8 Conversational Styles

There are many differences in intercultural communication. Cultures can be high or low-context, and there are many differences regarding physical contactpersonal space and gestures. Rules for conversations help enhance intercultural communication by knowing which verbal and nonverbal codes you should use.  Know these 8 different communication styles to help pick the topic, take turns and make requests.

1. Direct. European Americans prefer a direct style which includes explicit messages that express clearly the speaker’s intentions.

2. Indirect. African Americans and Koreans use an indirect style with ambiguous messages and mask their intentions and needs.

3. Elaborate. Arab, Latino and Japanese cultures tend to be more elaborate in their conversation styles by using figurative language,metaphors and proverbs.

4. Succinct. Japanese Americans and Chinese Americans like to use long pauses and understatements in conversations.

5. Contextual. Japanese, Chinese and Indian cultures use social roles to adjust the conversation style. Different status are taken into account to help decide the level of formality to be used.

6. Personal. Cultures that use a personal style are less formal and focus on the individual and disregard status differences.

7. Instrumental. Communication uses explicit messages and is very goal-oriented.

8. Affective. Communication is emotional and sensitive. Messages are sometimes implicit with meanings found in verbal and nonverbal codes.

Knowing the different conversational styles is critical in intercultural communication. Without being aware of a different cultures conversation style, someone may come off as rude or impersonal or maybe even too personal. There is a lot of room for error in interpreting the message if the communication style is misunderstood. Communication is key for doing international business or traveling. What kind of communication errors have you run into during your travels?


High-Context versus Low-Context

Whenever I’m upset or in a bad mood, I can always count on my best friend or family to know when something is wrong. Like it or not, I am communicating through my body language. Maybe my arms are crossed or I have a troubled look on my face. I personally am not sure what gives it away because I usually try to hide my anger or frustration. I can also read people that I am close to. As much as they say nothing is wrong, I know deep down there is. Think of someone you have this kind of relationship. Maybe it’s your parents, spouse, boyfriend, girlfriend or best friend. You use your knowledge of this person to look deeper into their body language and the words they use. You may know that saying, “I’m fine” really means they are so far from being fine. Maybe your best friend is always late so when she tells you to meet her at 6 you know she won’t get there till 6:30. These are all context clues we use to decide the real meaning of verbal and nonverbal communication.

High-context cultures are those that use the context of the situation, and what they know about the person they are communicating with, to understand the message. These cultures are typically very relationship oriented so they are able to read the other person and understand the implicit message. More emphasis is placed on what is not said or how how something is said, rather than what is actually said.  Some examples of high-context cultures are, Japanese, Latin American, Italian, African American and Latin American.

Low-context cultures on the other hand use explicit messages. What someone says is what they mean. If someone asks to meet you for lunch at 1pm, you will be there by 1pm. If you are late for lunch, you will have an excuse as to why you are late. Maybe there was traffic or there was a crisis at work. Low-context cultures always need a reason for not doing something they explicitly said they would do, such as being somewhere on time or having something done on time. Examples of low-context cultures are Swiss, German, Scandinavian and North American.

Understanding if a culture is high or low context is important. If you come from a high-context culture, you should keep that in mind and make your message more explicit so there is less confusion. If you come from a low-context culture, realize that the message might be implicit. Have you ever done business or traveled somewhere  that the context of the conversation was misunderstood due to cultural differences?

Time Orientation

When most people think of the United States, they picture New York City with the hustle bustle of people, traffic and the bright lights of Union Square. Most Spaniards I met while studying in Spain were shocked to find that I had only been two New York twice in my life. Apparently, it is the ultimate honeymoon destination for Spaniards. I would have never guessed. I think that it seems so odd to me because New York City is completely opposite of the Spanish lifestyle. New York is fast paced and Spaniards are generally…well not. The few people that had been to New York even commented that they were constantly being passed on the sidewalk and shot angry glares for walking too slow. So why do Spanish, and many cultures for that matter, tend to clash with Americans fast paced life? Time orientation!

From a young age, we hear the phrase “time is money” being tossed around. As American’s, we see time as dollar bills. We complain about people “wasting our time” because to us, time is something that is precious and we don’t have enough of it. The United States is considered a monochronic culture. This monochronic time system means that we want things to be done one by one in a certain order. We like to schedule and manage our time because it is a precious commodity. Business professionals are glued to their Blackberry or iPhone to constantly schedule and reschedule their time. Other monochronic cultures include Germany, Israel and Switzerland (Swiss time piece anyone?). This can cause some problems with cultures that don’t see time in the same way.

