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Strategic Leadership Institute

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What We Learn About Cross-Cultural Communication By Staring at the Moon

22/12/2011 19:13


I regularly present seminars via *Virtual Classroom to participants all over the globe – the United States, Netherlands, France, Germany, Romania, Spain, the United Kingdom, Turkey, India, Japan, China, Singapore, Taiwan, Malaysia and Australia – to name but a few. What really strikes me each time I interact with managers from different continents, nationalities, languages and backgrounds, is how critically important effective cross-cultural communication had become in our globalized world.

For every dimension of culture (see Hofstede’s Dimensions of national Cultures) there are many challenges that could hamper effective communication. When we communicate our culture determine numerous factors including whether we make eye contact or not; the meaning of facial expressions; the meaning of gestures; whether physical contact is acceptable; the level of emotional expression; and our body language. Some cultures such as the Dutch communicate very explicitly (stating clearly and directly what is meant) while others such as the Brits typically communicate much more implicitly (meaning is implied indirectly).

While colour is often used to communicate meaning, bear in mind that colours have different symbolic meanings in different parts of the world. In China red symbolizes good luck, in India it is the colour of purity and in most of the Western world it is associated with eexcitement, danger, love, or passion. Where white indicates purity and peace in the West, it is associated with funerals in Japan.1

Different cultures also attribute different meanings to specific symbols and signs, as illustrated in the diverse interpretations of hand signs. In South Africa and most parts of the western world the good old “thumbs up” indicates agreement or that everything is well; but in Greece it can also be a very rude “up yours”! In Europe this same sign is sometimes used for the number “one”, but if you use it in a fruit market in Japan you might get more than you wanted as there it illustrates “five”. While the “okay” sign have a positive meaning for scuba divers and most people in the UK and Unites States, it is considered obscene in Iran, Spain, Greece, parts of Eastern Europe and Latin America. It could also signify “worthless” or “zero” in France.

Even more peculiar is that culture not only has an influence on our interpretation of colours and symbols, but that it even has a strong influence on our visual perception. A practical illustration of this is a study which found that when most people in North America look at the dark parts of the moon, they see the image of a man; while people in India and China see a rabbit; and Native Americans see a toad. In the Southern Hemisphere (where we see the moon from a different angle than in the northern hemisphere) Polynesians see a woman; Fijians see a rat; and Australians see a cat!

Of course on the most basic level, language is probably the first area in which cultural barriers could affect the effectiveness of our cross-cultural communication efforts. Long before the world became so culturally diverse and interactive as it is today business communication expert Mary Munter identified four language-related barriers to cross-cultural communication:3
  1. Semantic Barriers: This refer to problems such as people not knowing the meaning of a word, the fact that a word can have different meanings in the same language, and that some words simply cannot be directly translated.
  2. Connotation Barriers: A word can imply different things in different languages. An example is the Japanese word “hai” which is often translated as “yes.” However, while this might indicate agreement to an American, the Japanese connotation is closer to “yes, I’m listening,” than it is to “yes, I agree”. 4 Similarly, while “maňana” in Spanish and “bukara” in Arabic are both translated as “tomorrow” in English, their actual meaning is actually closer to “some time in future”.3
  3. Tone Barriers: In different cultures different voice tones can imply different meanings. In this way a similar tone can indicate formality or informality, politeness or rebuke, and impersonality or intimicy, all depending on the culture. 3 Also, in some cultures, people change their tone depending on where or to whom they’re speaking – to superiors at work, to friends in a social context, or to children at home. Not knowing this, and using a personal or informal tone in a formal situation can thus be perceived as rude or ill-mannered.4
  4. Perception Barriers: These barriers are are related to the fact that different cultures perceive the world in different ways. For example Eskimos have many different words for snow because they can perceive many different types of what the English language simply calls “snow,” while Hopi Indians have a different perception of time due to the fact that they don’t differentiate between past, present and future verb tenses.

Now before you become completely despondent and decide to stop speaking to anyone who doesn't know the words of your national anthem – cross cultural communication is a skill (or set of skills, to be more accurate) that can be learnt and improved. In fact, if you're serious about being effective and remaining competative in this volatile globalized economy investing in improving these skills might be one of the best strategic moves you've ever made.

* Virtual Classrooms should not be confused with webinars. A webinar usually involves a video link to a presenter speaking into the camera with a sometimes unlimited number of mostly passive participants following. Virtual Classrooms on the other hand provide full interaction between presenter and participants through Powerpoint slides, chat functions, live surveys, and breakout exercises in small groups. For more information contact the Strategic Leadership Institute: .


1. Kyrnin, Jennifer. (2011). Color Symbolism Chart by Culture. About.Com. Retrieved 7 December 2011 from

2. Miller, C. (1995). Building illusions: Culture determines what we see. Business Communication Quarterly, 59 (1), 87-90.

3. Munter, M. (1993). Cross-cultural communication for managers. Business Horizons, 36 (3), 69-78.

4. Giri, V. N. (2006). Culture and communication style. The Review of Communication, 6 (1), 124-130. 


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