Mindful intercultural verbal communication Sharing the same language does not always guarantee successful communication although speaking the language of your communication partner usually gives a positive signal of your attitude and intentions. In our time English is established as a lingua franca, a common medium of communication for speakers of different native languages. Regardless of which language is spoken and whether it is the speaker’s mother tongue, mindful verbal communication entails a number of aspects to be considered concerning both the content (what is said) and ways (how it is said) of interchange of information. Verbal and non-verbal features go hand in hand and cannot be completely separated. It is important that both of these bear the same message. In efficient communication situations communication partners interpret verbal and non-verbal hints in a way that makes it easy for them to perceive each other’s intentions correctly. The field of linguistics that studies the ways in which context contributes to meaning is called pragmatics.
The interpretation of verbal communication falls within the scope of pragmatics. In a communicative situation the hearer first decodes the verbal message, in other words tries to understand the meaning of the message (either in his/her own language or in a foreign language) in the correct way. Secondly, the hearer makes inferences on the basis of the context, which includes nonverbal cues, time and place of the communicative situation, previous interchanges, etc. (see Carston, 2002, p. 117). Therefore, verbal communication must always be seen, not in isolation, but in its context. In global communication, the challenge of getting the intended message through is bigger and more complex than in domestic situations.
There has been a lot of discussion whether speaking of cultural differences only gives an idea of stereotypes and whether we should instead focus on individual differences based on personality traits. Meyer (2014) states that understanding the importance of individual differences does not nullify the meaning of cultural differences. To be able to communicate
successfully with people from different continents and countries we need to take both cultural and individual differences into consideration (Meyer, 2014, p. 13). One of the basic divisions with consequences for communication that has been defined and discussed in cross-cultural research is that between high-context and low-context cultures. The concepts were introduced by Edward T. Hall in his book Beyond Culture in 1976. The words high and low do not refer here to the quality and valuation of culture but to the degree to which context needs to be considered in communication.
In low-context cultures
communication is explicit, which means that messages are direct, clear and straightforward and their purpose is often to influence the behaviour of other people. Communication is supposed to leave as little room for ambiguity or interpretation as possible. High-context cultures are characterised by communication that is more implicit. Messages cannot be fully understood without having background information and nonverbal cues such as tone, gestures and facial expressions.
Figure 1 shows the continuum of low-context and high-context
cultures with a number of example countries and cultures. Again, it has to be emphasised that this a simplification. As Neese (2016) points out, in low-context cultures, for example, there can be particular communication situations that are high context.
Figure 1. Examples of low-context and high-context cultures (Neese, 2016)
In mindful communication in an international context the high- and low-context spectrum has several consequences. It is important to be aware of the cultural background to avoid miscommunication and conflicts. Going straight to the point can be considered rude by communication partners that come from a high-context background. Effective communication
requires building a relationship and gaining common ground before starting to talk business. On the other hand, low-context communicators may find their high-context counterparts secretive or unreliable. They expect explicit specific information in either writing or speech.
Politeness is an important strategy in mindful intercultural communication. Depending on the cultural background, politeness can be perceived differently. Brown and Levinson’s (1987) politeness theory, which has become widely accepted, makes use of the concept of face as a central element in expressing politeness. Face is defined as the public self-image that every one of us tries to protect. Brown and Levinson propose that positive or negative face is a universal feature in human culture. Face-threatening acts are acts that damage the face of the communication partner by conflicting with his/her desires. In mindful communication the speaker can use politeness strategies to save the hearer’s positive face in situations where face-threatening acts cannot be avoided. This means, for example, that orders are formulated into questions. Instead of saying “Write this memo by tomorrow” you could say “Could you write this memo by tomorrow? Conditional and passive forms or apologetic expressions can be used not to impose on the hearer too much. Using a negative or pessimistic formulation is another way of saving the face: “I suppose, you can’t write it by tomorrow?” Sometimes the communication requires urgency: “Mind your head!” and in these situations politeness is a secondary consideration. Politeness may also mean the right choice of conversation topics. Topics that relate to politics, religion, race and sex, for example, may lead to face-threatening situations. A mindful communicator leads the conversation into safer areas. Although lowcontext communication is direct and straightforward, it does not have to be impolite. Nonverbal cues, such as the tone of voice, play an important role here in oral communication.
