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Cross Cultural Communication: A Foreign Language Perspective
Jul 1, 1996

To be aware of issues in cross-cultural communication is becoming increasingly important. Any of us may travel or meet travellers. We may work with members of other cultural groups. We may learn a foreign language. Such situations inevitably bring us into contact with other ways of speaking, other modes of behaviour and other views of life. In this article we examine how communication across cultures can be affected by participants’ interpretations, assumptions and expectations which largely derive from their own cultural background. We consider some ways in which cross-cultural communication functions at the various levels of words, grammar, pronunciation and at the less obvious levels of discourse patterns, sociolinguistic uses of language and levels involving cultural presuppositions. Finally, we draw some conclusions about the importance of attitudes in cross-cultural situations and of the need to raise awareness and understanding of other cultures. We take a foreign language perspective, asking what kinds of knowledge and understanding about cultures is necessary to learn another language and communicate with speakers from different countries. Cross- cultural communication often involves difficulties but fundamentally it should be viewed as an opportunity for learning and development. The examples that we give relate particularly to students learning English. They are taken from our field- notes and observations made in several countries.

Interpretations, assumptions and expectations

In situations of cross-cultural communication it is not only what happens or what is said that is important, it is how participants interpret the interaction which ultimately counts. It is this interpretation which guides our perception of meaning and our memory of other people. Most of us draw conclusions about others from what they say, or rather from what we think they mean. The gap between what we think others mean and what they intend to say can occur in any communication. This gap is often wider in cross-cultural contexts. This is evident when there is a lack of knowledge of the common language of communication, say English, which may he a second or foreign language to one or both sides. Less obviously the gap is often wider because in intercultural communication participants may not realize that they are using language in different ways which go beyond purely linguistic competence. Our consideration of cross-cultural communication needs to include: discourse competence in which conversations or texts may be structured using different principles; sociolinguistic competence in which language users may draw on differing ideas about who may speak to whom, on what sorts of topics, on what kinds of occasion, in what manner and for what purposes; cultural competence in which cultural norms and beliefs are used to interpret actions and language behaviour and to attribute values and interpretations to interaction. The problem is that our own perception of these aspects of language use is influenced by our own cultural background. It is all too easy to be unconsciously ethnocentric about such matters and to assume that our way is normal, logical or better than those ways used by speakers who come from other cultural backgrounds.

An analogy illustrates this point. In Figure 1 the middle item may be interpreted as a letter B or as a number 13, depending on whether it is read vertically or horizontally. Our interpretation depends on the context of what system we expect to use, in this example an alphabetical or numerical context. 

In learning English, students need to be constantly alert for shifts in meaning as participants use varying systems and principles of interpretation. Objectively, the form and shape of the middle item in Figure 1 has not changed. Subjectively, the meaning can he completely different when the figure is seen in an alphabetical or numerical context. Different contexts lead to different expectations which in turn lead to different interpretations of the same object. Similarly, the context of our own culture may lead us to interpret another person’s words, behaviour or attitude quite differently from the way in which that person intends them to be interpreted. We may not be aware of the patterns of interpretation which members of a particular culture use.

In our own culture we can afford to take much communication for granted. Since childhood we have learned what word, normally mean, how and why things are said. Our own culture has provided us with a framework of working principles and systems of interpretation which most of us automatically use every day. We do not need to work out how to use greetings or apologies, how to respond to invitations or compliments, how to take turns or interrupt others, or what silences might mean. In learning to use a foreign language, however, we need to be aware that speakers of the target language may be using quite different assumptions and systems for such ways of using language. We need to become aware of alternatives. We need to expect the unexpected. We need to check our interpretations of what is apparently obvious.

Levels of communication

Language is like an iceberg: some aspects are visible with fairly obvious meaning, but a larger part is hidden or taken for granted. 

The greater the foreign language skill in pronunciation, grammar or vocabulary, the greater the danger that the other hidden levels of communication may come into play. Participants on both sides will assume that they mean the same thing by different gestures or patterns of discourse, but in fact they often have quite different interpretations. Hearers often that if a speaker has a reasonable level of skill in the obvious areas of words, grammar and pronunciation then the speaker will he equally skilled in the other kinds of competencies. Often this is not at all the case, especially if the speaker’s foreign language learning has concentrated on language competence. Many learners of English have focussed their main attention on learning words and grammar. In many foreign language classrooms little attention is given to the role of culture and cross-cultural communication.


For many students, learning a foreign language is all about learning words. The students’ aim seems to be largely to acquire a knowledge of a wide vocabulary, concentrating on new and difficult words. These students may not realize the importance of learning new meanings to known words, especially apparently simple words. However, simple words often turn out to have unexpected cultural meanings, as the following dialogue noted in Britain shows. 

