Misunderstandings in cross-cultural communication

“Mine is the biggest and they are two babies”

 As I promised in my recent blog; considering the topics I am staying in the area of sociological or intercultural issues as this is a topic which interests me quite a lot so I enjoy writing about it.

This time I decided to connect my topic also with business. So I came to write about cross-cultural communication. As we are on our preparation for jobs in international companies, it is good to know some basics of this field, because if we want to have successful negotiations we need to be successful in communicating to our business partners. In this case it is not only necessary to be able to write and understand the language but also to be aware of other components of culturally different communications styles. If you make mistakes your conversation partner may understand you but it may damage the international relationship or the negotiation, especially in areas which are culturally sensitive.

In this case I have heard about a rather funny misunderstanding. A family travelled to Italy and they were at a Museum and they were just buying their tickets. The man wanted to order tickets for one adult and two children. He did it but then the women who sold the tickets was breaking out with laughter. Later she informed him that what he said meant: “Mine is the biggest and they are two babies!” Today he can laugh about it.

“A broad variety of languages”

 So as you see the use of language makes the difference. When we take a look on our surroundings, all in all there are around 3000 languages with many dialects all over the world. This seems quite a lot to me when I think about it; there are so many languages which I would not understand. But nevertheless there is also a hypothesis on this issue. It is called the Whorf hypothesis and it is a theory that language determines the nature of culture. Many people also consider linguistic groups as the same as cultural groups.

“They are in love because she is even pregnant now”

If we take a look at languages in the field of cross-cultural communication we have to make differences between low context and high context languages. The term low context language refers to a language whose speakers express things directly or explicitly, examples of this are German, Swiss or Scandinavian languages. This could be the reason that some foreign nationalities consider us as rude or rough people, because we, or at least many of us, are used to expressing our opinion directly.

Speakers of a high context language, the opposite, usually say things indirectly or implicitly. Examples of this are Japanese or Arabic. When I though about this I had to think about Bollywood movies were things are expressed very indirectly or they are even expressed in songs or dances. For example, if a man loves a woman or is interested in her, he does not just go to the women and tells her about it; instead it is done in various formal steps which include for example talking to his own parents and then asking the parents of the wife etcetera. A friend of mine who is Indian showed me a video of a marriage of relatives. I was quite shocked when I saw it, because in some parts of the ceremony (which was quite long) the women was forced to look extremely sad and at first I thought “hmm, that is because she does not want to marry this man”. But when I told this to my friend he disagreed.

Then I later asked: “But, how long have they known each other before the marriage?”

He responded: “They have met each other twice.”

And then I feld confirmed in my first thought and said: “But this can’t be love.”

He said

It is love. Look, because now she is pregnant.

Anyhow this was not enough prove for their “love” for me but I stopped to go further in this discussion, because I remembered myself that this might be a issue of personal values and my values are obviously different to his values. But later I found one reason which was responsible for the sad face of the women is that it is traditional for them to look this way because they are leaving the house of the parents so it would be regarded with disapproval if they would smile or even laugh. If I would write all the details it would take too long, if you want to get some more information about Indian weddings take a look at the page here:


Nevertheless this should give you an impression of the two kinds of languages.

They are of course not the only thing which can lead to misunderstandings, for the field of non-verbal communication also counts a lot.

Kinesics is one aspect of this which is the communication through body movements. Gestures are also seen in different ways. For example for us it is positive if we show our thumb upward to somebody because it means “great” or “first” etcetera. But in other cultures this is rather rude because it is a sexual gesture. Another aspect is the use of space which is referred to as Proxemics.

I think the forms of greetings may be an indicator about the attitudes towards personal space. Because as I told in a recent blog, some in some cultures it is usual to bend each other which is without body contact and in others it is usual to give a handshake or to give kisses on the cheeks which is a rather close way of greeting.


7 responses to “Misunderstandings in cross-cultural communication

  1. A really nice post, Johanna!
    Your entries are always a pleasure to read as you can really sense that you’re truly interested in what you are writing about. Also, you illustrated your points nicely with personal anecdotes. Well done.

  2. Hey Johanna!
    Very entertaining and well-written post. I enjoyed reading it and consider the topic very well-chosen, because as you already said it will be important for all of us to communicate in the right way, today and of course later, too. It was nice that you included some personal anecdotes, this made the entire topic more comprehensible and in the end made it very impressive. However, I already have read a few articles about this topic and maybe you could have divided your article into language and gestures, which you already tried but maybe you could have inserted some pictures of different gestures and their meanings. However, these are only things which would interest me personally. Besides that: Go on like this!

  3. Hey dusty Jana! 😉
    Thank you very much for this smooth read, it was easy to digest and very interesting for me!
    I personally consider it as very appropriate to avoid a high-flown style of writing because this is a blog post rather than an academic publication. So thumbs up for that!
    I assume that you are very much into sociology and different cultures, so I would very much encourage you to stay in this field – this would diversify your blog a lot!
    Perhaps you could ask a few questions to your readers at the end of each blog post in order to foster communication and the exchange of ideas and thoughts…but I’m sure that you’re on the right track!
    Keep up the good work, Ms. Dust! 😉


  4. Hey Johanna!
    I really enjoy your blog posts about communication. Last time I already read your articles about “greeting” and “prejudices”. Therefore, I have to admit that this blog post is also very interesting, especially for me as a student who wants to go abroad next year. Although I do not plan to spend one year in India, I was impressed by the cultural difference with regards to how to celebrate a wedding. I cannot imagine to marry a guy I have met just two times before! And it is also illogical, if the friend of the husband says “It is love. Look, because now she is pregnant.” Somehow strange!
    Besides your personal examples of your life, I also really like your funny visuals. However, it would be nice if you include some more pictures and videos in your next blog post!
    Well done! 🙂

  5. Hey Johanna,
    It´s really nice that you found a topic of your interest – and it is great to see that you setup on your recent post! Plus you are just right as it is indeed a really important topic for use later on in business. That´s why I liked that you wrote about cross-cultural communication refered to bussiness issues.
    Altogh I have to say that I wished you would have digged a little deeper into the business content.
    I enjoyed to read your examples of misunderstanding in cross cultural communication.
    That you include the “Whorf hypothesis” shows that you did some researches on your blogpost and not just told us what you personally think about it, which is really good. In fact you just found the right mixture of stating your own opinion, giving examples and writing about the background of this whole matter.
    Furthermore I loved that you not only concentrated on the language difficulties (respectively the direct translation of a sentences in one language to the other) in cross-cultural- communication but also on the expression of feelings in different countries.
    Thus I experienced that gestures, mimics and the behaviour in general is even more important if you don´t know the language of a country you are travelling in. Given that in this case gestures are the only way to communicate.
    It is great that you stated your own opinion in the end and again refered to your last post – that kind of push´s me to read it as well. 😉

  6. Pingback: The overcoming of culture barriers within Global teamwork | BLOG OR DIE TRYIN'·

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