Cross Cultural Confusions
Joseph J. Green
Northern Arizona University
Dealing with different cultures certainly has its share of hurdles. Different cultures have opposite meanings, or no meaning at all, for certain gestures. Various cultures have different ways of communicating in general. Some prefer to be absolutely direct, and others tend to be more indirect. Eye contact, which many Americans are thought is exceptionally important and polite to practice, other cultures, they might not feel quite the same way. There are, of course, some precautions that can be taken when interacting with other cultures to try to maintain the best relationships possible, and communicate our ideas as cleanly as possible.
Eye contact is a particularly hard issue to overcome. In many countries, it is incredibly impolite to not make eye contact, in others making eye contact is a challenge, and others still vary depending on situation. For example, in Mexico, it is polite to avoid eye contact with people of a higher authority. Mexican children are taught this from a young age in an effort to respect their wise elders (Philipchuck, Tuttle and Moreland, 2001). While Americans, on the other hand, may become agitated or feel that the other person isn’t showing proper respect if they avoid eye contact in any situation.
Gestures are another source of discontent between people of different cultures. The same hand symbol in one country, could be completely obscene in another. For example, the American sign for “A OK,” where they put their index finger on their thumb, means something completely obscene in Brazil (Darkwing.uoregon.edu, n.d.). Or a “thumbs up” which means approval to Americans, means something horrible in Argentina (Rhani.public.iastate.edu, n.d.). Germany is another great example, where they may tap their forehead to indicate that they think someone is stupid, yet that same gesture moved a bit closer to the temple in the United States means that they think someone is smart (Intercultural Communication, n.d.).
In some places around the world, especially in Asian countries, it can be seen that people like to avoid being direct. Where an American or a German might say a thing and mean that thing, a Japanese or Korean person may say a thing, but not necessarily mean that thing, but instead use cultural context clues to signify approval or disapproval (Intercultural Communication, n.d.). In fact, the Japanese specifically find it polite to be indirect, and have a hard time coming terms with being direct when moving to, or visiting, America, whereas the American sees being direct as the polite thing to do (Yokota, 2000).
While there are many hurdles to overcome, they are not insurmountable. Gestures are actually really easy to deal with. Just don’t use them. Some gestures may be positive to some cultures and negative to others, but no gestures at all is a safe bet. If they are avoided completely, people can’t accidentally insult people by using the wrong gestures. However, most other things, such as eye contact and speaking style, are much harder to deal with. The most important thing that can be done, is to learn about a target culture before interacting with it. If someone has the luxury of having associates local to the culture being interacted with, they can be used to watch for something offensive, or even help understand what the people doing business actually mean. When dealing with cultures with a different language, interpreters will be needed. Interpreters can help, just as the local associate, by letting someone know if (s)he is being rude, or what is expected to be polite. When dealing with important deals or documents, it’s prudent to have multiple interpreters and for each party to to communicate through the interpreters the ideas as they understand them to hopefully insure synergy in intent and understanding (Intercultural Communication, n.d.).
As we can see, it’s incredibly easy to make a faux pas if one tries to assume that gestures are the same across cultures. It’s just as easy to find problems if people assume that people of other cultures communicate the same way, or have the same expectations of that communication. Even something as simple as improper eye contact could ruin business deals. However, these hurdles aren’t as big of a problem so long as proper measures are taken to prevent offending each other’s culture, and to make sure our ideas are being clearly transmitted.
Darkwing.uoregon.edu. (n.d.). Customs Brasil. [online] Available at: http://darkwing.uoregon.edu/~sergiok/brasil/customs.html [Accessed 18 Mar. 2018].
Intercultural Communication. (n.d.). [video] bigworldmedia.
Philipchuck, C., Tuttle, S. and Moreland, S. (2001). Mexico E-Resume ~ Nonverbal. [online] Academic.depauw.edu. Available at: http://academic.depauw.edu/mkfinney_web/teaching/Com227/culturalPortfolios/mexico/nonverbal.htm [Accessed 18 Mar. 2018].
Rhani.public.iastate.edu. (n.d.). Non Verbal Communication. [online] Available at: http://rhani.public.iastate.edu/nonverbalreading.html [Accessed 18 Mar. 2018].
Yokota, K. (2000). American Directness and the Japanese. [online] Leo.stcloudstate.edu. Available at: https://leo.stcloudstate.edu/kaleidoscope/volume3/direct.html [Accessed 18 Mar. 2018].