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Communicating Across Cultures

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Pages in this series:
» List of Exercises
» #1 Interpreting X-C Incidents
» #1 Sample Observations
» #2 Silent Day
» #3 Work Interview
» #4 Culture "embodied"

Exercise 1:

What Just Happened?: Examples

Here are some situations and sample cross-cultural interaction scenarios:

What does a cross-cultural interaction look like?

You don't need to live in a multi-national setting to experience cross-cultural interactions. Here are a few every day examples:
  • Tune in to a political argument between employees from different backgrounds or who are strongly affiliated with particular political groups
  • Watch an interaction with a parent/teacher/supervisor with someone of a different generation.
  • A conversation about the different reaction that you and a friend who comes from a different background have to a TV show or political event
  • Attend a public meeting that involves several constituencies.
  • Intercultural non-interaction reflects cross-cultural issues in another way: notice ways that people cluster and subtly exclude others from joining them.
  • IF you work in a large organization, look at how tensions between functions plays out in a conversation or a meeting (civilian/military, engineering/marketing, sales/finance, management/line-workers, etc.)
  • Watch a conversation between a man and woman, where gender-based differences in life experience or upbringing seem to influence their interaction.
  • Visit a place that isn't part of your culture like an immigrant grocery or a church that's not your religion, a laundromat in another neighborhood, and record a few minutes of the interaction (verbal or not) that you had with people there.
  • Watch how the cleaning and maintenance employeess interact (or not) with staff in your organization.
  • Any communication where one person is not speaking their native language--does this affect how they communicate and how people respond to them?
  • At the non-verbal level... in a crowded public place, look at how passersby advertise or downplay their identity, and how others react to that.

First Scenario: Fast Food


Place: Drive-through fast food window
Time: Around 10 PM on a Wednesday
Who was involved? Fast food clerk, customer (me) in car.
Gender & age: Clerk was a man probably in his 30s, I am a woman, aged 29.
Relationship: Customer / service worker. Never met before.
Other relevant characteristics: The man came from Ghana. I am biracial (African-American, German)


I waited in line in my car, then ordered a cheeseburger and soft drink. The clerk spoke very softly. His right hand was on the cash register, his left at the window.

When he handed me my order, he looked away briefly, then said to me "Very sorry. In my country, Ghana, it is very rude to do this." I must have looked blank, because he then added, "handing a customer food with this hand."

I sensed that he felt bad, and I said in a bright smile, "Oh, whatever," and gave a wave of my hand. Then I drove away.


Only after I drove away did I realize that he was talking about the left hand being unclean. My mind was (frankly) on getting food and getting home quickly.

I think he was probably talking to me as another Black person about something that really made him ashamed.

At the time, I reacted in very American mode: I wanted to be friendly, to tell him that he didn't insult me, that everything was fine. And I wanted to get going.

In my culture, there's no particular stigma attached to using the left hand, so it didn't seem like a big deal to me.


It is possible that in his culture, the taboo against using the left hand is so strong that he can't put aside those feelings when he is in the U.S. even though he knows we don't care.

Does he apologize to everyone? I think he assumed that a Black American would be more sympathetic, would listen to him as a real person, would honor his African culture. Or maybe it is just a routine courtesy to apologize and he *does* apologize to customers often without thinking much about it.


  1. High context meets low context. Fast food is a very low context activity. Americans generally expect to order food, get it right away, take it away to eat it. We don’t expect conversation, a relationship with the cashier. The clerk was probably from a more high context culture where interactions with other people was more important than efficiency or speed.
  2. Assimilation of immigrants in the U.S. Probably no one at this restaurant ever thought about how serving food with the left hand would offend some of their employees or customers. Immigrants are pressed to assimilate in many subtle ways—in this case cultural control of body movements and interactions with customers.
  3. Understanding cultural differences does not necessarily mean that you can overcome your own physical and emotional reactions. The clerk still retained his own culture’s values even though he had changed contexts.
  4. Keeping your culture to yourself. Cultural differences are complicated and dangerous to talk about in the U.S. When you do, even well-meaning Americans often don't understand what you're saying.

