Three Common Cultural Reasons For Miscommunication Between Expatriates and Their Foreign Hosts

When actions are perceived through a cultural filter, actions which some perceive as unnatural, ignorant, or objectionable in one culture; may be perfectly normal in another. It is this type of cultural misunderstanding that creates so many misperceptions among disparate groups of peoples.

Expatriates in particular are constantly bombarded by these cultural differences. The disparities between the perceived meanings of words and actions between cultural groups become greater to the degree that the cultures historically share little in common.

Americans, Canadians, and to some extent, the British historically share many cultural commonalities, yet several centuries of unique experiences accentuate the differences as much as the commonalities. Language differences are minimal but significant. The car’s American “trunk” becomes the British “boot”. The U.S. traffic circle becomes the British “roundabout”. Numerous other differences clearly stand out when a U.S. citizen and a British subject are communicating, but in degrees of severity, these differences are minimal and are easily overcome.

The three most common areas for major miscommunication problems in Expatriate interactions with their host country’s population are: 1. Misperceptions and Stereotyping, 2. Value Differences and Miscommunication, and 3. Differences in Communication Patterns. Let’s take each in turn.

Misperceptions and Stereotyping. Misperceptions come naturally. Each cultural tradition has it own value system and behavior patterns which are adequate for them, even when different and unacceptable to other cultural traditions. Perceiving the actions of others through our own cultural filter often inhibits a successful understanding of the what the actions mean in their culture.

In an article I did in 1979 dealing with multicultural education, I used the following illustration. A Bolivian rancher offered an Indian a pair of pants to dig a hole for him. Five days later the hole was completed and the rancher, as promised, gave the Indian a pair of pants. The rancher then offered a second pair of pants if the Indian would do another task for him that only required one additional day. The Indian refused. His reasoning was that he only needed one pair of pants. The fact that he could get in one day what had previously taken him five days was insignificant to him. To him, it was foolish to spend even one day to get something he did not need.

Without being specific, I hasten to add that stereotyping of the local inhabitants can often take a nasty turn. Recently, in a Google group dealing with Panama, I saw several derogatory cultural stereotypical references to local Panamanians. Several group participants were quick to point out to the offender the error of his ways.

Value Differences and Miscommunication. The above illustration of the Bolivian rancher and the Indian is a good example also of value differences.

We generally reflect the values transmitted to us from our parents and are generally unaware of the extreme variations in cultural possibilities that exist in the world. An American teenager, accustomed to our dating method for choosing a mate, has difficulty understanding the custom in India of the parents choosing the mate. But, why not? Doesn’t a parent know much more about choosing a mate than an immature teenager? Miscommunication would normally be a direct result of an encounter of an American teenager discussing mate selection with an Indian. It is not a matter of which is right or wrong. It is because it is. Culture pattens rule.

Differences in Communication Patterns. Everyone uses verbal and nonverbal cues in their communication but everyone does not communicate in the same way. Either the content or the process may be different. These differences in many cases tend to obscure the intended message as they come into conflict with one another. We are normally not aware of the distinctiveness of our communication patterns, and the lack of awareness is apt to sooner or later create a communication conflict.

Just being aware of miscommunication factors will not necessarily stop their occurring, but at least we will understand that our way is not the only way. That is the beginning of true communication.