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Communicating Across Cultures - Part 1

Published: 13.10.2009, Updated: 11.02.2015
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In our global society, being able to communicate well with people of different cultures is becoming more and more important.

The more we know about our differences, the more we will understand. Being aware of cultural differences will help us avoid embarrassing misunderstandings like this one:
A young female student was standing with a crowd of friends when a classmate, a Chinese exchange student, joined them and said, in a loud voice, “You’ve gained weight – maybe you should work out!” Needless to say, she got upset and angry, but the exchange student did not seem to understand why. He was just striking up a friendly conversation and giving some constructive advice!

Misunderstandings of this sort can ruin communication even on the most superficial level. Every individual brings their own cultural background and knowledge with them, and sees and interprets the world through it. The Chinese student did not mean to be rude, and was baffled about why his fellow student was offended by his “innocent” remark. She, on the other hand, did not know enough about Chinese culture to see that he did not mean to insult her. Generally speaking, attitudes to weight in China are more matter-of-fact than in the West; where comments on weight are socially unacceptable, even rude.

We all know that it is not only what you say that matters, but also how you say it. If you visit India, which is an English speaking country (its other official language is Hindi), you will see the fascinating head wiggle everywhere. This side-to-side “figure eight” motion indicates many things, but mainly agreement, friendliness and politeness, a way to put others at ease. Too bad many foreigners take it as a “no”!

 

What Went Wrong? Explain.

1

A high school student in Canada, Jim, has a classmate, Imran, whose parents are from Pakistan. The two students are good friends, and Jim invites Imran to have dinner at his house. Unfortunately, though, Jim’s mother has made pork chops, which Imran cannot eat, but he graciously accepts some bread and cheese instead. What went wrong?

Discuss first - then click for comment.

Jim forgot that Imran is Muslim, and does not eat pork. What he should have done: Been more culturally aware and asked Imran if he had any dietary restrictions.

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2

During a visit to London, an American student, Caroline, was invited to a fancy dress party by Elizabeth, one of her classmates. “Don’t forget,” Elizabeth called out before they parted ways” it’s fancy dress! They won’t let you in in your usual clothes!”
When Caroline showed up that evening, she was dressed up beautifully and ready for the party, but Elizabeth, in a pirate’s outfit, was perplexed. “Where is your costume?” she demanded of Caroline.
“You didn’t tell me to wear a costume!” Caroline wailed. “I didn’t know it was a costume party!”

Discuss first - then click for comment.

Caroline just thought “fancy dress” meant wearing fancy clothes, being dressed up for the evening. She did not realize that “fancy dress” is the British equivalent of a “costume party” in the USA, where people come dressed up in costumes, like at Halloween. The difference between British and American English resulted in a real misunderstanding. What she should have done: This is a trickier situation because two English speakers will assume they understand one another perfectly. However, to make sure they both understood one another, they could have taken a little more time to discuss the party and what they were going to wear.

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3

Johan, a Norwegian sales representative, went to Houston, Texas. It was his first time abroad on business. He knew beforehand that many Texans like to wear cowboy hats, even at work, and naturally he never imagined that a cowboy hat could be worn with anything but denim, much less a business suit. Therefore, he was more than a little uncomfortable when he showed up for his first meeting in a casual outfit – brown jeans and a polo shirt.

To make things right, he decided that he would at least be able to show them that he could dress formally, too, and put on a beautiful dark suit and tie for dinner. He was taken aback, however, when he met his colleagues at the restaurant – they were all in jeans and t-shirts. What went wrong?

Discuss first - then click for comment.

Johan did not know enough about American dress codes. For work, suits and ties are the norm. However, Americans dress very casually for most social gatherings. What he should have done: He should not just have made assumptions; he should have double-checked, either with his company, or with one of his colleagues, for example.

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Discussion: Norwegians Abroad

 

A

Norwegians pride themselves on being friendly and peaceful people. Still, many foreigners who visit or come to live in Norway are taken aback by the lack of manners they encounter.

What do you think of the following tips on etiquette for Norwegians going to an English-speaking country? Discuss each tip, saying whether you think it is useful or just silly and/or unnecessary, and why.

  1. Always greet a person the first time you see him or her that day.
  2. When entering or exiting a room or a building, hold the door open for the next person so it does not slam into their face.
  3. Always cover your mouth with your hand when you yawn.
  4. Do not use a toothpick at the table.
  5. Wear formal clothes to business meetings and whatever you do, do not wear jeans or shorts.
  6. Give up your seat on a bus or train if someone elderly, sick or pregnant is standing.
  7. Address people politely, using “Mr.”, “Mrs.” or “Ms.” before their last name, and say “Sir” or “Madam”. Also use polite words and phrases like “please” and “thank you”, even with friends or people who you are on familiar terms with.
  8. Say “excuse me?” when you did not hear what someone said.
  9. If you bump into someone in passing or step on their toe, look up and apologize immediately. Do not continue on as if nothing happened.

 

B

Further discussion

Which of the pointers in a) could or should apply to Norwegian behaviour inside Norway as well? Which would not work? Why? Do you have any other pointers of your own?

Discuss, then make a list of pointers for Norwegians in Norway.

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