Cultural communications  inside
Illustration: Phil Couzens

Cultural Communications: The Key to Language Fluency

HRA Editorial - September 2010

by Mike DeJong, President, Arigato Communications

Communication is about more than just grammar and vocabulary. It’s about getting your message across. However, sometimes the message gets lost due to cultural differences.

Culture plays a large role in how we communicate. For example, Japanese people avoid directness and place great value on details. To Westerners, the Japanese can appear shy, indirect, and overly formal when communicating. Rarely will a Japanese “get to the point” effectively in the manner that Western people do.

Similarly, Westerners can be seen as rude and aggressive by the Japanese. Westerners tend to place less emphasis on minute details, and place more importance in a firm handshake to seal a deal.

In business dealings, Eastern and Western managers might be using the same language, but their differing communication styles can cause breakdowns.

This problem is especially acute in Japan. The Japanese study English for years but rarely ever become fluent. In fact, the Japanese do worse on English aptitude tests than almost anyone else. According to Reuters, Japan tied with Tajikistan for 29th out of the 30 Asian countries surveyed in the 2009 TOEIC exams.

Why is this? Why do the Japanese do so poorly? Are they not studying effectively? Or are they studying the wrong things?

The answers to these questions are “yes” and “no.” Sure, the Japanese study effectively; perhaps harder than anyone else. But they learn English from a textbook and rarely put their language skills into practice. Again, they are not learning the cultural aspects of communication.

Smart HR managers recognize the value of cultural communications. They help their Japanese or Western executives learn the finer points of communication style. For example, they might teach their Japanese bosses to be less formal, such as using first names to address Western clients. They might train them to avoid overloading their documents or presentations with details and statistics, getting to the point sooner, and of course, delivering a firm “yes” or “no.”

With Western executives, the opposite approach is best. HR managers should advise Western staff to be less “in-your-face.” They might train them to avoid too much eye-contact and to be more deferential to authority figures on the Japanese side.

Verbal and non-verbal communication skills play a vital role in cultural communications. Verbal skills include content and context. Non-verbal skills include eye-contact, body and hand movement and the use of props or technology. Again, these differ greatly between cultures. The Japanese tend to not use hand-movement, or direct eye-contact when communicating, and they likely won’t move around if giving a speech or presentation. Westerners, on the other hand, use body movement to a great extent.

Again, learning what works for the other side helps you to communicate more fluidly with people from different cultures.

Ultimately, we learn how to speak from books and lessons. But we learn how to communicate from our respective cultures. Learning the differences in cultural communication styles goes a long way towards bridging the gap between fluency and being misunderstood.--MDJ

(JHRS Note: Interested in learning more about this topic? Join us on Sep 22, 2010 for a JHRS Event, entitled: "When 'Yes' Means 'No': Cross-Cultural Communications Strategies for HR Professionals" presented by Mike DeJong. Details & registration:

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