Dr. Linda Seward
Speech and Theatre Department
Middle Tennessee State University 37132

Study Abroad

Intercultural Communication

                     Why do I need cultural tips?

We used to think that if you just studied the language of a culture, you’d be able to communicate effectively with people from that culture. But over the years, people figured out that it takes more than the language to successfully interact with people from other cultures.   As you'll learn in some examples cited below, you can have the best of intentions but end up insulting people because you violate their norms for behavior.  We want you to have positive interactions with people from the host culture and to do that you need to understand what their communication norms are.

In Intercultural Communication we spend a whole semester examining how cultures can vary in their beliefs, values, perceptions and communication patterns. It can be complicated at times but in an increasingly global world it is an important skill to learn.

Uh-oh – I should have started earlier!

But, guess what – you don’t have a semester to learn this stuff!!!!!

Luckily, I’ve put together some basic ideas to help you out.  Scroll down for some quick tips.  If you have questions, feel free to contact me (Dr. Seward) at:


Deep down we’re all alike, right?


It’s really easy to get off the plane, see familiar technology, clothes etc and erroneously conclude that "deep down everyone is the same". The problem is that people raised in different cultures have been taught different values and norms of behavior – and this leads to different communication patterns and beliefs. An action that may mean nothing to you might be a HUGE insult to someone else.

For example:

- crossing your legs when you sit down is no problem in the U.S. but a major obscenity in Thailand!!

- Italian male friends will greet each other with a kiss (or two) on the cheek and male friends from the Sudan will hold hands as they walk down the street. In these cultures, the actions have nothing to do with homosexuality.

- Eating an ice cream cone while you walk down the street is common in the U.S. but would be rude in Japan or Brazil.

- In the U.S. when we eat with our hands, we don't care if it is the left or right hand, but in the Middle East and Ethiopia, the left hand is the toilet hand! Definitely forbidden for eating!


OK, if people or cultures are different, then, obviously,
We’re the best, right?


That approach is called "ethnocentrism" and it’s a really easy trap to fall into. Ethnocentric people like cultures that are similar to theirs – and decide that cultures that are different are inferior.

While it is true that people are often drawn to one part of the world or to certain cultures more than others, it’s important that you realize that every culture has its own set of norms, values and perceptions that are just as valid for it’s citizens as our norms, values and perceptions are for ours.


Think about cultures as games.
Which is better: chess, poker, charades, or monopoly?

(scroll down for the answer)



Answer: It depends. Think about it: some people would pick chess as better because of the intellectual abilities needed to play it well. But what if you have 12 friends over? That’s too many people for chess. Someone else might like monopoly – but what if you have only one hour to play a game? Monopoly would take too long.

It’s the same idea with cultures.

Each has positive and negative aspects. What you want to do when you encounter a behavior or idea that seems strange to you is to try to understand why they do the things they do. Understanding why is so important. You might still disagree with a culture’s approach, but it can help you understand that their rules and norms are just as valid as ours. They’re just different.


How do cultures differ?

Well, consider time.

Let’s say a friend says: "Let’s meet for coffee at 3:00." What time would you arrive?

In the U.S. we would expect the person to arrive at 3:00. (OK, there are exceptions – but in my class I have four months to cover this material!)

Usually in the U.S. if they arrived at 3:30, we would expect an apology.

That approach is called "monochronic." The British, Germans, Austrians, Swiss and Japanese are also monochronic. We stand in lines, clerks wait on one person at a time, and we expect people to arrive close to the stated time.

But, guess what – MOST of the world is polychronic!! In polychronic cultures, people only stand in line if they are forced to do so (like at a bank or grocery store). If people in polychronic cultures say "Let’s meet for coffee at 3:00" – NO ONE will be there at 3:00. They won’t arrive until 3:15 or 3:30. It’s all the same to them.

Now the monochronic people are all thinking, "That’s crazy! It’s inconsiderate and inefficient!"

