Issues in Cross-Cultural Communication


If we look at communication as a process of coding and decoding of messages (see handout for more details), it is obvious that there are many points in the process where the communication can break down. In particular, successful communication depends crucially on shared culture. When you have communication between people of different cultures, even if they share a common language, things can go wrong. In particular, knowledge of a language does not automatically give you the background knowledge that native speakers assume you share.

For example, here are some excerpts from an interview on language translation with Masumi Muramatsu, considered by many to be the best simultaneous Japanese-English translators in the world. He is interviewed by A. E. Cullison, Chief of Tokyo Bureau, The Journal of Commerce.

CULLISON: There must be witty expressions, though, that don’t make it across the cultural gap.

MURAMATSU: Well, take the American saying "It won’t play in Peoria." I’ve heard it used, I know what it means. The other day in Osaka an American businessman, arguing against some Japanese proposals, said "It won’t hold in Washington, and certainly not in Peoria." He said "hold" rather than "play," but I knew exactly what he meant. I didn’t interpret it as Peoria, Illinois, though. That would simply confuse a Japanese audience. The funny thing is that another American sitting next to him burst into laughter. He was amused because he was chairman of the board of Caterpillar Inc., which is headquartered in Peoria — but the Japanese didn’t understand why he was laughing. These are cultural things that are very difficult to translate.

CULLISON: So what did you do?

MURAMATSU: I just disregarded Peoria and paraphrased it as "It won’t be accepted by the people in Washington, government people, Congressmen, and certainly not by the average citizen." So the message got through, but not the humor, and the Japanese didn’t understand why the Americans were laughing. This happens all the time. Japanese speakers use very very classical Japanese idioms in trying to be humorous, and they won’t translate literally either unless you know the historical background. For example, in English when you say "he’s met his Waterloo" you’re referring to a devastating defeat. Well, Waterloo as a place name may be familiar to learned Japanese. That may work, to some extent, but not in the reverse case — a Japanese phrase like Odawara hyojo. Some Japanese business people use the phrase, which means "the council meeting at Odawara." It refers to the pre-Tokugawa Period, when the warrior Hideyoshi was moving against the Hojo clan, centered in Odawara. After a debate of many weeks by the Hojo leaders about how best to counter the approaching enemy, they and their forces were besieged in Odawara castle itself by Hideyoshi’s troops and finally had to surrender. So any prolonged and futile negotiation is called Odawara hyojo. Every Japanese over 35 probably knows this term, but it doesn’t translate. When someone uses it the Japanese laugh and we interpreters do our best but non-Japanese may not laugh at all.

But these are the things that spice our conversation, make it interesting, so they shouldn’t be discouraged. In this case, though, I would suggest that the Japanese speaker explain what happened in Odawara those centuries ago, and then it could be made interesting. If it’s explained, we can usually interpret such an anecdote reasonably well.

CULLISON: Are there any other danger points that you can think of? For example, religion.

MURAMATSU: Religion, yes. Religious subjects, or religious jokes, anecdotes, analogies are best avoided. They may be offensive at worst, and they may be totally incomprehensive. One Australian statesman, when emphasizing the importance of Japanese-Australian economic relations, said "This can never be repeated too often," and then told a story about an 80 year-old woman who goes to her priest for confession. She goes into the confessional and tells the priest that she had sinned by having an extramarital affair when very young. The priest said: "But ma’am, you’ve confessed this to me 15 times before. Why do you do it?" And she says, "Oh, Father, it’s so sweet to remember it and repeat the story every time." This was a very difficult one. I had to interpret the story consecutively and I managed to amuse the Japanese audience, but to many Japanese who aren’t familiar with the idea of confession it’s not as funny.

CULLISON: But there are all kinds of English, as you know. I like what Churchill once said — that the British and the Americans are two peoples separated by a common language.

MURAMATSU: Yes. By the way, when you mentioned Churchill I knew what you were going to say. You see, I’m prepared. I may even remember the quote more exactly: "The United States and Britain are two great nations divided by a common language" — something like that. Young people don’t quite understand it — an aphorism about two nations divided by a common language. But it’s a good punch line!

- from


Differences in culture affect communication in other ways as well. For example, members of certain cultures are much more likely to use indirection than members of certain other cultures. The Japanese are famous for being indirect, while Americans are famous for being direct. Because Americans aren't used to the level of indirection that Japanese use, the completely misunderstand what's being said. 

In his book on traveling in Japan, Dave Barry records a conversation between his wife and a Japanese travel agent, in which his wife tries to book them a flight from one Japanese city to another. Here is his introduction to the conversation, along with the conversation and his comments on it:

The Japanese are not big on saying things directly. Another way of putting this: Compared with the Japanese, the average American displays in communication all the subtlety of Harpo hitting Zeppo with a dead chicken. The Japanese tend to communicate via nuance and euphemism, often leaving important things unsaid; whereas Americans tend to think they're being subtle when they refrain from grabbing the listener by the shirt.

This difference in approach often leads to mis-understandings between the two cultures. One of the biggest problems -- all the guidebooks warn you about this -- is that the Japanese are extremely reluctant to come right out and say "no", a word they generally regard as impolite. My wife, Beth, learned this before we even got to Japan, when she was making airplane and hotel arrangements through a Japanese travel agent. Beth, who is an extremely straight-ahead type of communicator, was having a hell of a time, because she kept having conversations like this:

BETH: . . . and then we want to take a plane from Point A to Point B.
TRAVEL AGENT: I see. You want to take a plane?
BETH: Yes.
BETH: Yes.
BETH: Yes.
BETH: Can we do that?
TRAVEL AGENT: Perhaps you would prefer to take a train.
BETH: No, we would prefer to take a plane.
TRAVEL AGENT: Ah-hah. You would prefer to take a plane?
BETH: Yes. A plane.
TRAVEL AGENT: I see. From Point A?

And so it would go, with arrangement after arrangement. Inevitably, by the time Beth got off the phone, she was a raving madwoman. "What is the PROBLEM??" she would shout, causing the dogs to crawl around on their stomachs (in case they had done something wrong). "Why can't these people COMMUNICATE???"

The answer, of course, is that the travel agent was communicating. A person familiar with the Japanese culture would recognize instantly that the agent was virtually screaming, "THERE IS NO PLANE, YOU ZITBRAIN!" To the best of my knowledge, in all the time we traveled around Japan, nobody ever told us we couldn't do anything, although it turned out that there were numerous things we couldn't do.

-- Dave Barry Does Japan, by Dave Barry


Barry goes on to provide the following helpful chart translating Japanese phrases to American English:

I see. No.
Ah. No.
Ah-hah. No.
Yes. No.
That is difficult. That is completely impossible.
That is very interesting. That is the stupidest thing I ever heard.
We will study your proposal. We will feed your proposal to a goat.


The use of indirection is part of a more general style of communication known as "high context" communication. Different cultures vary on the degree to which they use high context or low context communication. They also differ on a number of other attributes, as described here (go read the linked handout now!).

We know from reading the books by Deborah Tannen, and also from the constructivist view of communication, that multiple messages are actually inferred from any communication. For example, if you call me and invite me to dinner at your house, I get the message that you want me to show up, but I also get a message that you like me. Most communications simultaneously includes information about the status of the relationship.

One of the problems with cultural differences is that these underlying messages about the relationship are likely to be misunderstood. For example, the loud, direct style of Americans is often seen by Asians as rude and disrespectful. Yet the Americans are not trying to be rude. Similarly, the Japanese reluctance to say "no" is seen by Americans as shifty and dishonest.