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Communication Between Cultures

More than language...

A Story
My friend Lin Qihui came for dinner.

When it was time for her to go, I opened the door for her. I waved goodbye.

She seemed so surprised!

Song keren zou

a custom
it has meaning (not doing it also has meaning) what gives it meaning? Culture

What is culture?
An iceberg! visible customs etiquette music literature history clothing


values attitudes feelings patterns

Example: forms of address

Calling the teacher by their first name (common in American colleges)

The reason:

reduce social distance

allow freer communication

Visible or invisible?

When should you say thankyou?

What is friendship? Are women better than men? When should gifts be given? Do old people deserve respect?

invisible invisible visible invisible


Context is the situation in which language occurs:

physical location relationship between people shared knowledge (culture, memories, etc) reason for communication gestures behaviour

High/low context

Low context communication: The message is mainly carried by the language. eg. TV, books, talking to a stranger
High context communication: The message is mainly carried by the context. eg. telling your mother how you feel

Talking to your mother

She will listen to what you say. She will consider the context:

your gestures and facial expressions your past behaviour your current situation

If the message from the context does not match the message from the language, which will she believe?

High/low context cultures

Japan China





You are going overseas to study at an American college.

Before you even leave China, you receive a lot of written information:
handbook for international students information about passports and visas how to get from the airport to the college

There is nobody to meet you at the airport.


Westerners look for, and trust, impersonal (low context) information. (books, internet, advice from officials, etc)
The Chinese student in America, with no human to help them, might feel that the situation is cold and unfriendly. The Westerner travelling to China feels uncomfortable when they hear: Youll find out all the details when you arrive!

Another example
A trade fair in Beijing
George Hall: an American businessman

Mr. Li: manager of a Chinese company

George suggested that they arrange a meeting.

Mr. Li replied in fairly good English, That would be interesting. When can we met? asked George. Ah. This week is very busy, replied Mr. Li. It sure is, said George, How about 10 oclock tomorrow? Meet you here. Tomorrow at 10 oclock? asked Mr. Li thoughtfully.

Right, said George, Ill see you then?

Hmm, yes, why dont you come by tomorrow, was the reply.

The next day at 10 oclock he went to Mr. Lis companys exhibit only to find that Mr. Li had some important business and was not able to meet with George. He called back later in the day and was told that Mr. Li was not available.


Westerners often think the best way to communicate is for everyone to speak directly.
Once all the information has been shared, a decision can be made. They pay attention to words, rather than context. But people from a high context culture often communicate indirectly.