emotional maturity, and take time to identify conflict management strategies that are least face threatening. Silence may also indicate disagreement, refusal, or anger. Such stylistic differences are also shared by some ethnic groups in the United States. For example, silence is valued by Native American tribes, particularly when social relations between individuals are unpredictable. In addition, whereas European Americans tend to reserve silence for intimate relationships, for Native Americans, talk is used when the relationship becomes more intimate, whereas silence is used to protect the sense of vulnerable self from strangers. Such differences may create problems in intercultural or interethnic communication. The tension between Korean Americans and African Americans that led to civil unrest in Los Angeles, for example, can be partly explained by differences in communication styles. The use of animation and exaggeration by African Americans, and the readiness to initiate conversations, may be perceived by Korean Americans as threatening and insincere, whereas for African Americans, the verbal restraints and lack of nonverbal immediacy on the part of Korean Americans may communicate a condescending and prejudicial attitude.
Language and Culture
According to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the language we speak, especially the structure of that language, determines how we perceive and experience the world around us. To date, this position has received a number of criticisms; most research in the related areas does not support a strict interpretation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Nevertheless, considerable evidence shows that high-context and low-context communication styles can be attributed to the languages spoken in different cultures.
The structures of Asian languages, for example, are found to promote ambiguity, and therefore, a tendency to engage in high-context communication. Kashima and Kashima (1998) examined the use of pronouns in 39 languages and found that cultures in which speakers can drop the pronouns that indicate the subject of sentences are more collectivistic than cultures in which speakers cannot drop pronouns. For example, in the English language, to produce a grammatically correct sentence, a subject, served by a noun or pronoun, must precede a verb, as in the sentence “He came back.” In Chinese, however, “came back” can stand alone as a correct sentence without a subject. The message receiver must look for contextual cues in order to know who “came back.” In the Japanese language, verbs come at the end of the sentence, after the object; therefore, the message receiver cannot understand what is being said until the whole sentence is uttered. The Japanese language also allows the speakers to talk for others without expressing their opinions to others. For example, the Japanese “yes” (hai) simply indicates “I understand what you mean,” instead of expressing agreement.
In a similar vein, difference in sentence structures and compositional rules also reflects high-context and low-context communication styles. In the English language, the main clause states the central idea, such as who does what, followed by a subordinate clause that provides contextual cues, such as when, where, why, and how. In the Chinese language, however, it is the subordinate clause that is stated first, followed by the main clause. For example, the sentence “I came late because of a bad traffic jam on Route 95,” in English, would turn into “Because of a bad traffic jam on route 95, I came late,” in Chinese. Similarly, an effective English essay or speech must begin with a clear thesis statement in the introduction, followed by a main body that provides explanations and supporting evidence. However, it is customary for a Chinese essay to begin with a detailed description about the context or environment, and then move on to elaborate explanations that lead to major arguments. Such a circular, high-context communication style is often perceived as confusing, beating around the bushes, and ineffective by individuals from a low-context communication culture.
Another good example of stylistic differences reflected in languages use is the contrast between an elaborate communication style in the French culture and an understated communication style in the Chinese culture by comparing the structures of their languages. The French language has numerous forms of variations in verbs for different subjects, tenses, and modes, whereas there is no variation for verbs in the Chinese language. Whereas the time orientation is elaborately specified in the French language, one may not be able to infer whether an event happened in the past or is about to happen in the Chinese language by simply relying on the verbal message. Relying on the context to infer the entire meaning often becomes a necessity. Recent research has shown that such communicative differences are associated with individuals’ economic behaviors, in that individuals who speak inter-temporal languages (e.g., without tenses) tend to save more than those who speak languages associated with future and present tenses (Chen, 2013).
Implications for Intercultural Communication
Cultural differences in communication styles, along with the underlying differences in cultural values and thinking styles, become a major source of misunderstanding, distrust, and conflict in intercultural communication, as they often evoke group-based identity perceptions, as well as corresponding stereotypes and prejudices toward culturally different “outgroup” members. A case in point is how the long standing interethnic conflict between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs may be attributable, in part, to differences in communication styles that, as discussed in earlier sections, reflect deep-rooted differences in cultural values and thinking styles, besides a relational history between the two nation states characterized by strife, violence, casualties, and sufferings due to contentions over territory rights and religion.