Humour is a delicate area of intercultural communication. First of all, jokes usually translate badly because they are in many cases based on either puns (play on words) or national themes and traditions. With increasing internationalisation, though, business encounters become more relaxed and humour can be used as an ice breaker. Lewis (1999, p. 22, 23) states that humour is used particularly in the Anglo-Saxon and Northern European countries, while Germans and Japanese find it out of place in business meetings and negotiations. Humour can be useful in melting the ice, speeding up the process and creating a relaxed atmosphere. However, what is
found funny varies a lot from culture to culture and inappropriate jokes may cause embarrassing situations. (Lewis, 1999, p. 23)
Some languages make use of a difference between informal and formal address in their use of personal pronouns and corresponding verbal forms. The choice between informal and formal address is culturally dependent and culture is reflected in language. Some cultures and languages use formal address in interpersonal communication between people who are not acquainted with each other or who represent different social or professional ranks, while informal address prevails in other cultures in similar situations. Modern English does not have this distinction, whereas in German and French formal address is predominant in working life related contexts. Many languages seem to be gradually shifting towards informal address in oral communication. Nevertheless, the choice appropriate address is essential not to sound too intrusive or disrespectful.
Irrespective of the cultural background, a basic requirement for mindful communication is clarity. Clarity of speech involves a number of things which are connected with pitch, speed, pronunciation, choice of words, sentence structure etc. Features such as slang, idioms, acronyms and dialectal expressions are best to be avoided to increase the effectiveness of communication. Pronunciation is based on the level of language proficiency of the communicator. Native speakers of a language may have an accent that is difficult to understand and they also tend to speak very fast. Slowing down and using pauses makes it easier for the hearer to follow the speakerâ€™s flow of speech. Careful articulation is essential. A fluent communicator should also let the communication partner have enough time to respond. From the hearerâ€™s point of view, it is dangerous to pretend understanding, because that will lead to awkward situations and wrong conclusions. The hearer should always be courageous enough to ask to repeat if the message was not understood. A clear sentence structure applies to both spoken and written language. Incomplete sentences often leave open questions. Striving for politeness should not lead to too complicated structures. Attention should also be paid to the choice of words. When the terms are defined precisely and vague expressions are avoided, the communication process becomes more effective. In English, it is often possible to choose between shorter common words and more sophisticated Latin-based vocabulary. For the sake of clarity, shorter and more familiar words are preferable. The required level of formality must however be taken into consideration.
Slang words may cause difficulties in intercultural communication for non-native speakers of a language and they can easily be misunderstood. The same applies to idioms, which in most cases are language-specific and cannot be directly translated. Mindful communicators do not use dialectal words or expressions either; at least these should be explained. Acronyms (words formed as an abbreviation) from the initial letters of words or phrases) may also cause communication problems and should be spelled out.
To sum up, awareness of cultural differences helps us act in a proper way in global contexts. As mindful communicators, we understand the need to accommodate our communication style in accordance with the communicative situation. As hearers or readers, we are not offended by certain styles that may sound or look peculiar or even rude if we take the cultural background of the communication partner into consideration. When we are communicating with someone with a low-context background, we need to focus on the clarity and directness of the message without ignoring the requirements of politeness. When we are communicating with a person from a high-context culture, we should be careful not to commit serious facethreatening acts but instead use a more indirect communicative policy.
BIBLIOGRAPHY Brown, P. & Levinson, S. C. (1987). Politeness: Some universals in language usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Carston, R. (2002). Thoughts and utterances: The pragmatics of explicit communication. Malden MA: Blackwell Publishing. Lewis, R. D. (1999). When cultures collide: Managing successfully across cultures. London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing. Meyer, E. (2014). The culture map: Decoding how people think, lead, and get things done across cultures. New York: Public Affairs. Neese, B. (2016, August 17). Intercultural communication: High- and low-context cultures. [blog]. Retrieved from https://online.seu.edu/high-and-low-context-cultures/.