In this situation, A is an Arabic speaker, a visitor to Britain. She was only expecting a cup of tea and was puzzled by the offer of food. The British hostess (B) was upset that A had already eaten since she had, she thought, specifically invited A for food. The source of the misunderstanding is the word ‘tea’ which in Britain, especially among lower social classes, often means an early evening light meal. Although A speaks excellent English and is, in fact, an experienced university English teacher in her own country, she had not realized that a simple word like ‘tea’ can have different cultural meanings.

Similarly, ‘simple’ common words used in idioms can often catch out learners who are used to concentrating on ‘difficult’ words. The word ‘house’, for instance, takes on a variety of unexpected meanings in such examples as ‘The comedian really set the house on fire’ (the comedian got a good response from the audience, or ‘house’), The drinks are on the house tonight’ (the owner or manager will pay for all the customers’ drinks), ‘After the minister’s speech the House rose at nine’ (the members of the House of Commons, in the British Parliament, went home at nine o’clock).


Grammar can often present unexpected difficulties in cross-cultural communication when learners of another language have not worked out the relationship between grammatical form and language function. This happened in the following example in Britain where a British person (B) wants to visit a Chinese student (C) in her room. 

The problem ‘here is that the expression ‘do you mind it’ is a polite form of a request which anticipates a negative response, No, I don’t mind...’. C realizes that this is a request but responds only to the function, ‘Yes’ (meaning ‘Yes, do come in’). Since C has not responded with the expected negative grammatical form this leaves B to understand that she is busy (‘Yes, I do mind, I am busy at the moment’) . Fortunately, B did not leave immediately after C’s first response and the misunderstanding was cleared up.


Clearly when words are mispronounced this can cause problems in cross-cultural communication. This usually happens when speakers have poor pronunciation or confuse words. Less obvious problems can crop up when fluent speakers of English, for instance, are influenced by local varieties of the language. This would be perfectly acceptable in local situations but can cause difficulties when English is used in international contexts. For example, Malaysian speakers of English may stress the second syllables of words like ‘colleague’ or ‘management’ where speakers of other varieties of English expect to hear the stress on the first syllable. Since the difference in stress is also accompanied by changes in the pronunciation of stressed or unstressed vowels (schwa) this can cause momentary confusion. More seriously, hearers’ perceptions of speakers of a language like English are influenced by the fact that stress and intonation commonly convey attitudes. Thus in English a heavy falling intonation can mean definiteness, abruptness or rudeness. Unfortunately, Arabic speakers who learn English have often not been taught this and they transfer Arabic falling intonation patterns to English. One result is that English hearers sometimes perceive the other group (wrongly) as being aggressive or pushy. A solution is to raise the learners’ awareness of the meanings of various intonation patterns in English and the attitudes which might be interpreted from their use.

Body Language

The same gestures or body language may express quite different meanings in different cultures. In Northern Europe yes’ is generally signalled by a downward head movement or up-and- down nodding. In contrast, in Turkey and neighbouring countries a common gesture for ‘no’ is an upward movement of the head, easily mistaken for the European ‘yes’ by those who are unfamiliar with Turkish people. Further scope for misunderstanding arises because the Turkish ‘no’ is often accompanied by a click of the tongue. This noise and the upward head movement means ‘you are stupid’ in Britain! There are cultural differences in the use of space, e.g. how close to others people expect to stand or sit. Many Latin Americans or people from the Middle East prefer to come quite close to their hearers when talking. This shows friendliness and solidarity. North Americans or Northern Europeans, on the other hand, tend to keep more space between themselves and hearers. This shows their awareness of the other person’s individuality and need for personal space.When speakers from the USA and Saudi Arabia, for example, come together they may feel uncomfortable without knowing the reason. Both parties unconsciously try to maintain their own natural polite and friendly distances, The American may feel the Arab is aggressive or pushy when the latter comes close, while the Arab may believe the American is unfriendly or untrustworthy if that person keeps moving away.

Further cross-cultural mismatches can occur in eye contact. Whether and how listeners look at a speaker’s eyes varies from culture to culture. One contrast seems to be that in Britain and the Middle East listeners gaze at a speaker’s eyes to show that they are listening and showing respect whereas in many parts of Africa and Asia this can signify disrespect or anger and be interpreted as insulting. On the other hand, the African or Asian manner of showing politeness, respect and honour to a speaker - by lowering one’s gaze or looking below the other’s eyes - can be interpreted as disinterest, suspicion or guilt by British or Middle Eastern listeners.

