Cultures have been defined in many ways. Wikipedia defines culture simply as such: “Culture is the social behavior and norms found in human societies.” Others view culture as an operation of interrelated systems that include the ecology (the environment, resources, and geography), subsistence (how individuals use ecological resources to survive), and sociocultural systems (institutions, norms, roles, and values) (Erez & Earley, 1993). It is clear that culture uses both objective and subjective elements. These interrelated systems do not dictate culture; we can use them as a common framework to understand the culture and its relation to numerous actions.
This section of my essay will focus on two approaches that are most broadly accepted and applicable to our understanding of cultural variations in communication styles. Value can be defined as “An enduring belief that a specific mode of conduct is socially preferable to an opposite or converse mode of conduct,” (Rokeach 1973: 5). Once learned, values are added into an organized system of values that serve a number of functions for us, such as prompting us to favor certain ideologies, guiding self-presentations, influencing how we communicate, and judging others’ decisions and behaviors.
The difference between high-context and low-context communication is the difference between direct and indirect communication styles. According to Oxford Research Encyclopedias, “A direct communication style, typically practiced in low-context communication cultures, is one in which messages reveal the speaker’s true intentions, opinions, and needs, whereas an indirect communication style is one in which the verbal message is often designed to camouflage the speaker’s true intentions, opinions, and needs; in other words, the speaker does not mean what he or she literally said,” (Gudykunst and Kim 2003).
Members of this indirect communication style tend to be more concerned with the emotional quality of interactions than with the meanings of words or sentences.
The collectivistic cultures’ “Emphasis on maintaining social harmony as the primary function of speech in interpersonal interactions,” (Gudykunst and Kim 2003). Because of this, members from these types of cultures usually give an agreeable and pleasant answer to questions when honest answers may be seen as unpleasant or embarrassing. For example, if someone is invited to a party but can’t go, or doesn’t feel like going, would say yes, but not go. In this case, a direct refusal is considered more face-threatening. The message receiver is expected to detect and appreciate the message sender’s desire to protect mutual face through the use of an indirect refusal.
Indirect communication style usually does well in collectivistic cultures, individualistic cultures (like the United States and a majority of European cultures). These cultures generally like more direct communication styles. Communicators are supposed to say what they mean and mean what they say. A person who speaks hesitantly or vaguely about matters will likely be perceived as unreliable and even dishonest. “A high degree of social approval is given to those who are capable of expressing ideas and feelings in a precise, explicit, straightforward, and direct fashion,” (Gudykunst and Kim 2003).
In summary, understanding and learning how those from different cultures communicate helps us to send messages which are less likely to evoke misunderstanding and distrust and have a more open and flexible attitude in intercultural communication. It also allows us to have empathy and patience for cultural differences. As the world becomes more and more diverse, knowledge is critical for gaining a greater understanding of ourselves, the strangers we meet, and to building stronger connections between cultures.