 Ah, ethnocentrism raises its ugly head!

Think about it: yes, it’s inefficient from a monochronic perspective but from a polychronic perspective, it’s a much more relaxed way of life. As a woman in India once told me: "In India, we are run by our hearts but in America you are run by your watches."

Long conversations are common in polychronic cultures – and people would not cut a good conversation short in order to make an appointment. On the other hand, stores may not open "on time" – but the polychronic people are fine with that (perhaps because they wouldn’t show up at the opening time anyway).  Bargaining is also common in polychronic cultures.

(And for those of you who may have stopped to think of the diversity in the U.S., you’ll realize that we have groups of people who are polychronic.)


OK, Got the time thing down.

What else is different? >>

Directness vs. Indirectness

How about: how much of your message is stated directly – versus implied? Believe it or not, there are whole cultures that communicate in subtle, indirect ways that are often missed by people from direct cultures (like the U.S. or Germany).

Communicating in
High Context Cultures & Low Context Cultures

(developed by Edward Hall)


High Context Cultures

Low Context Cultures

The context of the communication is needed to decipher the message.  Thus, people pay attention to not only what was said (or written) but also:

Context is not considered; the focus is on what was said (or written).

      - who said it?
      - to whom did they say it?
      - when did they say it?
      - how did they say it?
      - what was not said?

[The lowest form of low context communication is with a computer]

Masao Kunihiro said: "For Americans, using words is the means of communication. For Japanese it is a means." (With Respect to the Japanese by Condon, p. 45)

Examples of high context communication:

-In Japan, when an American asked a Japanese friend to translate some letters, the Japanese man said "ahhhh, that would be difficult" - which meant "no".

-In Italy a man went to a wedding wearing a turtleneck shirt and a jacket. An Italian professor said: "If the man objected so much to the wedding, he should have stayed home!"

-In Saudi Arabia, the men wear the same style of clothing – but you can tell who has higher status by noting the quality of the materials used.

-In Thailand the height of your hands when you greet each other indicates who has higher status.

-In Mexico if a man wants to let a woman he’s dating know that they are just friends, he can send her yellow flowers and she’ll understand the message.


High Context Cultures (as ranked by Hall):

(most cultures are higher context than the U.S.)

  • Japan (highest)
  • China
  • Arabic
  • Greek
  • Spanish
  • Italian
  • English
  • French
  • Low Context Cultures (as ranked by Hall):
  • USA
  • Scandinavia
  • German
  • Swiss-German (lowest)


People in high context cultures can:

  •  indicate status when they greet each other
  •  insult others by dressing too casually or by having bad posture
  •  indicate personal status without speaking
  •  compliment each other without speaking

Sound Weird?


I mean, who would want to be indirect when you could be direct?

Well, guess what: All cultures have aspects of high and low context communication. For example, in the U.S. we can have high context communication within our family and with close friends.

Think about it: when you were a kid, couldn’t you tell when your Mom or Dad came home in a bad mood - even if they hadn’t said anything yet? That’s high context communication.

There’s also lots of evidence that in the U.S. many women communicate with high context communication while most men don’t. For example, ever hear of this kind of argument:

He: "What do you want me to do?"

She: "If you loved me, you’d know!"

What happened? Well, the woman had sent all these subtle, indirect messages to the man about what she wanted and he didn’t catch any of them. That’s an example of high and low context miscommunication!

Uh-oh. We’re low context and MOST of the world is high context?

Boy, are we in trouble!!!!

OK, I won’t lie. It can be tricky sometimes. The high context people will be sending you messages and you’ll miss some of them. But, if you work at it, you can learn to get the message – and how to send an equally indirect response.

How does it help to understand this concept?  The U.S. has been rated as the most individualistic culture in the world.  This means that we are not used to thinking about how our actions reflect on others.  But in many countries, people are concerned with how their behavior reflects on their family, their schools, even their country. Becoming sensitive to their concerns and behaviors will increase your acceptance in the host culture.  This means you'll have a much better experience while you are abroad.