Even a smile can cause problems, as an American teacher in Taiwan discovered. One of her students arrived late. He was smiling. She became angry and said, ‘You are late and it’s not funny. Take that smile off your face. He then became very upset because she had publicly become angry with him. Later she realized that a smile is not always a sign of humour - the student was smiling with embarrassment. Such potential sources of difficulty are not likely to be pointed out by participants in cross- cultural situations. Openly drawing attention to misunderstandings may be thought impolite or over-direct unless the speakers are well known to each other.

Discourse Patterns

Speakers from different cultures make use of different discourse patterns in the way they structure information or interpret what others say. Even silence is used to structure discourse: participants know by the length of a pause that a speaker has finished speaking and they can take a turn. However, the exact timing of such turn taking can vary. Among many Greek speakers the pauses between turns are minimal; speakers alternate rapidly and overlaps between one speaker and the next are common and arc accepted as showing solidarity between speakers who understand each other. In contrast, in Scandinavia and Finland such pauses are often one or two seconds longer as members of those cultures show respect and perhaps think carefully about what they want to say. In cross-cultural situations between these two different groups it is very likely that English will be used as a common language of communication. Greek speakers report that they feel there are long silences between themselves and Scandinavians, which leads them to wonder if they have said something wrong or (given that Scandinavians are often highly competent in English) whether they have made a language mistake. As a result the Greeks feel rather insecure (unnecessarily). The Scandinavians meanwhile feel that the Greeks keep interrupting them. They feel (wrongly) that the Greeks are aggressive.

Important cultural differences can emerge when we consider where a speaker puts the main point. Chinese speakers frequently put the main point near the end of what they say. First they establish common ground and give relevant background information before they lead the hearer up to the main point. Sometimes this point only gets a brief mention - after all, it will be clear to the listener familiar with this discourse pattern where the argument is going. This kind of inductive discourse pattern seems to be oriented to the hearer. Many British and American speakers, in contrast, use a more deductive discourse pattern which is more oriented to the speaker in this second pattern the speaker usually gives an early indication of what is to come. Often the main point conies right at the beginning, especially if the speaker is answering a question in a formal situation. The idea seems to be to get to the heart of the matter quickly. Background information or supporting arguments follow. Since the hearer already has a good idea of the main point, it is clear how this background information will be relevant. Each of these contrasting discourse patterns is completely valid and can he taken for granted in its own cultural context. In cross-cultural situations the differences can cause problems. British people listening to Chinese speakers expect the main point to come quickly. Not hearing one, the British may become impatient or lose concentration and miss the point when it finally comes. Some British listeners report that they think the Chinese keep ‘beating around the bush’, they go round and round but don’t seem to get to the point. Chinese listeners expecting the background first often feel they do not get this information from British speakers so they sometimes miss the significance of the main point or do not see the logic behind it. It would help if both sides realized that for the British the background comes from the main point, while for the Chinese the background leads up to the main idea.

Sociolinguistic Uses

Sociolinguistic uses of language relate closely to discourse patterns, but there is greater emphasis on the social context and variation. For instance, to ask a person’s age, how much they earn or whether they are married is acceptable in all cultures, but in very different circumstances. To ask such questions of a stranger is normal in Turkey or China hut quite unexpected in Britain, America or Australia. Western tourists in Turkey or China may not appreciate the friendliness behind such questions. Instead they may think that local people are too curious about what they think are private matters or questions for job interviews. They would prefer to talk about the weather or their jobs (but these may not be such interesting topics in Turkey or China).

Part of the challenge in learning a foreign language is to learn how to manage [he sociolinguistic uses of the language. At a simple level this means understanding how greetings vary across the world. In China, ‘Have you eaten?’ is a greeting, not an indirect invitation to a meal. In Fiji or Malaysia, ‘Where are you going?’ is not always an enquiry about a person’s destination, but again is a greeting. In Botswana, a greeting is ‘How did you wake up?’. Each language also has many informal greetings. An Indonesian student in Britain (I) did not realize this when greeted by a British teacher (B) at a bus stop:

B Hello. How’s it going?

I I’m going home.

This left B puzzled. His greeting had not been returned and he wondered why the student mentioned he was going home. Later he realized the student was about to catch the bus.

The sociolinguistic uses of compliments can cause dilemmas about the nature of the expected response, as this dialogue between a Chinese speaker (C) and a British visitor (B) shows.

C Your Chinese is very good.

