Posted by: SSU Lingua Franca | April 26, 2009

Communication Styles, Culture, and Language Learning

By Jon Aske, Foreign Languages

We learn a second (or third, or fourth) language so that we can communicate with people in that language. We assume that if we learn the vocabulary and the grammar of that language we will eventually be able to successfully communicate with its speakers. There is some truth to that, but we should also not lose sight of the fact that culture and personality affect communication and sometimes cause miscommunication.

communication1Miscommunication is not the same thing as misunderstanding. We are all familiar with the phenomenon of misunderstanding when people use a language (or a dialect, for that matter) that they don’t have full control of. Miscommunication with speakers of our very own language and dialect is a different thing. We normally do not blame the linguistic abilities of the people involved, but rather their communicative abilities or, worse, their intentions or motivations. By this I mean that we often blame other people’s rudeness or meanness (lack of politeness) for faulty communication. In fact that is not always the case.

The most prevalent or popular model of how communication works can fool us into misreading people’s intentions and abilities. When asked, most of us would probably say that the main function of language is to convey information. “It is raining,” conveys information about the weather. “I went to Paris last weekend” conveys information about one’s travels. Surely we also use language for social reasons, to greet people (“Hello”) and the like, but for the most part we think that we convey information to each other and that if we say what we mean (and say it well) and mean what we say, then communication will proceed smoothly, unless one or both of the people communicating says or means offensive things.

In actuality, communication goes well beyond conveying information. When we communicate we are conveying ourselves to others in ways that are not universal but rather culturally conventional. What we say, to whom we say it, when we say it, where we say it (in what context), why we say it (or don’t say it), and how we say it, are all things that have to be considered when analyzing successful or unsuccessful communication. Even if you say what you mean and you mean what you say, miscommunication can result. This is especially true among people of different cultures or backgrounds.

We typically interpret what others say in terms of how it would be interpreted if ourselves or people like ourselves said it. This is perfectly natural. Interpreting others’ behaviors by our standards is basically what’s known as ethnocentrism, which is a perfectly natural thing, but one that we should learn to overcome to be successful communicators in a multicultural world. Language and culture “specialists” such as most of you reading this have an even greater responsibility to learn about cross-cultural communication.

communication2If a certain communicative act seems rude to us, it probably means that in the circles we move it would be considered rude (of course, some things are rude in any language: a slap in the face, an insult, and so on). But when communicating with people of different backgrounds or cultures, we should not be always quick to characterize some speech behavior as rude, impolite, inappropriate, or even aggressive. It may not be by the speaker’s standards. We should question whether that behavior would be considered rude among people of the speaker’s background. That doesn’t mean we have to like and accept all kinds of behaviors that to some people may seem natural. Not at all. Some behaviors will indeed be too jarring for us and will clash with our principles too strongly. Still, it seems to me that we can go a long way towards accepting other people’s communication styles that are somewhat different from ours without turning into total cultural relativists (“any behavior is just as good as the next”).

Deborah Tannen is a linguist who has written several popular books about miscommunication due to different communication styles in people from different cultural backgrounds, including men and women in our own culture. You may have seen her books, such as That’s Not What I Meant! (1987), You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation (2001), You’re Wearing That?: Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation (2006), and Talking from 9 to 5: Women and Men at Work (1995). Perhaps you have come across one of those books. If not, I highly recommend them to anyone who wants to learn about communication.

One of the main themes in cross-cultural communication is indirectness, and its counterpart directness. Directness is saying exactly what we mean, whereas indirectness is the opposite. People who share the standard American culture (whatever that is) are known to be much more direct than people of other cultures, in particular Asian cultures, and they tend to think of directness (saying exactly what you mean) as a good thing. But we are all indirect to one extent or another and in different ways. For instance, if you are sitting at the table and you want the salt which is within reach of somebody else sitting at the table, a direct way to get the salt is to say “Pass me the salt!”. But that would not be very polite in the US (it might be in Spain). Thus we have conventionalized indirect formulas such as asking “Can you pass me the salt?” This question is an indirect way of getting someone to do something for you. Because this type of question is conventionalized, your table companion is able to understand this not as a question (only a child, or someone teasing you, would respond “Yes, I can” and do nothing), but as a request. This is just a simple example of the much wider culture-dependent phenomenon of indirectness.

Actually all of us, every person, in every culture, communicate indirectly. The difference lies in when, where, and how we are indirect. As Tannen says “everyone is indirect, meaning more than is put into words and deriving meaning from words that are never actually said. It’s a matter of where, when and how we each tend to be indirect and look for hidden meanings” (Tannen 1994:64). This is something that we learn from those around us since we’re little and an extremely important (and difficult) thing to learn when we are learning the language of another culture as a second language. Unfortunately, while we are all aware that we must learn vocabulary and grammar to learn to communicate in another language, many don’t realize that it is just as important to learn to communicate in culturally appropriate ways and thus they end up transferring their own communication patterns to the second language, as well as judging speakers of the second language by their own patterns.

Context has a lot to do with how a person communicates too. Two young male friends may speak to each other, teasingly or playfully, in ways that they would not speak to even acquaintances. But what is appropriate in a certain context is also very much culture dependent. And it’s not like we all speak indirectly only sometimes, whereas most of the time we speak directly. As Tannen points out, “every utterance functions on two levels–the referential (what it says) and the relational (what it implies about the speaker’s relationships” (Tannen 1994:67). So we have to constantly be aware of how literal meanings are interpreted.

And it’s not just what we say, but how we say it too. We are all familiar with the fact that members of some cultures express themselves in tones of voice, and loudness, that in other cultures are reserved for extreme expressions of emotion. This may lead Americans to think that members of those cultures are very emotional or prone to extremes of emotion, when this is not necessarily the case.

All these things, and many more, about communication are very important when learning a language. But these are not the sorts of things that one learnsor even can learnin a language classroom. Maybe in theory one can learn them, but in order to understand how communication in a culture works one has to live it, be immersed in it, for a long time. And even then, communication patterns are one of the hardest things to learn. One can speak a second language quasi-natively and still have trouble communicating with speakers of that language because of how things are interpreted. Still, there is no substitute to an immersion situation to learn how things sound to other people. Which is why I strongly encourage any language learner to put themselves in an immersion situation, live in a foreign culture, and have friends from that culture. Even when one goes to another country and acquires the patterns of communication of that society, that doesn’t guarantee that one won’t have trouble communicating with some of the speakers of that language. The Spanish-speaking world, for instance, does not have a single culture, even though there are similarities from one country to another. The way Spanish-speaking people from the Caribbean communicate is not the same as the way Spanish speakers from Andean countries communicate. But it is only by experiencing first hand that not all people are like us, or communicate like us, that we can learn about ourselves and about the differences and commonalities that make us human, and become truly multicultural individuals and citizens of the world.¦

(Reference: Tannen, Deborah. “Why Don’t You Say What You mean?”NYT Magazine, Aug. 28, 1994.)


  1. […] Communication Styles, Culture, and Language Learning By Jon Aske, Foreign Languages […]

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