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How Culture Impacts Communication

Updated: Jun 14, 2022

Culture impacts everything we do, from thinking to speaking to learning to driving. It determines the language we speak, influences the food we eat, the clothing we wear, and the beliefs and values we hold. Culture has been described as "the water we swim in." Until we have an experience that takes us out of that aquarium, we don't know that our way of thinking, living, or speaking is different from others.

How are cultures formed?

People form cultures; a particular group of people (WHO) living in a specific place (WHERE) at a particular point in time (WHEN). Some of the key drivers that form cultures are geography (borders, climate, physical resources), demography (indigenous, immigrants), and history (war, peace, prosperity, poverty).

Our culture influences what we believe is true and false, right and wrong, giving us our sense of HOW the world works. Hofstede defined culture as "software of the mind" (1), and Ouchi & Johnson described it as "…how things are done around here.” (2)

Talking about Culture

Because culture is intangible (I often refer to it as “smoke and mirrors”), talking about it can be difficult. But if we want to communicate effectively with people from other cultures, talk about it we must.

Over the past seven decades, scholars and researchers in the field of intercultural communication have devised models that put words to this fuzzy concept of culture and how cultures differ. Edward T. Hall (3) and Geert Hofstede were two early pioneers. More recently, Erin Meyer (4) has introduced a model that utilizes the language of modern business to describe cultural differences in communication.

Models of Cultural Dimensions are used to:

  1. Foster Cultural Self-awareness: they help people understand that their behavior is culturally determined.

  2. Foster “Other-awareness”: they can be used to interpret the behavior of people who come from another culture.

  3. Provide a common vocabulary: they give people a set of common words to speak about the differences they encounter.

  4. Compare or “Map” cultures: By placing two or more cultures on the line between the poles, you can estimate how similar or different people’s behavior might be in various situations.

All models rely on a bi-polar structure that juxtaposes two different cultural ways of being, referred to as "Cultural Dimensions," at opposite ends of a pole.

An example of a Cultural Dimension is “Task vs. Relationship.” This dimension describes how cultures differ in the ways people work together and the role of trust.

Cultures are never pure versions of one way of being or the other. On the contrary, all cultures have aspects of both extremes. However, if we look carefully at the general tendencies of cultures, we can position them as being more toward one pole or the other.

Another critical point is that the absolute position of a culture on the line is not as important as the relative position to other cultures. The value of identifying the placement of your culture on the bi-polar line is knowing where you are in relation to people from other cultures you interact with.

Culture and Communication

Language is an integral component of culture. How and why people communicate is also culture-specific.

In the U.S., we start learning to make simple presentations in front of the class from about the third grade. We learn how to structure information and stand in front of the room to deliver our content. When I was teaching in Switzerland, I discovered that this is not true in all cultures and that many people envy us because of this training. I once had a Hungarian student who never had to make a presentation in school until he defended his master's thesis. Standing in front of a room to make a presentation was a skill he had not learned.

All aspects of presenting are impacted by culture, from how someone introduces themselves to the way they end the presentation. Culture impacts how (or if) content is organized, how much detail you give, the kinds of slides that are acceptable and if you should tell your audience at the beginning how long you will speak.

You might be a non-native English speaker who presents to native English-speaking audiences. Alternatively, you could be a native-English speaker who presents to international audiences. Either way, there are many factors to consider as you prepare your presentation.

Subsequent blog posts will explore some of these factors to help you make the most impactful presentation and the most professional impression possible.

(1) Hofstede, G., Cultures, and Organizations: Software of the Mind, McGraw-Hill Europe, Berkshire, England, 1991.

(2) Ouchi, W.G. & Johnson, J.B., Types of Organizational Control and Their Relationship to Emotional Well Being. Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol.23. No.2. pp 293-317.

(3) Hall, E.T., The Silent Language., Double Day, NYC, NY, 1959.

(4) Meyer, E., The Culture Map: Decoding how people think, lead and get things done across cultures., Public Affairs, NYC, NY, 2014.

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