B Oh, thank you

This dialogue looks harmless until we consider what each speaker is thinking. C thinks B must be very boastful: B’s Chinese is not, in fact, good and C expected B to say, ‘No, no, it’s very bad’, since in Chinese a compliment should be rejected to show modesty. B is much happier: he has been complimented and he has thanked the Chinese speaker for his kind thoughts; he is not, in fact, immodest but is following the English rule that a response to a compliment often relates to the complimentary, not to the content.

Cultural Presuppositions

In many instances of cross-cultural communication it is important to understand the cultural presuppositions which lie behind speakers’ words and their expectations and interpretations. For instance, a Chinese student (C) asks a British person (B) for help.

C Can you help me?

B I would like to help you....but I’m afraid I can’t because....

When C heard the first words she was very happy, believing she would get help; when she heard the second phrase she was very disappointed. She thought, ‘Why did you raise my hopes and then let me down?’ She concluded that B was hypocritical. It would help if she understood the cultural presuppositions that B is using: first, to show good will and kindness by saying he would like to help, then moving to the main point that he cannot help before explaining why not. A Chinese speaker would probably give the reasons for not helping first before concluding that it was impossible: this would prepare the hearer for the bad news.

Many Chinese and Latin Americans respond to personal invitations by accepting to come, but when the day arrives they may not turn up. This has left many British and North American hosts puzzled, thinking: why did they promise to come, then break their promises? Can they he trusted? But this interpretation misses the Chinese or Latin American cultural presupposition behind their reply: it is better to show good will, by accepting and perhaps not go, than to refuse and bring immediate disappointment to the potential host. This shows regard for the hosts face, and for that of the person invited, who does not have to provide an excuse for refusing the invitation. Thus the Chinese and Latin Americans in this situation base their reply on social values, while the British and North Americans put truth values first. If this is understood, the situation becomes easier on both sides, although there will still be further variation depending on whether the invitation is by telephone, letter, or face to face, on whether it is a group invitation and how well the people know each other.

Fundamentally, relevant cultural presuppositions relate to how members of a culture view the world, how they think about human nature, time, space and society. Also crucial are the balance between individual and social identity, the role of language in social relations and getting things done, and how concepts of politeness and face are realized in interaction. Probably all of these is important in all cultures, hut the nature and emphasis of each may vary.

Some Caveats

When we consider cross-cultural communication it is natural to consider cross-cultural differences but we should first remember that cultures have much in common: we are all members of humanity, there has been extensive interaction between cultural groups for centuries and for most of the time most people get along very well with each other. Differences and problems should not obscure common elements.

Secondly, we need to remind ourselves that generalities about cultural groups do not always apply to individuals. There is always individual variation even in those cultures which emphasize collective thinking and action. Every culture has some balance between unity and diversity, between the individual and the group, between expected conventional responses and freedom of choice.

Thirdly, while general insights are very helpful we also need to bear in mind that different situations elicit different responses even in the same culture. Situational variation is common and much cultural activity is determined by context even in those cultures which stress principles which apparently transcend contextual variation.

Fourthly, in thinking about cross-cultural communication we should avoid a tendency to think about ‘us’ and ‘them’- For example, it is very useful to analyse some cultures (like British, French, German, American) as being individualistic, since they put emphasis on the individual, and other cultures (say Turkish, Chinese, Japanese, Indian) as being collective, since they tend to emphasize the group. But in using such binary categories we should remember that any culture probably has both individualistic and collective tendencies - it is a question of emphasis and relative balance.

Some Conclusions

We have looked at cross-cultural communication from a foreign language perspective. We have emphasized that it is not only cross-cultural language and behaviour which count but also participants interpretations of situations and people, since this interpretation often frames perceived meaning. Our own culture provides us with systems of interpreting language and interaction and in cross-cultural situations we need to be aware of these systems and endeavour to transcend them. Here, we have used a framework of different levels of communication to discuss how the more obvious levels of words, grammar and pronunciation often obscure the crucial role of body language, discourse patterns, sociolinguistic uses of language and cultural presuppositions. In face-to-face communication all these levels usually work simultaneously, in combination,

Speakers’ or hearers’ attitudes can be influenced by their interpretations, which in turn can be influenced by their own cultural systems. There can be a vicious circle here: cultural expectations can lead to different language use, which can lead to miscommunication. This in turn can lead to wrong assessments and stereotypes of participants from other cultures, which cart reinforce or mould cultural expectations, and so on. However, a major way to break such vicious circles is to be aware of possible difficulties, to have some knowledge of other cultures, and to try to develop intercultural skills.

To finish on a positive note, it is worth remembering that most of the time people from different cultures do get on with each other: as members of different cultures we share a common humanity. Good will and a friendly smile can overcome many barriers. Patience, trust and sensitivity are part of an international language of humanity which goes beyond words.


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