- Explain the causes of cross-cultural miscommunication.
- Identify fundamental cross-cultural communication strategies.
- Practice cross-cultural dialogue.
The Swedish journalist Thomas Larsson has defined globalization as “the process of world shrinkage, of distances getting shorter, things moving closer. It pertains to the increasing ease with which somebody on one side of the world can interact, to mutual benefit, with somebody on the other side of the world” (p. 9). Enhanced by the revolutionary advances in communication technologies, globalization has facilitated direct contact among people from various countries, cultural, and linguistic backgrounds. Face-to-face or technology-mediated, cross-cultural encounters are typically friendly, respectful, and positive despite cultural and linguistic barriers and differences. This chapter will explore the nature and causes of cross-cultural miscommunication and identify key strategies for effective cross-cultural persuasion.
The Root of Cross-Cultural Miscommunication
When people from different linguistic and cultural backgrounds meet, the interaction is usually friendly and respectful. In cross-cultural communication, people are typically proud of their acceptance and tolerance and emphasize shared values with different people. Many people dream of traveling to foreign countries to learn about other nations, cultures, traditions, and religions. Unfortunately, misunderstandings and conflicts may occur when people from differing linguistic and cultural worldviews argue about controversial political or social issues.
While respect and tolerance can go a long way in reducing conflict among people from different linguistic and cultural backgrounds, misunderstandings can still result in severe disagreements and conflicts due to differences in worldviews and communication styles. Personal, social, and cultural factors usually shape a person’s communication style. However, how individuals express themselves reflects their socio-economic status and the influence and power in society. For instance, people who belong to a dominant or privileged group tend to speak in a way that reflects their influential status. Privileged individuals in some societies may project their dominant position over less privileged groups or individuals by using direct, assertive, and goal-oriented language. On the other hand, individuals with less power may reflect their lack of influence by using indirect or implicit expressions.
Despite sharing universally accepted values such as harmony, trust, sincerity, honesty, and loyalty among world cultures, traditions, and religions, cross-cultural communication can still be distrustful and tense due to differences in values, beliefs, and worldviews. Gender roles are perceived differently in different cultures and religions and are usually controversial. For example, in many cultures, men are protective of women and show respect by preventing or shielding them from working or doing demanding jobs. In contrast, barring women from work or doing challenging jobs is viewed as violating gender equality and fundamental workplace rights in other cultures. Thus, the different perceptions of gender roles may lead to miscommunication and serious misunderstandings in cross-cultural settings.
Miscommunication between people from different linguistic or cultural backgrounds may result from differences in values, beliefs, or communication styles. For example, people in some cultures emphasize direct and explicit communication to express individualism, independence, and pride. Furthermore, the straightforward communication style is viewed positively in Western cultures as an honest and practical approach to personal and professional interactions.
Cross-Cultural Persuasion Strategies
Persuasion involves influencing others to do or believe something by presenting convincing reasons or evidence. Cialdini (2001) has identified six persuasion techniques that can help speakers win hearts and minds. The six techniques can be used in different combinations and include persuading listeners to like and trust the speaker as someone who has something valuable to offer. To like you, your listeners have to feel appreciated and respected by you, and to trust you; they need to trust your knowledge or expertise and trust your commitment to your ideas. Effective cross-cultural communication should be based on effective persuasion techniques and the strategies specific to communication in diverse linguistic and cultural settings. The following are fundamental cross-cultural communication strategies:
Emphasizing Shared Values
The first cross-cultural persuasion strategy is to build rapport and establish by emphasizing your values with your audience from a different linguistic or cultural background. New York City is an excellent example of how millions of people from all corners of the globe overcome countless linguistic and cultural barriers. New Yorkers live, work, and prosper in their diverse communities by championing such values as freedom, equality, and justice, which serve as a solid foundation for communication and persuasion.
A practical example of building rapport by emphasizing shared values is loyalty to family and community to a listener who grew up in Saudi Arabian society. Al-Zahrani (1993) explored the differences between Americans and Saudis and concluded that Saudis are more collectivist than Americans. People from collectivist cultures tend to be family- and group-serving than people from individualist cultures who are more self-serving. By sharing one’s loyalty and love for family, people from a collectivist culture like the Saudis and others from individualist cultures like Americans establish a solid ground for persuasion.
Focusing on Meaning and Intention
Focus on meaning and intention is critical since it helps reduce or eliminate minor distractions, common in cross-cultural communication and persuasion. For instance, while people in some cultures express themselves indirectly and implicitly to maintain harmony and show courtesy, others do so directly and explicitly to show honesty and trustworthiness. Consequently, it is not uncommon for two people from the abovementioned cultures to misunderstand each other as direct and explicit speakers may appear bold and disrespectful, while indirect and implicit speakers may seem elusive or non-committal. Recognizing the difference between implicit and explicit communication styles reduces the chance of misunderstanding and conflict.
Speakers from individualist cultures may appear to listeners from collectivist cultures as self-centered and self-important. Conversely, speakers from collectivist cultures may appear to listeners from individualistic cultures as selfless and lacking in self-esteem. But, of course, both impressions can be completely wrong since communication styles reflect social norms, power structure, and relationships rather than individual traits. Therefore, distinguishing between personal qualities and cultural styles of communication is crucial for establishing and maintaining rapport and avoiding conflict.