One thing I learned is that I need to take other people's cultural perspectives more seriously, and that adapting to the ways of U.S. culture even in the little things can be harder than I realize.

Second Scenario: College Roommates

This case was written for a college class assignment.


Place: A college dorm room
Time: Around 11 PM on a Monday, in February
Who was involved? “Chip”, a sophomore from Connecticut, and “”Yoshio”, who is here for one year as a Japanese exchange student. I (Rick) am also a sophomore, also from New England, and have been friends with Chip since last year. I live in the dorm room next to Chip and Yoshio.
Relationship: Chip and Yoshio have been roommates since September
Other relevant characteristics and background: Chip is a member of the debate team. I know from previous conversations that he finds Yoshio’s quiet manner boring and sometimes irritating. Yoshio mostly hangs out with other students from Asia and is in the room much more often than Chip.


Chip and I had been talking in his room for about a half hour when Yoshio came back. He said hello and then started to study.
The phone rang, Chip didn’t answer it. He said “It is probably for you.” Yoshio began talking Japanese on the phone. His voice was much more animated than before. After about 5 minutes, Chip waved his arms and said “Hey could you take the phone in the hall? Rick and I are having a conversation here! Yoshio stopped talking right away and hung up. He said, “I’m very very sorry, I’ll try to be a better roommate.” He went back to reading his textbook.

To me the atmosphere felt very tense, but Chip just said, “Would you quit apologizing all the time? Just take the phone out in the hall next time.” To me he said later “All Yoshio does is say he’s sorry, he’s sorry, but then he goes and does whatever he wants to anyway. Really annoys me.”


It seems like Yoshio was an odd combination of noisy and quiet. Sometimes he’s very polite, sometimes he’s rude. I know it isn’t true (because he’s Japanese) but my gut reaction is that he makes apologies because he’s afraid of Chip, but he isn’t really sorry, because he turns around and does the same things again the next day. Also, I suppose Chip and I could have gone to my room to talk, but I figured we were there first, and anyway it is inconsiderate to speak a foreign language when others in the room don’t understand.


I think Chip also thinks that speaking a foreign language in front of him is rude. And I know he’s irritated by the constant apologizing. He’s a debater, he expects people to stand up for themselves, or at least to make a joke of it. He thinks Yoshio should lighten up.

Some possible interpretations from Yoshio’s point of view: I have heard that it is important in Japan for people to get along, or at least look like they’re getting along, When Chip makes a blunt request, Yoshio may think it is more serious conflict than it is.
Yoshio may think that Chip is insensitive, doesn’t take hints, that a polite person would have left the room because it is easier to go next door with me than for Yoshio to take the phone out in the hall where the reception is bad.

Also, it is difficult to speak in a foreign language all day. For him talking in Japanese is probably restful and because it makes sense to him, he forgets that Chip hears it as nonsense sounds.


This interaction is an example of cultural differences in conflict and of how important language joins and separates people.
  1. Disputes are examples of Action Chains (cultural "recipes" that have a sequence of actions leading to a particular goal.). In this case, the Actions Chains didn't match. Yoshio and Chip come from cultures that have different ways of expressing discomfort. Chip’s background is white working class, and he expresses conflict directly, immediately, verbally. Yoshio tries to be quiet or give an apology. Because they have different “scripts” about conflict, they didn’t pick up each other’s cues very well.
  2. Language is central to culture and identity. As we discussed in class, language is a core part of who you are, a boundary between groups. Both these students generally pick friends who come from their own cultural and language background. In this case you could see how language differences created friction and distance between the roommates.

What I learned: It may be difficult to “talk out a problem directly” (as I was always taught to do) when the other person comes from a culture where you don’t do that.

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