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Impact of Culture on Communication

Communication is an event that occurs between two or more people as an expression of humans’ relationship. It is managed by communicators depending on their perceptions. According to Chen and Starosta (1998), perception is defined as “an active process through which the internal and external stimuli of the world are sensed and understood using a process of selection, categorization and interpretation”. This perception element depends on the cultural experiences which include beliefs, roles, values, assumptions, space orientation and behaviours. Therefore, a person’s culture or background has a strong influence on perception.
People from one race, gender or nationality tend to share similar values. These values are acquired through the process of learning and socialization and constitute some features of the person’s identity. The learning and socialization process differs from one place to another and this explains the variety of cultures and communication behaviours in the world. Culture is integral in defining people and is mainly expressed through communication (Chen and Starosta, 1998). In reference to Saudi culture, this work will examine what culture is, what it does and the barriers related to it. Theories related to culture such as the Hofstede’s cultural dimensions model and Edward Hall’s Model of Culture will be examined to analyse how culture impacts communication. The different modes of communication will also be explained to bring out the impact of culture more elaborately.
Impact of Culture on Communication
Different cultures have sets of rules that govern societal behaviour including communication. This therefore influences verbal and non-verbal as well as direct and indirect communication. The manner in which people communicate is done differently in diverse cultures and expresses different behaviours. For example, in face-to-face communication, the distance between two people talking or the aspect of looking in the eyes of the other person is interpreted differently in different cultures. In certain cultures, closeness between the people when talking and maintaining eye contact is regarded politeness and a show of respect. The Saudi culture for instance, on the other hand regards this as bad behaviour. In case of a junior talking to a senior, the straight eye contact and close distance between the two is interpreted as challenging the authority.
In non-verbal communication which includes facial expressions, gestures, seating arrangements, personal distance and sense of time, the degree of assertiveness in communication is also influenced by cultural norms and ethics. For example, in Saudi Arabia, a raised voice in a conversation with the elderly shows lack of respect or being lowly educated and is regarded as bad behaviour. In the same culture, raised voices among teenagers show an exiting conversation. Therefore, both intra-cultural and intercultural forces impact on communication.
The differences in cultures may be a source of communication problems due to the differing interpretations attached to each form or means of communication. People involved in the communication are therefore likely to suffer innocently owing to these barriers. Consequently, understanding how people relate to each other in the society is important to successful cross-cultural communication.
Communication styles are one of the fundamental aspects that signify differences in the cultures found in different parts of the world. Classes of people communicate differently between and even within cultures based on age, gender and/or economic status. Language usage is one of the elements considered when looking at communication styles; some words and phrases are used differently in different cultures and this makes communication difficult to interpret among various cultural groupings. In Saudi environment, participants in communicative events get actively involved with each other and show respect to the other party’s opinion by being attentive. If a conflict of opinion arises in the conversation, each party presents their facts with supportive evidence until they amicably reach an agreement. Nevertheless, not all conversations end in agreement but still the two parties, in respect to the cultural rules governing communication, do not engage in misconduct. According to Scollon and Wong-Scollon (1995, p38), “a speaker must find just the right way of saying something”, which leads to successful communication.
The impact of culture on communication has been described through different theories as developed by Hall (1976), and Hofstede (1980, 1983, and 1984). According to Hall (1976), the context of information determines the level of communication between parties and apparently, these information contexts differ from one culture to another. Context, according to this theory is the aura that surrounds an event. Therefore, the different cultures are compared on a scale from high to low context. When a person already has most of the information and little is in the coded, then it is a high context communication. However, when much of the information is in the explicit code, it is a low context communication.
The way people communicate in a high context culture is different from a low context culture communication style. For example, Saudi is classified as a high context culture because it has extensive information networks among family, friends and colleagues, and they are involved in close personal relationships. No background information is required in this kind of context as people already have information about the people they relate with. People who live in low context countries such as the United States classify their personal relationships, therefore, each time of communication background information is required (Hall, 1976).
One of the most significant differences in communication between low-context and high-context cultures is verbal expression. Hall (1976) states that, people from low context culture tend to be direct in their speech, while people from high context culture tend to be indirect. In most linguistic countries or societies the kind of indirect communication used includes use of metaphor, irony, insinuations, innuendos and irony. The indirect communication styles are more universally used but the degree to which they are used differs across cultures as each culture elaborates it differently. Some value indirect style while others value direct talk. Direct talk is perceived as authoritarian and exclusionary across a majority of cultures while indirect talk is seen as accommodating and sensitive to individual preferences. These different perceptions however, still vary in some cultures.
