Impact and influence of culture on an individual’s communication style.
Culture is derived from the Latin colo with its root meaning “to cultivate”, which refers to patterns of human activity and the symbolic structures that give such activity significance ( 1981, p. 4). There are many definitions of the word culture in academic circles nowadays since many academicians formulate their own definitions based on the fields and area of expertise that they are in. Different and varied definitions of culture are also influenced by the theoretical base and the general theory that is being applied. Anthropologists most commonly use the term “culture” to refer to the universal human capacity to classify, codify and communicate their experiences symbolically (, 1981, p. 5). Other sociologist meanwhile forwards this definition of culture which states that it is a system of shared beliefs, values, customs, behaviors, and artifacts that the members of society use to cope with their world and with one another, and that are transmitted from generation to generation through learning (, 2004, p. 2).
This paper will discuss the impact and influence exerted by culture on an individual’s communication style. It will specifically highlight and give emphasis on the different cultural aspects present in some societies around the world and how these cultural factors affect and shape an individual’s relationship and communication style. Before a proper argument on the topic presented is to be made, a short background of the subject must be meet in order to totally understand the intricacies and particulars of the topic.
Culture therefore holistically encompasses all that is tangible and intangible in the social and private life of an individual and the society. Culture refers to the blueprint and the “DNA” of the society. Culture is the framework where society is being hinged upon and its removal from the society would mean the dysfunction of the societal workings of an individual (, 2004, p. 3). Culture refers to the laws, mores and the traditions, written or unwritten, that are embedded in the society (, 2004, p. 4). Because culture is implanted on the society, the culture that is present in an individual is an important, vital and influential factor in determining and shaping communicational skills and personal relationships between two persons.
Communication is far more than speech and writing. Most of us are unaware that we are communicating in many different ways even when we are not speaking. As people grow up in a society they learn how to use gestures, glances, slight changes in tone of voice, and other auxiliary communication devices to alter or emphasize what they wanted to say and do (, 1990, p. 21). People learn these highly culture bound techniques over years largely by observing others and imitating actions made by people around them (, 1990, p. 22).
The most obvious form of language that is influenced by culture are gestures, expressions, and postures. In North America societies, for example, people use their arms, feet and hands to say good-bye, point, count, express excitement, beckon, warn away, threaten, etc ( 2002, p. 18). People also learn many subtle variations of each of these gestures and use them when a specific situation arises. Individuals also use the movement of their head and lips to say yes or no, to smile, frown, and wink acknowledgement or seduction (, 1992, p. 16). The head and shoulder in combination with other parts of our body can move and can shrug to plainly express something (, 2002, p. 14).
While the meaning of some gestures, such as a smile, may be the same throughout the world, the meaning of others may be different. For example, spitting on another person is a sign of utmost contempt in North America but this act can be an affectionate blessing if done in a certain way among the Masai of Kenya (2000, p. 102). The meaning of speech can also be altered significantly by tone and character of voice. In English speaking countries the connotation of the phrase “I’m here” can have different meanings if delivered in a voice that is high, low, quick, slow, rising, falling, whispering, whining, yelling, or sighing (, 2000, p. 103). Similarly, other sentences and phrases commonly used by an individual like the sentence “How are you” and “Have you eaten” can have different meanings depending on the intonation, pitch and body language of the speaker and the relation of the speaker to the receiver (, 2000, p. 109).
When individuals speak to another individual or group, culture guides the group or the individual in maintaining a specific distance between their bodies. Different cultures dictate the body distance and comfort zones that a person must have and maintain in order to provide a smooth and comfortable conversation (, 1992, p. 87). It would therefore be important to know the rule with regards to “body distance” while talking to a person from another culture since one person’s comfort zone can be another person’s discomfort. Most individuals are unaware of the importance of space in communication until they are confronted with someone who uses it differently. For instance, people also have a sense of what is a comfortable interaction distance to a person with whom they are speaking. If that person gets closer than the distance at which a person is comfortable, he/she usually automatically back up to reestablish their comfort zone (, 2001, p. 213. Similarly, if a person feels that he/she is too far away from the person they are talking to, they are likely to close the distance between them (, 2001, p. 212).
