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Cross-Cultural Communication: Terms Defined

How does culture affect language and communication?

Language and culture are closely connected. For effective cross-cultural communication, it’s important to learn about, and understand, how language and culture are connected and the ways that culture influences what we say and how and why we say what we say. Effective communication in one culture can be ineffective in another culture. The result can lead to misunderstandings and conflict. This topic is especially important for those who will be doing business internationally or working with people from another cultural background.

First, we need a definition of culture. That can be found here.

Next, it will be helpful to have the vocabulary needed to discuss language and culture. To begin, we will look at 10 words.

  • collectivism
  • individualism
  • Confucianism
  • harmony
  • hierarchy
  • honorific
  • high-context
  • low-context
  • implicit communication
  • explicit communication

Many words in English have multiple meanings depending on the context. The definitions here will be ones that are related to culture. As some of these are complex and difficult concepts, I have simplified them as much as possible while still trying to retain their meaning. Please forgive any oversimplifications and generalizations. We are simply touching the surface of these words to begin our exploration.

Collectivism is a cultural principle that values group interests over individual interests. This includes things like working together on community farming, sharing food, and being loyal to groups over yourself. In collectivist cultures, one strives to put the well-being of the groups one belongs to over one’s individual needs and wants. In this way, a society can work together for the greater good. There are many ways that this value manifests itself. In Korean, collectivism is 집단주의. Korea is a collectivist culture with roots in Confucianism (유교).

In contrast, the United States is based on the cultural principle of individualism. Individualism values independence and self-reliance. In individualistic cultures, the needs of each person are considered to be more important than the needs of any particular group. Individual needs take priority over group needs. Now, this is not an absolute. We are just trying to understand the general philosophy. It is easily misunderstood. It is different from being selfish. It does not mean that people do not contribute to the well-being of the groups they belong to, but in general, individualism promotes the principle that people need to put themselves first before they can contribute positively to others. It also means the people in a group put others first, as opposed to the overall needs of the group. The majority is often willing to sacrifice for a single individual.

Examples of individualism include valuing every person’s opinion. Open disagreement is more common than in collectivist cultures and is valued for the development of the group. However, there is still democratic process, with all voices heard before the group makes a decision. Again, this is an ideal. It doesn’t always work and people are not always forthcoming with their opinions. Many (or most) people will conceal their opinion if they think it will cause conflict that cannot be resolved. Another characteristic of individualism is that uniqueness and being different is valued. Of course, this is a general cultural principle. It does not mean that every individual values uniqueness and differences. An example from the military is their “leave no one behind” policy, where the group is willing to sacrifice for an individual in need. In Korean, individualism is 개인주의. Individualism in America has its roots in the founding of the country, when the first settlers arrived looking for freedom and a new and unique form of government. For more on this topic, check out this blog by an Armenian living in America.

Confucianism (유교) is a system of philosophical and ethical teachings founded by Confucius that has greatly influenced Korean society. Confucianism outlines values and norms of behavior in social institutions and basic human relationships. Each person has a role and obligation to fulfill. Confucian values include filial piety, harmonic relationships, and a hierarchical ordering of social life.

Harmony is a state consisting of a lack of conflict. When we have harmony, we have order and a pleasing combination of elements in a whole. It exists in music, art, nature, and relationships. From a cultural perspective, the way that harmony is created can differ. In some cultures, harmony is created by not openly disagreeing in order to avoid conflict. In communication, this can manifest as not saying “no” directly. In other cultures, harmony is created by speaking openly, saying no directly, and sharing your honest opinion even if it is different than the majority opinion. Of course, this may create a period of conflict, but the ideal end result is to have greater harmony for all. In Korean, harmony is 조화.

Hierarchy (계층) is a ranking system according to status or authority. A very basic example of a hierarchical ranking exists in universities: freshman (1st year), sophomore (2nd year), junior (3rd year), and senior (4th year). Hierarchies are also common in companies, with the CEO ranking at the top. Hierarchies exist in many fields. We will look further into the relationship between culture and hierarchy a bit later.

The honorific is a title or word form expressing high status, politeness, or respect and is used to differentiate between formal and informal speech based on relationships. Examples of the honorific in Korean include 오라버니, 가시다, and 저는 먹었습니다. In Korean, honorific is 존댓말 or 높임말. While English does not have the honorific in the way that Korean does, Mr., Mrs., Ms., Dr., Master, and Lord are some examples. When looking at the honorific as a polite manner of speaking, we can find this in English even though it isn’t quite the same as in Korean. For example, if you are speaking to your grandmother, you wouldn’t say, “What’s up?” You’d say, “How are you?” Also, when making requests, it would be extremely polite to say, “Would you mind if I went to the restroom?” while, “Can I go to the restroom.” is less formal. There are more ways in between as well, such as, “May I go to the restroom?” When I was looking for the Korean word for honorific, I found this page, which is helpful for those learning Korean. Well, for very basic Korean, as it’s even easy for me 😊.

A high-context culture is a culture that relies on implicit communication and nonverbal cues. In high-context cultures, context is more important than words. Examples of high-context cultures include Korea, Japan, Saudi Arabia, and Mexico. If we try to translate high-context culture into Korean, we get 높은고문맥 문화. In fact, we can’t easily translate this, so for a better understanding go to this page in Korean. Scroll down until you see the paragraph about Edward T. Hall and high-context culture. Beneath that, you can see a chart that gives some good information about implicit and explicit communication in both high and low context cultures.

Later, we will look more closely at communication in high-context cultures and how it differs from communication in low-context cultures. By gaining an understanding of these two different styles of communication, we can have more effective cross-cultural communication.

A low-context culture is a culture that relies on explicit communication and the open direct exchange of ideas and opinions. Examples of low-context cultures include the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Switzerland. If we try to translate low-context culture into Korean, we get 낮은저문맥 문화.

In terms of high or low context, there is a spectrum, with some countries being very high-context, some being very-low context, and some falling somewhere in between. Things aren’t always black and white. For more information, go here.

Implicit communication is communication that relies heavily on nonverbal cues. Information is implied and not expressed directly. It relies on context and unspoken cues, including body language, facial expressions and tone. The things we communicate implicitly may or may not be intentional and can be misunderstood. For example, if someone’s face is blank with no expression, we might imply that they are bored or upset. This may or may not be true. Implicit communication is a part of Korean culture that many “foreigners” struggle to understand and often have difficulty with if they come from a low-context culture where communication is much more explicit.

For example, if someone bumps into you by accident in Seoul, they may not use words to say, “’Sorry.” because there is an implicit understanding in the context that the person is sorry. However, in the United States, this needs to be communicated explicitly, with words, to avoid making people angry or upset. It would be rude in the United States to say nothing in this situation. Neither way is better than the other. They are simply different, and it is important to understand these differences and try to adapt to the circumstances that you are in. It took me about 2 years to get used to this situation on buses and other places in Seoul. However, after living in Korea for almost 8 years, this is one area that I have adapted to. It now causes problems when I go back to the United States and have to change my communication style to a more explicit one. I have gotten more than a few dirty looks when I have failed to use words to communication explicitly.

Explicit communication is communication that relies heavily on what is said and on verbal communication that is very direct and clear.

All languages have both implicit and explicit communication. However, there are differences, especially culturally. We will explore these differences in more depth during class. We will also explore the ways all of these concepts work together and how, in working together, they create differences in language – in what we say and how we say it.

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