Saudi Arabian culture is among those which people use the indirect verbal expression style. For instance, Saudi people believe that there is no need to elaborate on everything. For example, if someone wants to have a picnic with friends, he or she would address them in “the weather is nice today”, instead of saying “would you like to join me for a picnic”. Saudi people often make an assumption that a receiver may refuse their desire, which may lead to a negative impact on the relationship.
Within one context, a shift in the level of communication may occur. According to Hall (1976), if the shift is up the scale, it may indicate a warming of the relationship or it could signal that something is wrong with a relationship. For example in the working environment, a manager can communicate annoyance to the employee when he shifts from the high-context to the low context. In Saudi Arabia, this indicates that the manager is telling the employee that he has stepped out of line and his behaviour is unacceptable. However, this may be interpreted differently when the situation happens in a different country.
Hofstede’s cultural dimensions model gives several dimensions through which culture and communication interrelate. The first dimension as described by Hofstede is Power/ distance (PD) which refers to the degree of inequality that exists between people with and those without power (Chen and Starosta, 1998). In a low PD society, people value themselves equally while in a high PD society some people have more powers than others. This inequality influences the kind of communication to be used. For example, a country with high PD like Saudi Arabia it is difficult for a powerless person to communicate with a person considered powerful. However, in low PD society people at all levels communicate freely. According to Hofstede (as cited in Chen and Starosta, 1998) the extent to which a culture tolerates a large power distance influences the perceived appropriateness of particular communication strategies.
The dimension of individualism/ collectivism differentiates cultures. This dimension tries to bring out how culture influences social relationships and individuals. Hofstede defines individualism as “emotional independence of individual persons from groups, organizations or other collectivities” (Yum, 1994). Therefore, people from different groups will automatically behave differently also in the way they communicate to each other. Some cultures value individualism while others value social relationships. Saudi Arabia values social relationships and how to maintain them, while North Americans value individualism. In those cultures that value individualism, communication is seen as an individualistic aspect. Any person engaging in communication is considered to be a separate individual engaging in communicative activities with the aim of maximizing his or her own interest (Yum, 1994).
The cultural dimension of masculinity (MAS) is the third dimension according to Hofstede. It refers to how much a community sticks with and values the traditional roles of men and women. In high MAS society like Japan men are considered tougher than women, and in low MAS like in Sweden, men and women work equally together. This affects communication between men and women and how they relate to each other. The way Japanese women communicate to their men is different from how the Swedish women communicate with their men. There is free communication and openness in low MAS unlike in high MAS where the women need to be polite to their men when communicating to them and there is no close relationship (Chen and Starosta, 1998). According to the scores compiled by Professor Geert Hofstede with regards to the dimension of MAS, Saudi Arabia got 52 degrees which means Saudi culture falls in the middle between feminism and masculinism (“Geert Hofstede”, n.d.).
Hofstede’s Uncertainty/ Avoidance Index (UAI) dimension refers to the degree of uncertainty people in a society feel when facing uncertain or unknown situations. This dimension shows that some cultures value detailed information and others prefer brief ones. In UAI scoring, a culture such as expressed by Belgium people avoids ambiguous situations and they use rule, orders or seek collective truth to get clear information.
According to Professor Geert Hofstede (n. d.), Saudi Arabian society tends to be in high UAI. In other words, Saudi people tend to avoid uncertainty and ambiguous situations as they believe that developing trust between people is the first step to build a successful relationship. Consequently, they try to avoid mysterious persons and won’t tolerate them.
The last dimension is termed Long Term Orientation (LTO) which refers to how much a nation values long standing rather than short term traditions and values. Countries such as United Kingdom do not value traditions highly and therefore, the people are always willing to help each other execute innovative plans as long as they get to participate fully (Yum, 1994). However, Saudi culture tends to use long term orientations and people try to develop relationships within their society. For example, when friends meet in a restaurant for a meal, every one tries to pay a bill for the others to show them that he or she reveres them in order to develop a friendship.
From the above discussed theories and examples the impact of culture on communication has been vividly brought to the fore particularly with reference to Saudi culture. The Hall culture model and Hofstede five dimension models have been used to show how different cultures across the world determine how people communicate. The different communication styles have also been explained as well as how culture influences them. It is evidently clear that culture greatly influences communication.

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