Cross-Cultural Communication: A Professional Development Learning Center

Practice makes -- well -- better!

Following are some tips that can ease the discomfort inherent in many cross-cultural situations. Practice these and you'll notice the difference almost immediately.

Here is a caviat: there is plenty of diversity in the way urban and suburban Americans communicate, so if some of the following suggestions assume that your style is different from the way it really is, either ignore the advice or adapt it so it works for you.

  1. "You talk too much." This is a generalization, of course, but in general, Americans raised in urban or suburban parts of the country are often perceived as being extremely talkative -- so much so that less talkative people have trouble getting a word in edgewise. They might even perceive the talkers as uninterested in what others have to say, or as trying too hard to be liked. Those who like to talk, on the other hand, often see themselves as friendly. And they might see their quieter acquaintances as overly reserved or even stuck up. The suggestion is, LISTEN BEFORE YOU TALK.
  2. "You talk too fast." This is another charge that is common. There are regional differences, of course. New York City is known as the home of fast-talkers, while those on the West Coast tend to speak more slowly -- but even these "slow" talkers of the west are too quick for the comfort of English language learners or certain ethnicities -- such as Alaska Natives -- who are more comfortable with a slower, more relaxed pace. The suggestion, to SLOW DOWN -- is not without its funny side. A common joke among Alaska Natives involves a white person visiting a village and s-p-e-a-k-i-n-g v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y. The Native hosts whisper to each other, "She must have been in a cross-cultural communication workshop!"
  3. "You seem to feel a need to determine the topic of conversation." This is a matter of status: usually the person with higher status in a relationship gets to set the topic. Think of a meeting with your boss; who starts the discussion and sets the agenda? Even in a situation where people are of equal status, though, it sometimes seems as though the urban/suburban person takes charge from the beginning. That individual might not intend to take over, but rather is just trying to get the ball rolling in the absence of conversation by the other person. The suggestion is to BE PATIENT, to see if the other person has something important he or she wants to talk about.
  4. "You never give me a chance to get a word in edgewise!" Like talking too fast, this charge has to do with "pausing too fast." What that means is that in every conversation people take turns. We learn when it's our turn to talk by subtle cues, such as a nod of the head or, most often, a pause. The problem is that pauses in mainstream American culture tend to be very short (about half a second), while those in other cultures might be up to six times as long. Imagine what happens when a person is waiting for a nice comfortable pause to talk and none pops up? On the other hand, the person with the short pause time waits for what seems like an eon for his or her partner to talk, and when nothing is said, might blurt out something in desperation just to fill the airspace. The suggestion: AFTER YOU ASK A QUESTION OR MAKE A COMMENT, WAIT FOR A RESPONSE FOR AS LONG AS IT TAKES.
  5. "You're always filling the air with talk." Have you observed that in American culture we don't like silence? If you want to test this, just ask a question in front of a group of high school students. If no one answers immediately, what do you do? It feels very uncomfortable -- like no one is listening or cares about your topic -- when you don't get immediate feedback. In contrast, most Native cultures value silence. It communicates the fact that your conversation partner is listening, valuing, and contemplating what's been said. It's also a sign of respect. And it gives the listener time to incorporate the new information into his or her own database. The suggestion: DON'T BE AFRAID OF SILENCE.
  6. "You stare at me and make me feel uncomfortable." In some cultures it's a sign of respect to look someone straight in the eye. In others it's an act of defiance. In still others it's an invasion of privacy. The suggestion: LEARN THE LOCAL CUSTOM ABOUT EYE CONTACT AND OTHER GESTURES AND NON-VERBAL COMMUNICATION.
  7. "You're too close -- or too far away -- for comfort." Remember the exercise where you measured your proxemics -- your comfort zone -- when talking to a friend? If you feel uncomfortable, or if you notice that your conversation partner is either backing away from you or seems to be crowding you, then it's most likely a case of different proxemics. The suggestion: BE ATTUNED TO YOUR OWN AND OTHERS' PROXEMICS. You might have to suffer a bit of discomfort to conform to local norms, but it's worth it.
  8. "You jump into business mode without giving me a chance to get comfortable with you." In many societies around the world, a person would never discuss business immediately after walking into a room or meeting someone. It's important to first establish a relationship, determine the status of the various parties, and feel a degree of trust. Americans, as a rule, tend to leap into the main topic without protocol or fanfare. They consider it respectful of a gathering not to "waste time" with social matters, but rather get right down to business, while those from other cultures in the same meeting might perceive this practice as showing a lack of respect. The suggestion: ATTEND TO LOCAL PROTOCOL. You might have to do some research ahead of time, or simply observe others in the room before you leap ahead with your agenda.