. If two speakers have dissimilar comfort zones, shifting positions between the two will be seen until one of the individuals is backed into a corner. Most people from North America and Europe are puzzled and uneasy when they are around people from Asia because these two societies have different and contradicting concepts of body distance (, 2002, p. 139). While an American will maintain arm’s length and maintain it as his personal body zone, most Asian try to enter that zone and try to get close to the person that they are talking to (, 2002, p. 140). This attitude among Asians (Thais, Chinese, Filipinos, Indonesian…) is prevalent since in their culture and society dictates that maintaining close body contact between individuals means that they want to reassure them and to be receptive or interested in the topic that they are discussing (, 1997, p. 265). In Latin America meanwhile, the body distance for talking about personal topics is often considerably closer when compared to other non Hispanic people in the U.S. and Canada (, 1993, p. 98).
Culture also dictates the way our faces and eyes would look when looking or talking to someone. Interpersonal interaction is conveyed through the distance of the face of two persons. Since most people and societies have diverse and often conflicting views with regards to face distance and eye contact, individuals are often anxious when expressing themselves with other persons that represent another culture (, 1997, p. 280). Among Chinese, Koreans and Japanese, an intense look in the eye or on the face of an individual means that you are interested in what he is talking about, you are absorbing his ideas or you are intent on listening to him (, 1997, p. 279). Among Europeans like the British, French and the Germans, these common gestures in Asian countries are interpreted as signs of disrespect, impoliteness and rudeness (, 1993, p. 111).
Whispering, touching and shouting is also affected by cultural factors, culture tells us when and how it is acceptable to touch other individuals. In North America, the culture dictates that adults and children are discouraged from touching other adults and children except in moments of intimacy and greeting. This cultural rule is most rigidly applied to men. Men that are holding hands and kissing in public are labeled as homosexuals and gays while women doing the same things are marginalized and labeled as lesbians (, 1987, p. 50). While this rule is observed in North America, these same acts are practiced in Asian, South American societies. For them, actions such as hugging, kissing and holding hands are interpreted as signs of friendship, intimacy or love (, 1987, p. 52). It is common to see therefore a sight of a Thai woman holding the hand of her friend as a sign of friendship and closeness.
Culture also determines the way people arrange and organize the space around them. Culture is reflected on the way societies view personal and business space between them. In North American corporate offices, the boss or the head of the office is usually physically isolated in a very separate private room (, 2002, p. 305). This arrangement tends to minimize his or her personal contact with ordinary workers. This unwritten rule meanwhile is not followed in Japan, in fact the opposite is observed. Japanese offices commonly are set up with the boss’s desk at the end of a row of pushed together desks used by subordinate employees (, 2002, p. 299). The offices and cubicles of the subordinates are near and close to the office of their boss or leader.
The Japanese believed that this arrangement maximizes the interaction between the boss and the members. This arrangement, according to the Japanese would facilitate faster exchange of ideas and thoughts while upholding camaraderie and solidarity inside the team. Another example of this concept can be found in the court room. In the United States, the judge usually wears a black robe and sits behind an elevated desk while other desks and chairs in the court are positioned so that all attention is focused on the judge (, 2001, p. 248). This intentional setting makes visitors to the court feel respectful and subservient to the judge, thereby making it easier for him or her to control the proceedings.
Culture also commands an important part in interpreting time and communicating messages between individuals. People that appear for an appointment is shaped by the custom, tradition and social situation. In North America, the time that an individual should arrive largely depends on the power relationship between him/her and the person who he/she is meeting (, 2000, p. 207). People who are lower in status are expected to arrive on time, if not early. Higher status individuals can expect that others will wait for them if they are late.