How do you know if the culture you’re visiting is high context?

Determining if a culture is high or low context

Generally, high context cultures:

- emphasize the need to dress nicely. Improper dress can insult the hosts or the occasion. Dress should also reflect your social standing. If you’re in a hot climate and people aren’t wearing shorts, they’re high context. If teens and college students wear slacks instead of jeans, you’re in a high context culture. Are the women wearing high heels instead of comfortable sandals – even in the park? Then they’re high context!

- have indirect communication styles. Meaning can be found in many areas: symbolic gifts that indicate love, hate, friendship; a preference for saying "yes" when the answer is "no" or "I don't know." They may not say "I love you" to their marital partner but convey their love in other ways. There is often a concern with not embarrassing another person by asking direct questions. Gestures may or may not be an integral part of the communication pattern. [Note: not to confuse you but some high context cultures will be very direct on some issues and in some situations, like a boss talking to an employee - but that gets into more concepts than I can cover here.]

- have a concern with such things as posture and other nonverbal communication, not just for the sake of good posture but because it conveys respect, good training from parents, etc. For example, in some high context cultures (like Thailand) it is disrespectful for lower status people to put their hands in their pockets when talking to a higher status person.

- have greetings that indicate deference to people of higher status (as with bowing in Japan or the "wai" in Thailand).

- place a high value on fitting in with what other people say and do (dress, manners, etc.)

- are usually shame cultures so behaviors are seen as reflecting on your family, your city/village and your country. (click here to learn more)

Strategies for Success

So, what do we have so far?

Most of the countries of the world don’t stand in lines and don’t show up "on time" – but like long conversations and enjoy the moment. Most people will communicate less directly, pay more attention to how they are dressed, and are concerned with fitting in with the group.

Wow! That’s a lot to think about.

Yeah – but the good news is that no one expects you to be perfect. You are who you are, right? But think a minute: have you ever met someone from another country? Did you find yourself liking them when they were respectful and polite – or maybe not liking them when they were rude?  Even if you understand that their behavior is due to a cultural difference, it's hard to be friends with someone you think is rude or weird.

It will be the same for you. People will know you are from another country - they may even be able to tell you’re from the U.S. (we’re pretty easy to spot because of our casual clothes, loud talking, etc).

They won’t expect you to act like someone from their country – but, you’ll find it easier to make friends if you show respect for their customs and try to adapt to their ways when possible.

Turkish ice cream

(Traditional Turkish ice cream - fascinating and delicious!)

How do I adapt?

Before you leave, learn as much as you can about the culture.  Once you're there:

1. Observe: Do you notice patterns of behavior? Do people act differently around older people or people of authority? Do people put money on the counter or in the cashier's hand? Do people on the street look almost mean as they avoid direct eye contact and keep a serious expression on their face?  How close do people stand to each other?  What is considered appropriate dress? (Caution: pay attention to who you pick as role models. Remember: every culture has its share of weirdos and nerds. But how do respected people behave, speak and dress?  Also, if there are strong gender roles, you should pick people of the same sex as your role models.)

2. Listen: Do people speak in softer voices that we do in the U.S.? Maybe they speak softer in the day time – but loudly when they’re drunk! Or, maybe men speak loudly while women are quieter. Do people roar with laughter – or cover their mouths and bow their head slightly when they laugh? Do they interrupt each other in a lively conversation – or listen quietly while one person talks at length?

3. Ask questions: People appreciate it when you try to understand their culture. Explain that you are a student studying in their country and that you want to understand as much as possible. Note: if you ask a question and they start laughing, it may not mean they thought it was funny. Laughter can mean the person is nervous or embarrassed. You may have asked a question about a subject that is not discussed in their culture. Generally, however, I have found people respond well to a sincere attempt to understand their culture.