Verbal Communication Styles and Culture
- Meina LiuMeina LiuDepartment of Organizational Sciences and Communication, George Washington University
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.