Persuasion requires understanding what the person you are speaking with says and means. While this might be straightforward in a language and tradition you are familiar with, it is trickier when engaging in cross-cultural persuasion. For example, many Japanese prefer to show disagreement indirectly while many Americans do so directly. Therefore, it is common for the Japanese to perceive Americans as aggressive or uncourteous. Conversely, Americans may perceive the Japanese as elusive, indecisive, or weak. Both perceptions can be completely mistaken, backfire, and undermine “trust and developing relationships” (Rahman 11).
Engaging in Empathetic Listening
Global and social media can intensify cultural and political tensions, contribute to miscommunication, and divide communities. Cross-cultural communication can be particularly fraught with miscommunication challenges due to the linguistic and cultural barriers that separate people from different backgrounds. Therefore, applying empathetic listening and suspending judgment are critical strategies for effective communication and persuasion. Furthermore, eliminating or reducing misunderstandings and tension necessitates approaching cross-cultural communication with open-mindedness and willingness to compromise and find solutions to problems (Putnam & Roloff, 1992).
Understanding other people’s cultural context and perspective are critical for decreasing conflict and improving persuasiveness. For example, while some cultures adhere to strict rationality as a persuasive strategy, others may view strict adherence to logic as attempts to dictate and impose opinions and solutions without fully understanding the discussion’s political, social, or cultural context. On the other hand, appealing to emotion, which is common in some cultures, can be interpreted as avoiding facts or ignoring logic and reason. Empathetic listening requires showing others your genuine interest in understanding their ideas. One way to show empathy is by paraphrasing speakers’ viewpoints in your own words, asking for clarification, or expressing appreciation of their contribution to the discussion.
Approaching Persuasion as Dialogue
In this era of globalization, ethnic, cultural, and religious diversity, pluralism, and multiculturalism have become the norm in the United States and across the globe. The emerging global, pluralistic culture in which people from different backgrounds work and live together will shape how people view themselves, others, and their perception of reality. In such a pluralistic environment, cross-cultural communication requires dialogue with others “to understand one another’s point of view, to show tolerance, listening, and flexibility of thought in the face of sociocultural gaps” (Eliyahu-Levi 417).
Linguistic and cultural barriers can be decreased or eliminated if communication is focused on meaning and purpose. For example, millions of people use English as a foreign language (EFL) to communicate effectively without necessarily adopting the cultural values, beliefs, or styles of native speakers of English. Adopting dialogue helps maintain a positive tone when speaking with people with different communication styles and cultural etiquette. Thus, it is essential to remember that when communicating with EFL speakers, the latter may not observe the values, opinions, or communication strategies used by native English speakers. Furthermore, it is essential to remember that when engaging in persuasive dialogue with people from different linguistic or cultural backgrounds than yours, the latter filter the ideas through the lens of their communication patterns and social and political experiences. Therefore, suspending judgment and listening carefully to the arguments and evidence help achieve mutual understanding, reach an agreement, and resolve conflicts.
Approaching cross-cultural persuasion as a two-way dialogue helps build trust and reduce disagreements and tension. Dialogue requires participants to listen carefully, be flexible, and give up trying to control the communication process to achieve predetermined outcomes. Kent and Taylor (2002) view dialogue as a means to solidify sympathy, satisfaction, and trust, essential for relationship building between people who would otherwise find no grounds for reasoning and agreement. Hence, cross-cultural communication is essentially a compromise between people committed to searching for ways to engage and remain in constant dialogue that may seem impossible at times.
In many Western cultures, monolog is hailed as a winning method of speech to persuade and change hearts and minds. However, in cross-cultural communication, monologs may be counterproductive. It should, therefore, be replaced by dialogue which is a balanced two-way symmetrical communication process that leads to mutual understanding between participants (Grunig, Grunig & Dozier, 2006).
Building linguistic and cultural bridges are fundamental strategies for effective cross-cultural persuasion. Engaging in genuine dialogue for understanding and being understood is the basis for building trust, reducing tension, and reaching an agreement.
- What are the root causes of cross-cultural communication?
- What are the key strategies for successful cross-cultural persuasion?
- Why is dialogue essential as a basis for cross-cultural persuasion?
- In small groups, share with your classmates some of the communication style(s) people in your culture or community use to persuade others.
- Work with a partner on two short debates about a sensitive social or political issue: The first exemplifies asymmetrical and the second an asymmetrical dialogue.
Al-Zahrani, Saad Said A., and Stan A. Kaplowitz. “Attributional biases in individualistic and collectivistic cultures: A comparison of Americans with Saudis.” Social Psychology Quarterly (1993): 223-233.
Cialdini, Robert B. “The science of persuasion.” Scientific American 284.2 (2001): 76-81.
Eliyahu-Levi, Dolly. “Cross-cultural online encounters with peers from different countries.” Distance Education 41.3 (2020): 402-423.
Grunig, James E., Larissa A. Grunig, and David M. Dozier. “The excellence theory.” Public Relations Theory II (2006): 21-62.
Kent, Michael L., and Maureen Taylor. “Toward a dialogic theory of public relations.” Public Relations Review 28.1 (2002): 21-37.
Larsson, Tomas. The Race to the Top: The Real Story of Globalization. Cato Institute, 2001.
Putnam, Linda L., and Michael E. Roloff, eds. Communication and Negotiation. Vol. 20. Sage, 1992.
Rahman, Khairiah A. “Dialogue and persuasion in the Islamic tradition: Implications for journalism.” Global Media Journal, Canadian Edition 9.2 (2016): 9-26.