Cross-Cultural Communication: A Professional Development Learning Center

It's Not All About Words

Bill Watterson's Calvin of the Calvin and Hobbes (c) comic strip asks his mom for a snack. She offers carrots and celery. His hand in the cookie jar, he says, "We're both talking in English but we're not speaking the same language."

Cross-cultural communication (as well as cross-generational communication, as in the comic strip) can be like that. Beneath the words are understandings of what those words mean. Tlingit elder Shirley Kendall recalls the snacks she and her brother were given more than 60 years ago when they were at their family fishcamp in Southeast Alaska: one piece of Sailor Boy Pilot Bread (c). For Calvin and uncounted others, a snack is a cookie. In other parts of the world, it might be a mango or stalk of sugar cane. The same word conjures up different images to different people.

And it isn't just vocabulary that can be understood differently in different cultures. When we communicate with each other, we say more than words alone can convey. Watch master storyteller Len Cabral make the point in this videotape that it's not just what you say, but how you say it. The tape was recorded in New Bedford, Massachusetts.

To go even further: As we saw earlier in this Learning Center, it's not just words that convey meaning. We use our faces, bodies, tone of voice, volume, and rate of speech when we talk to each other.

The chart at the left, downloaded from the Indiana Department of Education, illustrates the fact that only a small portion of what we communicate comes through words. The rest is invisible, or implicit rather than explicit, just as 90% of an iceberg is hidden beneath the water's surface.

It's not that we're trying to be secretive about all the parts of our culture and communication that are invisible -- rather, we're often not aware that they're there. They're invisible to others and also, often, to ourselves as well.

This is because we learned how to communicate as infants. We were never instructed outright, for instance, "Be sure to talk quickly and touch the person you're talking to." We learned by observing and being given positive reinforcement for doing what others do.

Remember the exercise where you measured your comfort zone when engaging in a conversation? That's an example of a rule that you learned without ever having direct instruction about it. Yet it is so deeply ingrained in you that if someone violates your sense of space you become not only uncomfortable, but you may actually come to resent the person who unknowingly behaves in a way that you consider inappropriate.

Another example is in how long we wait between asking a question and expecting an answer. If the teacher expects an answer before students are culturally ready to give it, his or she might mistakenly believe that they don't know. In the United States, teachers often engage in two common reactions to silence after asking a question: they either rephrase it (perhaps more slowly or loudly) or they supply the answer themselves, uncomfortable with the silence from their students.

In fact, there are measurable differences in wait times, and these are culturally learned behaviors. The average wait time for non-Native teachers in the US is .5 seconds -- that's half a second. In contrast, Alaska Native children in most parts of the state wait a full three seconds before they answer. This is a sign of respect, indicating that they are taking the question seriously and giving its response careful consideration.

Exercise Five: What Does Your Iceberg Look Like?

Using the iceberg image, fill in blanks about your own cultural communication style. For instance,

  • How do you show respect?
  • How prompt must you be in order to be considered "on time"?
  • What body language do you use to express meaning?
  • What are the customs that surround an everyday dinner at your house?
  • How long must you know someone before telling him or her your life story?
  • How fast do you talk?
  • Etc.

Tlingit elder Shirley Kendall learned to speak English when she attended school in the Alaska village of Hoonah. But, as this video segment (recorded in 2003 for the Anchorage School District) shows, she learned more than words when she learned English.


Dialect differences, like the one Shirley discusses, are interesting to linguists because they can help pinpoint a person's geographic origins. But they are also often fraught with values. Village English, as it is called in Alaska, shares with Ebonics a negative connotation. People who speak "standard English" often mistakenly perceive ignorance, laziness, or stupidity when they hear another dialect or accent.


Consider the various dialects and accents you encounter in your school setting. Do any of them carry a stigma? How does that stigma affect the way students are perceived or achieve?

Exercise Six: Try this . . .

Now it's time to use observational skills to try to figure out what's being communicated in various parts of the world. Look at the photos on this page. For each one (some have titles that will be helpful), see if you can figure out:

  1. What's happening?
  2. What does this picture tell you about the way people express their culture?
  3. What does this picture tell you about proxemics?
  4. What does this picture tell you about the way people in this culture communicate with one another?
  5. What can you tell about the values the people hold dear, based on this picture?
  6. What can you NOT tell from this picture? In other words, what additional pieces of cultural information do you need in order to understand what's being communicated?