How Culture Affects Communication

Intercultural communication in its most basic form refers to understanding how people from different countries and cultures behave, communicate and perceive the world around them. Given the growing multicultural population in the US, intercultural communication research is actively being applied in healthcare settings so that doctors and their staffs can relate effectively to their patients from diverse cultural backgrounds. We will share that research and specific tips with you.

Have you ever wondered why people from some cultures talk so loud and seem aggressive? Why do they stand so close to you when they speak? Or maybe you’ve wondered why some patients seem reluctant to speak or maintain eye contact? Could that be cultural? Why do people from some cultures make it difficult to get a straight answer to a simple question?

One of the most important skills needed for intercultural communication is the ability to recognize, in any given interaction with someone from another culture, which of their behaviors are universal human behaviors and which are peculiar to a cultural group(s) and which are specific to that individual. We will provide tips on how to distinguish these behaviors.

The most effective communication skills are the same in an intercultural setting as those we use to communicate within our own culture: listen without judging, repeat what you understand, confirm meanings, give suggestions and acknowledge a mutual understanding. However, when we are communicating with a different culture, we need to add to these basic skills. We need to build some understanding of how, even with the best intentions, our misperceptions can cause confusion and create misunderstanding. In patient-doctor interactions, the stakes are high. Confusion over which bus takes you downtown is one thing, but misunderstanding that leads to misdiagnosis is quite another.

At first glance, it might make sense to learn the beliefs, customs, and taboos of each “foreign” culture we interact with regularly. But memorizing lists of dos and don’ts is both impractical and ineffective because every situation is different. It is the context of an intercultural interaction that is key. By way of example, you might be told that in Japan it is customary to bow when you are greeting someone. True, but you need to understand the status relationships of the people involved to know how to bow. If you don’t bow appropriately, you will surely offend someone more severely than if you don’t bow at all because a Japanese person doesn’t expect a foreigner to understand their custom. In fact, many Japanese will say they prefer that foreigners not bow unless they really understand what the gesture means and the context of the interaction. Obviously, it would be peculiar to bow to a Japanese patient during an office visit here. It would be totally out of context.

If rote learning about beliefs, customs, and taboos is ineffective, then how can we learn to be better intercultural communicators? The answer lies in developing both an intercultural mindset and skill set. We need to learn to recognize cultural differences and also be able to maintain a positive attitude towards those differences. We need to develop a skill set, beginning with a thorough understanding of what culture is and what our own culture looks like. What lens do we look through when judging other cultures? Many Americans can’t say much when asked to describe American culture – just as a fish can’t describe the water it swims in. Our skill set also includes a thorough understanding of the difference between stereotypes and generalizations. Stereotypes are very destructive to good communication, but generalizations, if used mindfully, are necessary to making sense of the human experience.



‘Cultural Aspects of Communication’ by Marcia Carteret. Copyright © 2011. All rights reserved.