 Polychronic cultures like to do things at the same time. During negotiations, they will move freely between topics and this frustrates many U.S. businesses. Spain, Latin America and the Middle East are all polychronic cultures. Relationships are far more important than deadlines and schedules. Planning to meet at 10 really means 10:30 or 11. People are constantly late for business meetings because they care more about family time and building friendships than they do work. It’s not rude to people used to the polychronic culture because it is expected. Time isn’t something that can be scheduled and set in stone.

Keep in mind these different time system differences when traveling and doing business in different cultures. Meetings may not start on time, negotiations may days longer than expected and you might need to invest more time in relationship building than business deals. You may even find the polychronic cultures refreshing as opposed to the go go go of the monochronic cultures. I personally think that American’s can learn something from the polychronic lifestyle by realizing that time isn’t always money. Sometimes, you just need to stop and enjoy yourself and the people around you. I know I could do that more often. Which time system do you prefer?

Physical Contact Varies By Culture

Ironically, the day after I wrote the post on personal space, we did a very interesting exercise in my Intercultural Communication class. A few students were chosen to observe, and the rest of us picked a partner. Now, we were asked to start a conversation with our partner. Easy enough, right? After a few minutes, we had to cut the distance between us in half. Standing about 1.5 feet from my partner, I found myself leaning back, turning my head more and not making eye contact. After a few more minutes, we were asked to hold hands and continue our conversation. So now we are standing about 1.5 feet from each other, borderline intimate zone, and we awkwardly are holding hands. This went on for about five minutes. Everyone’s hands were clammy and we were all uncomfortable and not making eye contact. Put yourself in our shoes, how would you feel if you had to do the same with someone you didn’t know?

This exercise showed American’s struggle with personal space, but also physical contact. Other than shaking hands, physical contact, such as holding hands or hugging, is reserved for people we are close with. It’s pretty awkward with a stranger. In most Western countries physical contact can mean social dominance. People with a higher status tend to exert more physical contact, whereas lower status individuals receive more of the physical contact. For example, your boss might pat you on the back or maybe grip your shoulder as they’re leaning over you to look at your work. This is not uncommon, yet it can still make employees feel uncomfortable. On the flip side, you would never pat your boss on the back, it’s a superiority thing.

So, what cultures tend have more physical contact? Very similar to personal space, the Middle East, Latin America and southern Europe prefer a lot more physical contact during normal conversations. A common greeting is kissing on the cheek. In Spain, I noticed many conversations with men clasping each other’s arm or placing a hand on the other person’s shoulder. In Northern Europe, you have to apologize if you accidentally brush by someone. They do not appreciate touching at all. The Japanese though, are culturally most opposed to the touch of a stranger. If you think about it, they greet each other with a bow, not a kiss or handshake.

Muslims also have strict cultural rules about touching. Men and women cannot touch, even casually, in public. You will not see couples, even married, walking down the street holding hands. Now, two women often walk holding hands and men can be seen walking arm in arm with one another. We might do a double take if we see two men casually walking with their arms linked. Remember, the appropriateness of touching varies by culture. Don’t make the mistake of touching someone’s arm during a conversation in a culture where it is not appropriate or be horrified if someone from Latin America places their hand on your shoulder during a discussion. Be aware of different culture’s comfort towards touching, as well as your own. Does anyone have an example of being uncomfortable with certain physical contact in a different culture?

Personal Space

Have you ever been sitting in an empty café and someone walks in and sits right next to you? I mean, every single table is open and they choose to sit closest to you. Or maybe you’re standing in line at the grocery store and the person behind you is standing so close you can feel their breath. You might turn to these people, give them a dirty look and think to yourself, “What is their problem? Give me some space!” This is common for many Americans, we have a very large personal space bubble compared to most countries.

In Spain, I had to get used to crowded bus rides to and from school every day. Proxemics, the difference in people’s personal space, has four different categories: intimate, personal, social and public. Americans consider intimate as standing 0 to 1.5 feet from one another, personal space is generally 1.5 to 4 feet, social is 4 to 12 feet and public is 12 feet and up. Now, these are all ranges. Personal space starts at 1.5 feet, but that is really pushing it. It is more common and comfortable to stand 3 feet away in most situations.

