Rising Stars: Understanding Differences in Cultural Communication Styles  
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Rising Stars: Understanding Differences in Cultural Communication Styles  

By D+P Interns

(Rising Stars is a series of thoughts, reflections and perspectives by the interns at Devine + Partners) 

By America Sierra 


Have you ever experienced second-hand embarrassment due to intercultural incompetence?  

I recall a sloppy in-house campaign at a neighborhood clinic in Texas that aimed to encourage Hispanic elderly people to get vaccinated against Covid-19. The campaign was delivered in Spanish, and it addressed the audience informally by using the second-person singular pronoun ‘tú’. In Spanish-speaking countries such as Mexico and Colombia, this is viewed as disrespectful and rude, as this form of ‘you’ should only be used in informal situations (e.g., children, subordinates).   

I remember shaking my head and placing the pamphlet back down on the table. As the Lone Star State has a large Mexican demographic, it would only seem reasonable to have created a campaign that took this into consideration. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one to cringe that day. 

The takeaway? Intercultural competence is more critical than ever, and it’s increasingly important for professional communicators to be aware of cultural differences and conduct research to deliver work that clearly demonstrates an understanding of different cultures and their communication styles.  

Learning about the different patterns of communication across cultures helps prevent faux pas that can damage your brand. Not only that, but greater understanding of differences can also build promising relationships with customers, influencers and co-workers alike.  

A good start to acquiring intercultural competence is to first gain knowledge about the key features of cultural communication styles. Here is an outline of some key differences.  

Direct (Low-Context) / Indirect (High-Context) 

Direct communicators are those who are clear and concise when they speak. They do not obfuscate and generally expect the same from others. These individuals value efficiency, honesty, and frankness from their peers. For some, this may come across as rude or even combative to some. Direct communication is a common characteristic in Western cultures such as the United States, Germany, and the UK.  

By contrast, indirect communicators are less likely to use confrontational language and are more implicit in their speech. These individuals rely on nonverbal cues such as gestures, body language, or paralinguistics to hint at what they mean to say. In certain contexts, this style of communication can be ineffective because confusion may develop because of ambiguity. However, this is done for the sake of saving face by avoiding tension and criticism which helps to maintain a harmonious environment. Indirect communication is prevalent in Asian, African, and Latin American cultures.  

Nonverbal Cues  

Nonverbal communication is the conveyance of information or messages in a manner that does not utilize spoken language. This can involve eye contact, physical space (proxemics), and touch, for example. In Western cultures, sustaining eye contact is a sign of attentiveness, confidence, and trust. On the other hand, in Eastern cultures eye contact and direct gazes are to be largely avoided because they can be interpreted as being rude and offensive.  

Proxemics, or physical space, is another nonverbal cue that contributes to interpersonal communication. The amount of space between people is less culturally uniform, as it varies from country to country and is dependent on factors such as situational circumstances, personality characteristics, level of familiarity, and cultural expectations. Proxemics can serve to convey feelings towards the other person(s), including affection or hostility.  

Much like physical space, touch is another nonverbal communication behavior that helps people express their emotions. Shaking hands is generally accepted across most cultures, although it is common for people in Latin America, Spain, and Italy to show more affectionate touch. In tactile cultures, people are more comfortable with hugs, kisses, and hand holding. This is typically not the case in East-Asian countries, as they are more conservative. 

Individualism / Collectivism  

European and other Western cultures are considered highly individualistic. These societies place significant importance on freedom and independence and place a greater prioritization on the individual. In the context of communication, individualist cultures are task-oriented and optimize their time to quickly pursue their goals. They are direct in their speech to achieve short-term, personal gains, while leaving relationships to subsequently develop.  

Collectivist cultures value interdependence, cooperation, and social harmony. Asian, Latin American, African, and Arab cultures tend to be collectivist. People in these societies utilize indirect communication where focus is given to the content rather than the context of the communication or message. Attention to relationship-building is considered necessary for achieving long-term objectives for the group or team.  

Successful communication is a manifestation of culture. The way people communicate often reflects their attitudes, beliefs, and cultural values. As PR professionals, being aware of different communication styles – whether it’s for a promotional campaign, a crisis or an attempt to keep far-flung employees informed and united — can save you from awkward moments and unintended embarrassment.  

(America Sierra is currently pursuing a master’s degree in communication at the University of Houston) 

D+P Interns

D+P Interns