Have you ever felt like you and another person are not speaking the same language, even though you are speaking the same language? Effective communication happens when the words and forms you are using convey your intended meaning to the one you’re speaking to, and vice-versa. Unfortunately, a different meaning is often what is understood despite our best efforts to make ourselves clear. What is going on when this happens? Turns out there are quite a few cultural elements at play in the midst of our miscommunication. It’s often when you study another culture and language that your eyes are opened to these dynamics of your native culture that have been there all along. But we like to assume that if we share the same language, we share the same culture of communication. Often, this is not the case at all. Here are twelve aspects of communication culture. How many of these dynamics might be at play in the conflicts we are currently experiencing? Given the complexity of communicating clearly, we should even more seriously take to heart the biblical wisdom of being “quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:9). This post will be a flyover, with hopes of digging into these various aspects one at a time in the future.
- Personality – This one is a no-brainer. Different people with different personalities communicate accordingly. The complexity of individual personality bears on the way we communicate, as extroverts and introverts will readily attest.
- Family – Many a marriage conflict has been affected by different family cultures of communication. Growing up, did your family communicate directly or indirectly? Was there a lot of joking and sarcasm or serious conversation? How much emotion was normal in the home?
- Subculture – Generations have a particular subculture of communication about them, as do those who associate with different social movements. Evangelicals have a different vocabulary than Catholics do. Hipsters like to speak in tones that are emotionally-muted. Why? The effects of subculture.
- Region/Nation – Ever moved to a different region of your home country or to a different country altogether? It’s no secret that Yankees speak more directly than Southerners do, and that Southerners are far more likely to greet a stranger on the street. Regional culture affects communication, as does national culture. Canadians attach the friendly “eh?” to the end of their statements and Americans like to drop the honorary titles, “Just call me Jim.”
- Orality and Literacy – Most would be familiar with the categories of literate (able to read and write) and illiterate (not able). But literacy should be thought of as a spectrum, with many gradations along the way from illiteracy to highly literate. Many never read for pleasure, but only when necessary. Others can technically read, but struggle to summarize a text in their own words and write a response. The poor the world over lean more heavily on proverbs and truisms than the wealthy do. Some think in soundbites while others think in paragraphs. These are the effects of orality and literacy.
- Honor vs Justice – When it comes to motivation, does a culture primarily speak about what is right and wrong or on what is honorable vs what is shameful? Is a person guilty by nature of what he has done or guilty only if pronounced so by the community? How is one praised or condemned?
- Gender Roles – How does a culture idealize gender roles? Are they viewed as largely interchangeable or as distinct and unable to be exchanged without bad effects? Some cultures, for example, even forbid communication between unrelated men and women. Restaurants have sections for men only and sections for families. Western culture, on the other hand, used to distinguish between waiters and waitresses, but now uses the generic term “server.”
- Social Power – How does a culture idealize differences in positions of authority? Should the playing field be leveled or should the power differentials be maintained and strengthened? This effects the use of titles, first names, how communication proceeds to superiors (and back down to employees), and how the young relate to the elderly.
- Contexting – This is how directly or indirectly a culture communicates. In a culture with high contexting, individuals assume a shared understanding with those they are communicating to. Therefore, their communication is more indirect since everyone is supposed to know what a certain action or phrase means. In a culture with low contexting, individuals do not assume that there is a shared understanding of meaning, therefore communication is more direct and explicit.
- Individualism vs. Collectivism – Individualism and collectivism represent a spectrum of how people define themselves in different cultures. Is a person defined as primarily an individual or as primarily a member of a group? Which is more prominent, “we” or “I”?
- Time – Cultures tend to be either monochronic or polychronic in their beliefs about time. If a culture is monochronic it believes that time is unitary and dividing up time is not valued. Time is viewed as more of a circle and less like a line. If a culture is polychronic it believes that time is a commodity that can be divided up and used like a resource. Time is viewed like a line or a road. Does the meeting starting at 10 am mean 10:00 sharp or anytime from 10:00-11:00?
- Non-Verbal Communication – This refers to aspects of communication apart from verbal speech. These parts of communication account for the majority (75 percent!) of actual communication that takes place. When a person’s verbal communication contradicts their non-verbal communication, those on the receiving end tend to believe the non-verbal, emphasizing the power of this kind of non-speaking speech. This can include body language, the use of physical space and distance when communicating, and choice of clothing.
This flyover should suffice to demonstrate many of the factors that might be affecting our communication. While none of us can keep all of these things in mind at the same time, it’s helpful to be aware of these categories just enough to recognize when a conflict may be the result of some clash of cultural background or values. Sometimes merely clarifying that a conflict is a difference of culture rather than only a sin issue can bring needed grace into the conversation.
For items 6-12, I’ve relied upon the categories spelled out in Scott Moreau’s excellent book, Effective Intercultural Communication.