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Communication style. It's all relative with a new culture



Communication style. It's all relative with a new culture. Lucy Shacar

Succeeding internationally requires an understanding of the ways in which businesspeople from different cultures think, work and behave.

Nowadays, everyone wants to become a key player in the global marketplace.  Yet encounters between businesspeople from different cultures often result in communication breakdowns, unnecessary friction and loss of trust.

As you go through the Culture Kit cards, you will:

  • Learn about nine ways in which cultures differ and how those differences can affect your interactions with colleagues and clients from other cultures.
  • Discover how people from different cultures perceive each other.
  • Acquire the tools to avoid falling into the cultural traps that set you up for embarrassing and costly mistakes.

What is culture?

Of the more than 100 definitions of culture, we like this one best:

Culture is an integrated system of learned behavior patterns that are characteristic of the members of any given society.  Culture refers to the total way of life of particular groups of people.  It includes everything that a group of people thinks, says, does and makes, its customs, language, material artifacts and shared systems of attitudes and feelings.  Culture is learned and transmitted from generation to generation.

L. Robert Kohls, Survival Kit For Overseas Living, Systran Publications, p. 17.

So we see that mentality, the word most of us use when we mean culture, is part of something much larger.

Coming into contact with a new culture

As long as you stay in your own group, with relatively little contact with other cultures, you don't have to think of any complicated definitions.  You just live your life and are relatively unaware of all of the forces that influence your attitudes, values and behavior.

The problems start when you come into contact with another culture. This is what usually happens:

  • Other people's behavior may seem puzzling, amusing, frustrating or annoying.
  • Your behavior may produce an unexpected response.
  • You may be punished for behavior for which you have been rewarded in your own culture.

In short, you discover that they- the other group- are playing by different rules.  You are in the game and have been given the ball, but you're not sure where the goal is or exactly what is expected of you.

How do cultures vary?

When we think about the ways in which cultures vary, we usually use the iceberg analogy.  The aspects of culture that are immediately apparent, like food, language, customs and manners, are above the surface.  Those aspects of culture that are more hidden, that we are less consciously aware of, are below the surface. They include:

  1. Communication style.
  2. Interpersonal relations.
  3. Attitude toward authority.
  4. Orientation towards time.
  5. Attitude towards space.
  6. Thinking style.
  7. Tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty.
  8. Orientation to the environment.
  9. Values, beliefs and basic assumptions.

Reasonable expectations versus rigid stereotypes

When we refer to another culture, it often becomes very easy to oversimplify and to think in terms of rigid stereotypes.
"The French never...," The Italians always...", "All North Americans are...".  Thinking in this manner can be counterproductive because it produces unrealistic expectations.  Cultural characteristics never refer to everybody in a given culture.

In every culture, certain behaviors, norms and attitudes are widely shared and encouraged.  Others are discouraged.  Therefore, it makes most sense to think in terms of tendencies or reasonable expectations.  A reasonable expectation, if I'm an American travelling to Japan, is that the Japanese will be tend to be far more formal than the Americans.

It's all relative.

The most helpful way of thinking about cultural differences is in relative terms. It all depends on the cultures you are comparing. The British communication style, for example, tends to be indirect compared to the American, but very direct compared to the Japanese.

We also suggest that you consider yourself relative to your own culture.  If you are German, you probably know that Germans tend to be formal compared to North Americans. As an individual German, however, you are not especially formal.  Therefore, it's unlikely that you'll fall into a formality/informality trap when you come into contact with North Americans.


What one eats becomes part of one's identity and provides comfort in a strange environment. Virtually every immigrant community in every society establishes a way of providing the foods from "home."

A Cultural Tip

If you find yourself in a new culture and are uncertain about the rules of the game, try sharpening your observation skills by observing the local people eating a meal. Do they eat from one serving dish or does everyone have a separate plate? Who gets served first? Are there waiters or servants? If so, how do people relate to them? Do men and women eat separately? Who, if anyone, talks? Is permission necessary?  Your answers to these questions will provide clues about attitudes toward authority, norms concerning men and women, and group versus individual orientations.


Language reflects culture. It provides us with clues to figuring out the rules of the game and the assumptions that lie behind them. In fact, many people claim that you can't really understand a culture until you speak its language.

A Cultural Tip

When you study a new language or even a few phrases in preparation for a trip, pay attention to the forms of address.  If a language has formal and informal forms of address, for example, a formal and informal "you," it is reasonable to assume that it has a high power distance approach to authority. At the very least, those forms tell us that people in that culture prefer to maintain distance and to proceed from formal to informal at a slow pace.

Please see "attitude towards authority" for more information.

Manners and Customs

Many of us make a point of familiarizing themselves with a strange culture's "do's and don'ts" before we embark on a voyage. We usually feel more secure if we can get through the first few days without committing a major faux pas. What we are less aware of, however, is our very human tendency to judge another culture's manners and customs. Here is an example: Should a gift be opened in the presence of the giver and others or should it be opened only after the giver has departed? To most of us, the answer is obvious.  The problem is that there are two obvious answers: "Yes, of course the gift should be opened in the presence of the giver," and "Yes, of course, a gift should only be opened after the guest has departed."

A Cultural Tip

Try to keep in mind that, in different cultures, people often behave differently for the same reason. In the case of gifts, each answer reveals a desire to show consideration for the guest.  One culture says: "Good manners require us to open the gift in our guest's presence. This will give us an opportunity to show our gratitude publicly. Another culture says: "It's bad manners to open a present in the presence of the giver and others.  He or she may be embarrassed by the modesty of the gift."


0 #2 Administrator 2009-05-07 10:51 Thank you for writing us.
We have fixed this problem in our mail servers long time ago.
Have you managed to order the kit?
0 #1 Derek Panton 2009-04-22 22:34 Hi it looks as though your email system is misconfigured. I get a bounce back saying that email address does not exist. I send an email to and got the same message.

I placed order 15 and I'm looking for an update

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