Joseph Lee's Perspectives
My view of the world
July 16, 2008--Cultural Differences in Communication – Surprise, there are none

                It is not uncommon for experts in communications to teach us how to navigate the world where everything is so different.  When things go wrong overseas, we blame it on cultural gaps.   Training firms spring up and down to help narrow the divide between east and west, north and south, and every which way we wish to chop up humanity.

                Let me share with you a secret.  This secret comes from someone who was born in Hong Kong (British Territory leased from China) of Chinese parents from the Shandung Province, someone who grew up in Tokyo, Japan, while attending an International School, learning English as a first language and Japanese as a second, someone who moved to the United States for college, and someone who has met with C-Level executives of global firms while advising them on matters ranging from restructuring, acquisitions, corporate governance, strategy, and IT.

                The secret is this—there is no difference in how we communicate with each other.  And the reason is simple—there is more in common amongst us as human beings than anything that can separate us.

                Is there any culture in the world where a parent does not tell a child a bed-time story?  Is there any culture where an expression of closeness is not symbolized by a touch, a hug, or a kiss, or a mere connection of the eyes?   Is there any language that does not have a swearing word?  Are there any people who do not enjoy a good laugh, love to hear a great story, be entertained by a big lie, be moved by passionate music and poetry or be immersed in a big screen movie?   When you check the web-sites of news organizations around the world, do you not find that people are always interested about the weather, their favorite sports teams, the latest astrological forecast (any prediction of fortune), disasters in other nations, and what Brangelina are up to? 

                If we had to teach a class on the differences of the people of the world, we would spend over 100 classes going over  hundreds of local customs.   If we wanted to study what we have in common, perhaps we will devote more time understanding the people, rather than their customs.   And by focusing on our commonness, we learn that the failure to communicate has less to do with the other side being different, but more to do with the fact that we’re lousy communicators even in our own language.

                By the way, for most Japanese people, the most irritating gesture an American tourist (or executive) can make is to put his/her hands together and then bow.   First, Japanese people don’t put their hands together, and second, they don’t expect Americans to bow.

                In a research piece by the University of Chicago, Professor Goldin-Meadown says that people of different cultures may describe an activity using their standard order for subject-verb-object (subject-object-verb in Spanish, for example), but that when using hand gestures, they all follow S-O-V.   In other words, there is a natural tendency to place words in this order when speech is  unavailable.

                As much as our current administration has been blamed for lowering this nation’s standing around the world, the US is undoubtedly still considered the leader in communications.  News organizations around the world are impressed with the ascension of Mr. Obama, and many credit his soaring oratory as the prime factor.  And as much as Congress has criticized the film industry for lowering the morality of America, Hollywood has probably been America’s number one ambassador.

                Just ask Mr. Kim Jong Il, America’s mortal enemy and North Korea’s beloved leader.   He LOVES Hollywood.


Joseph Lee is an author, consultant, and an Adjunct Professor at the Peter F. Drucker and Masatoshi Ito Graduate School of Management in Claremont where he teaches a second year MBA course in Management Consulting.  He shares his perspectives on the (business) world in his daily blog.  Please visit his web-site at also.

2008-07-16 07:36:05 GMT
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