So, knowing that 1.5 is borderline intimate and generally uncomfortable, Latin American and Mediterranean cultures like to stand at 1.5 feet for a personal conversation. An explanation for this is that cultures from colder climates have larger personal space “bubbles” while cultures with warmer climates prefer to be much closer. This explains why North Americans and Northern Europeans like their personal space. South Americans and Southern Europeans will enter your comfort zone.

How do you deal with this issue of your personal space bubble? Well, realize before you travel somewhere if the culture’s proxemics is different than your own. Work on your intercultural sensitivity by trying to stand closer to people. If you step back because you are uncomfortable, you can come across as rude. Keep an open mind because no culture has a right or wrong personal space distance. I personally had to adjust to closer proxemics while living in Spain. Have you had to adjust to any personal space differences while traveling?

Intercultural Competence

As an International Business major, we are required to minor in a language. This is part of the reason why I became an IB major, I wanted to minor in Spanish. This being said, most companies that do business abroad speak English. Now, this is both a curse and a blessing. When traveling, you will most likely be able to find someone that speaks English to help you. While living in Spain, I found that many times when I would try to speak Spanish and practice, people would just respond in English. This would frustrate me and I would continue to speak in Spanish while they spoke English. How was I supposed to learn if they spoke to me in English?

Speaking another language is a great asset. I encourage everyone to try to learn a new language, or at least learn some phrases before you travel. People will appreciate your effort. Also, just because you speak another language does not mean that you can communicate successfully. Jane Jackson has conducted many studies concerning intercultural communication and linguistics. She has found that linguistic competence does not necessarily parallel intercultural competence.

In Jackson’s study, Globalization, Internationalization, and Short-term Stays Abroadshe observed 14 full time English students at a Hong Kong University. The university wanted to better prepare their students for a globalized world by internationalizing them. A Special English Stream program was created for students to study abroad in England. All participants were advanced English speakers, yet had taken no previous intercultural communication classes. She observed their progress of each student’s intercultural sensitivity throughout the program.

She found that each student repeatedly had an inflated opinion of his or her own intercultural sensitivity.I think many of us would like to think that we are culturally sensitive and openminded, but our actual sensitivity falls short of our expectations. Just because these students were fluent in English, they still struggled with cultural differences and social English. By the end of the program, most students had adjusted and moved past superficial cultural observations and had a deeper understanding of culture. Those who remained openminded showed more empathy and became ethnorelative rather than ethnocentric.

Jackson’s study proves that language competence does not mean intercultural competence. If you speak another language, you still need to learn about the other culture. It takes time to build intercultural sensitivity, but try to approach each new culture with an open mind, empathy and a willingness to try new things. A combination of language fluency and intercultural competence and sensitivity will help any person or company succeed abroad. Does anyone have any stories of being fluent in a language, but struggled to understand the culture?

4 Requirements for Exporting

The fact that the United States is in a huge trade deficit is no secret. We have been struggling with this deficit for a while now, and it seems as if it’s not getting any better. The New York Times reported that we hit a 3-Year High in January at a 52.56 billion dollar deficit. So, for all those companies looking to export, you should remember these four things:

1. Commitment. Just like any business endeavor, you have to make a commitment to exporting. Most international marketing plans will not pay off for three to five years, so be patient. The number one reason for exporting failures is lack of commitment. You will fail if you are only in it for the short haul. Pick your market, make your plan and commit to it!

2. Research. Market research is more difficult to come by in other countries. In the United States, we have a plethora of knowledge available to us on the Internet. The government provides many great resources such as the CIA World Factbook. Finding specific market research can be a struggle because many countries don’t have access to the technology that we do. Their information can be out of date, or sometimes governments report better results because they have pride in their country. Try not to use secondary data because it can give you inaccurate conclusions. Know where your data is coming from and be careful collecting it.

3. Organization. If your company is not organized in its export approach, that goes right back to lack of commitment. Companies struggle a great deal with lack of organization because it makes exporting twice as difficult. There are many factors such as documentation, taxes, terms of payment and transportation that makes exporting complex. Have an export plan and keep yourself organized. It will make your life much easier.

4. Flexibility. Realize that you may export your product and not see the results you were hoping for. Maybe your market research didn’t give you an accurate picture of the market. Just because something does well in the domestic market doesn’t mean it will succeed in the international market. Your product might need some tweaking, but also be flexible with the price and terms of sale.

I hope that domestic companies will seriously consider exporting because it is a nationwide effort to reduce our trade deficit. If you want to learn more, the International Trade Administration’s blog has great information for exporting and trade around the world. So, are you be willing to commit to exporting?