The Arab communication style can be described as high-context, indirect, and elaborate. The speech pattern is referred to as musayra, which means “to accommodate” or “to go along with,” and is a communication pattern that orients the speakers toward harmonious social relations and a concern for face saving. Musayra includes four essential features: repetitiveness (used primarily for complimenting and praising others, especially in asymmetrical status relations), indirectness (a cultural tendency to be interpersonally cautious, facilitating politeness and face saving), elaboration (an expressive and encompassing style leading to a deeper connection with the message receiver), and affectiveness (with emotional appeal to build identification with the other and maintain positive face) (Ellis & Maoz, 2011). In contrast, the communication style used by Israeli Jews is low-context, direct, pragmatic, and places an emphasis on assertiveness. This speech pattern is called dugri, which means “straight talk,” and involves a conscious suspension of face concerns to allow the free expression of the speaker’s thoughts, opinions, or preferences that might pose a threat to the message receiver. Dugri represents a cultural identity for Israeli Jews that developed over time in reaction to historical oppression and the Diaspora experience of Jews. Strength, integrity, and the ability to perform dugri are cultural values that weigh more strongly in interpersonal interactions than the maintenance of social harmony for Israeli Jews.
The diametrically opposite communication patterns undoubtedly pose significant barriers for improving inter-ethnic relations between Israel Jews and Palestinian Arabs. To facilitate intergroup dialogues between two cultural groups, it is of vital importance to help both groups understand such stylistic differences as well as the underlying values and histories that shape them. Scholars have noted that the use of dugri and musayra varies from intergroup interactions to intragroup interactions, especially in communication settings conducive to intergroup dialogue: Both communication patterns are featured more in communication between members of the same group. In an inter-ethnic communication setting, Israeli Jews tend to modify their aggressive style and the Palestinians may take advantage of the opportunity to make assertions, elaborate on them, and argue when necessary.
Therefore, cultural misunderstanding due to differences in communication styles can be reduced by creating a context of equality, where one group does not dominate the other. In addition, when members from high-context and low-context communication cultures interact with each other, it is important for both parties to engage in some degree of communication accommodation. The communication accommodation theory developed by Giles and Byrun (1982) helps to guide such endeavors. According to this theory, there is a tendency for members of ingroups to react favorably to outgroup members who engage in communication convergence toward them, such as using a similar speech style or accent. Ingroup members’ evaluation of outgroups is based on situational norms in the initial stages of conversation and interpersonal convergence in later stages of the conversation. For communication convergence to occur, there needs to be a match between speakers’ views of message receivers’ speech style, the actual style used, and the communication norm in the context. If a stranger accommodates our communication style and we perceive the intention to be positive, it will reduce our uncertainty and anxiety and promote greater rapport between the two parties.
Understanding differences in communication styles allows us to know how to communicatively accommodate others in intercultural communication settings. For example, a high-context communicator can be more direct and explicit about his or her true intentions when communicating with someone from a low-context communication culture, with the understanding that the person will pay more attention to the actual verbal message than contextual cues, and care more about message clarity, integrity, and directness than saving face. Likewise, a low-context communicator can be more sensitive to situational cues and use a more indirect style, especially for messages that are potentially face threatening, when communicating with someone from a high-context communication culture, with the understanding that the other person is more oriented toward relational harmony and face saving.
To sum up, understanding how people from different cultures communicate and where these cross-cultural differences come from helps us revise the interpretive framework we tend to use to evaluate others’ behaviors, construct messages that are less likely to evoke misunderstanding and distrust, and have a more open and flexible attitude in intercultural communication. It also allows us to develop empathy and patience for culturally different others and to negotiate these differences by educating them about our own styles, perspectives, values, and assumptions. As the world becomes increasingly diverse, such knowledge can be crucial toward gaining a greater understanding of ourselves and the strangers we meet and for building stronger relations across cultures.
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