You’re Having a Cross-Cultural Miscommunication

Your beef with Becky is bullshit

Diógenes Brito
Sep 25, 2019 · 5 min read

More than half of the problems I’ve ever had at work have been due to the illusion of communication having occurred when in fact it hasn’t. There is a single consistent thread: I or another person thinks they’ve understood what someone has said (and why), but the correct information wasn’t actually exchanged. Most often—under the guise of many different issues and interpersonal conflicts that look like the real problem — it is a case where one person assumes or believes they have accurately guessed another’s intent but has not.

Once I started learning about more about cross-cultural communication and how differing conversational styles lead to misinterpretations, I started to spot the it happening everywhere. I now believe that communicating across conversational styles is the main challenge for any member of an underrepresented minority at work.

Conversational Styles

Anything that is said or done must be said or done in some way, and that way constitutes style. If you sit in a chair, motionless, you are nonetheless sitting in a certain position, dressed in certain clothes, with a certain expression on your face. Thus you sit in the chair in your own style. You can no more talk without style than you can walk or sit or dress without style.
Deborah Tannen, Ph.D., Linguist

Conversational style is made up of a couple of different qualities. Some are purely the mechanical aspects of how you speak:

  • Your rate of speech
  • Your pitch and volume, and how you modulate each as you speak
  • The length of your pauses between words or phrases
  • Your emphasis and pronunciation
  • When you start talking relative to when other people stop

Other aspects of conversational style are more about the content of what you are saying, like how much you tend to exaggerate, how you incorporate metaphors and idioms, and how direct¹ you tend to be. When you are hungry and would like to eat lunch with someone, do you tell them, “gosh it’s almost lunch time,” or “are you hungry?”. Or do you say, “I‘m hungry, do you want to join me?”.

Your level of emotional expression is one of the most important aspects of your conversational style, and is expressed through the mechanics of how you speak, the content of what you say, and your body language when you say it. The way you express emotion in your conversational style is a primary driver of what others assume your intent is, and it effects what people feel in response to what you say.

Conversational Style as an Expression of Cultural Values

Conversational styles are like religions (or love languages). You probably have a preference, and whichever one you like is also probably the one you grew up with. That said, much of a person’s conversational style is due their individual prioritization of values, which come from their cultural group.

For example, men tend to prioritize independence over social involvement, compared to women who tend to care more about social involvement. That means men are more likely to say “please have that on my desk on Monday”, versus “it would be great if that’s done by Monday”. This difference in cultural value hierarchies occurs across all types of cultural groups, not just ethnic ones. Lawyers tend to have differing value priorities when compared to people working human resources, as do east-coast Americans compared to west coast Americans, or African-American versus east-Asian people. To quote an example from Dr. Tannen, on the subject of the American way of doing business:

Most Americans think it’s best to “get down to brass tacks” as soon as possible and not “waste time” in small talk (social talk)…this doesn’t work very well in business dealings with Greek, Japanese, or Arab counterparts for whom “small talk” is necessary to establish the social relationship that must provide the foundation for conducting business.²

Conversational Styles in the Workplace and Minorities

Conversational styles are not good or bad, they just are. A different style isn’t better or worse, it is just different. Unfortunately, when the majority shares a conversational style, that style becomes “good” and “right”, and any other conversational style is “bad” and “wrong”. The further your style from that of the majority, the more communication-rooted problems you’re likely to have and the less you’ll naturally fit in.

This is because your conversational style affects how you communicate, and it is the lens through which you interpret other people. For example, you may believe it is unarguable that you or someone else has been interrupted when in fact that couldn’t be further from the truth:

Perhaps you may — as I have— run into cases where you miss that someone else is angry (you expect a raised voice and instead saw a slight sigh and narrowing of the eyes), or have other people misinterpret you as more upset than you actually are. Or you might interpret “it would be great if someone did this” as “in a perfect world this would happen, but in the real world it won’t” as opposed to what they meant, which is “I want you to do this”.

You see, even white people from different cultures can talk to each other without understanding what each side really means and not realize it.

How can we avoid these miscommunication issues?

It’s an uphill battle (and perhaps wasted effort) to try and change your conversational style completely or that of others. Aside from code-switching, what you can do instead is always be aware of the possible vectors for misinterpretation and translate for people, or explicitly note the multiple possible interpretations of a communication. You can put in place processes and habits that catch any miscommunications when they occur. That means things like ending every meeting by summarizing for everyone and stating explicitly who agreed to do what by when, as well as “active listening” and “non-violent communication” techniques to restate back the facts you’ve heard and — usually more importantly — the feelings you have picked up on. Readers of “The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership” or Brene Brown books might recognize these as “fact vs. story” exercises that make interpretations explicit.

To put a fine point on it: you will misunderstand people and you will be misunderstood, so the skill to develop is how to spot and recover from these misunderstandings. Building up psychological safety within your team will allow your colleagues to be comfortable expressing their negative (possibly mis)interpretations of anything said, and building up good will in other ways gives people the emotional space to be curious about conflict instead of obstinate. Good relationship groundwork allows others to seek to understand you, and you them, rather than everyone only defending their own position.

Beneath the surface, strong relationships underly effective communication and thus effective teams. From https://www.awwwards.com/talk-slack-senior-product-designer-diogenes-brito-making-a-design-super-team.html

P.S. For more information about how cultural differences affect communication at work (and practical tips), see Erin Meyer’s Culture Map.
P.P.S. Follow me @uxdiogenes.


[1]: I think of a spectrum from 100% direct and explicit, to 100% circumlocution, only ever implying the meaning you mean to convey.

[2]: Tannen, Deborah. Thats Not What I Meant!: How Conversational Style Makes or Breaks Relationships. Harper, 2011.

[3]: Tannen, Deborah. You Just Dont Understand: Women and Men in Conversation. William Morrow, 2013.

Diógenes Brito

Written by

Senior Product Designer @SlackHQ, too school for cool.

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