Culture Clash


Sunday, April 22, 2001

Nonverbal communication
tougher to translate
than language

The purpose of this column is to increase understanding of human behavior as it has an impact on the workplace. Special attention will be given to miscommunications caused by cultural differences. Each column will start with a short example of such confusion. Possible explanations will be offered to encourage thought about these issues.

In Japan, an American business person presents a proposal to a Japanese national concerning a potential joint venture. The American points to a paragraph that presents his thinking about marketing. The Japanese counterpart draws in his breath with a noise that sounds like "tssst" and says that this aspect of the proposal needs special attention. The American concludes that his ideas about marketing are being looked upon favorably.

The misunderstanding here is that the American business person feels the meeting has been successful but the Japanese counterpart feels he has communicated that there are major difficulties.

One reason is that the American is more likely to expect directness in communication. If the Japanese counterpart thought there was a problem, the American's expectation is that he would communicate this directly and in a forthright manner. In contrast, Japanese business people often communicate in a more indirect style. The style is gentler, less confrontational and less assertive. Phrases like "needs special attention" are meant to convey, in a gentle manner, that there are problems. The non-verbal message that sounds like "tssst" is also a sign the Japanese business person has identified difficulties. An equivalent non-verbal behavior among Americans would be raised eyebrows combined with a frown.

An indirect communication style is common throughout Asia and is looked upon favorably in Hawaii. I often advise newcomers to Hawaii to "tone down" their assertive and direct style in favor of a softer and harmony-seeking approach. I suggest that they think of a direct style as similar to two boxers trading punches and jabs. For an indirect style, a good image is two practitioners of Tai Chi facing each other and demonstrating slow and delicate arm movements.

Familiarity with an indirect style is not a guarantee of communication. Colleagues in Japan tell me, "We don't interpret indirectness correctly 100 percent of the time, even with people we have known for many years." Third parties are often called upon to clear up miscommunications. The third party knows and is trusted by the people involved and can have meetings with them to make sure that the original message has been communicated as clearly as possible.

Richard Brislin is a professor in the College of Business Administration,
University of Hawaii. He can be reached through the
College Relations Office:

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