People arrive at appointments carrying the influence of the culture that their society is immersed. If these subtle cultural misinterpretations are not known or are ignored, anger, frustration and humiliation are displayed by one or both parties. For instance, a Brazilian businessman does not arrive “on time” for a meeting with a potential North American customer in New York and fails to give an apology when he arrives. For the businessman and the Brazilian society, time is relatively “elastic” and the pace-of-life is a bit slower (, 1997, p. 277). The society believes that the businessman was sufficiently prompt for the scheduled business meeting, having arrived within a half hour of the appointment (, 1997, p. 278). It is not surprising that he is astonished and offended when he is treated coldly by the North American who also feels slighted by what he perceives as rudeness. Complicating the situation is likely to be differences in their comfortable physical interaction distances. This type of frustrating interaction and scenario can be salvaged if both persons have a knowledgeable and concrete understanding of each others cultures, as the saying goes: “When in Rome, do as the Roman do”.
People in all cultures use clothing and other forms of bodily adornment to communicate status, intentions, and other messages. While clothing and body accessories are mainly dictated by personal preferences, the interpretation, understanding and rationalization of these objects solely depends on the culture of a particular society. In North America, society dictates that individuals should dress differently for business and various recreational activities. Likewise, styles of clothes and fashion can also convey messages and other non verbal language. It can communicate that a man is physically attracted to a woman or vice versa. Women also have different styles of clothing to convey hidden messages such as being seductive, alluring or innocent. Women in Western countries would wear close fitting attires and skimpy clothing to attract and to charm men but Middle Eastern countries interpret these clothing as signs of loose morals and decency (, 1981, p. 87).
Putting on certain types of clothing can also change the behavior of a person and the behavior of other individuals towards him. Uniforms and clothing can convey signs of aggressiveness and assertiveness. Other body accessories such as ribbons, medals and pendants can also affect communications since these objects convey and suggest a higher rank or status to the group ( 2002, p. 100). The uniform ribbons and other insignias worn by a U.S. Army infantryman can inform a casual observer about the status, specialty, authority, and military experience of the soldier. Similarly, the unconventional hair styles, clothing and accessories of the English “punks” and the New York “Harlem boys” are essential aspects of their uniforms. In these cases, it is necessary to know what these culturally defined symbols mean in the context that they are used in order to understand what is being communicated.
There are many forms of body decoration other than clothes that are used around the world to send messages. These include body and hair paint, tattoos, decorative scaring and branding, perfumes, and even body deformation. Holes in ears for decorative rings can be progressively enlarged, over years, with larger and larger rods so that ultimately huge spools, plugs, or heavy rings can be inserted (, 1992, p. 237). This body decoration is a sign of beauty among some indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica and Southeast Asia. The same thing was done to the lip in a few cultures of Africa and the Amazon Basin of South America.
Each society has different gender language interpretations in addition to clothes and body adornments. In North America, for instance, men generally prefer face to face conversations and maintain direct eye contact longer. In contrast, women often converse standing side by side but closer together than is typical of men (, 2004, p. 101). Male hand shakes tend to be firmer. North American women usually are more restrained in their use of bold gestures but use more facial expressions especially smiles and are more skilled in interpreting them. In Japan, women most often speak with an artificially high pitch, especially when conversing with men in a business or official setting. This practice has also been carried to telephone operators and other call center businesses where most companies prefer women who have high pitched voices in answering calls and queries (, 2004, p. 100). This Japanese practice is part of the cultural and general deference traditionally shown to men.
The human communication process is more complex and intricate than it initially seems. Communication is not only composed of verbal messages and other forms of communication like emails, text messages and notes. Communication can also refer to the nonverbal languages, clothing, gestures, bodily accessories that individuals project. The interpretation and meaning of these signs fell largely upon the culture and the cultural influences that are exerted on the society. Since societies are exposed to varied and unlike cultures, communication and contact is greatly hindered because societies have different interpretations and explanations.
Since most, of our messages in face to face contact is transmitted through verbal and nonverbal language, misinterpretation and conflict can occur because what is perceived as polite to a particular culture can be considered as impolite or rude to another. Communication with people and individuals from other societies or ethnic groups is laden with the danger of misunderstanding if their culture and other cultural influences are unknown or ignored. Communication and language is therefore highly culture bound and is wholly prescribed by cultural influences.