Cultural Context in English Communication

Talking photo Cultural Context in English CommunicationThis is the second article in a series called “Improving Communication with Foreign Co-workers.”   In the original article, I talked about how we should resist the urge to reduce the challenges that are associated with communicating with foreign co-workers or employees down to simply being a linguistic deficiency on the part of the foreigner.  Communication problems can rarely be distilled down to a singular issue but rather often encompass a constellation of factors that can be a little more complex.  This communication issue is no different in that it is indeed larger and encompasses not only the foreign worker but the American personnel and  other factors as well.  One of those factors is the role that culture plays in communication.

Cultural Context

I looked up the definition of “language” on Dictionary.com and the first definition listed was; “a body of words and the systems for their use common to a people who are of the same community or nation, the same geographical area, or the same cultural tradition.”  Notice how language is tied to people belonging to the “same community or nation” or the “same cultural tradition.”  What can be inferred from this?  I think it’s clear that simply being able to coherently organize words together does not necessarily constitute effective communication.  Language is indeed a cornerstone of communication but it’s critical to understand that language is indelibly linked to the culture that it’s spoken in.  Without this knowledge of the cultural context that a language is spoken in, it’s easy for miscommunication to occur.  This even happens between two people who are speaking the same native language but come from different cultural perspectives.  For example, in Australia it might be perfectly acceptable to joke with someone by poking fun at a personal attribute like his appearance or a personality trait without it seeming offensive while in the United States, such a form of joking can largely be taken as an affront.  Understanding how to use language in its cultural context can be a critical factor in how effectively someone communicates.  If this is important even when two people speak the same language natively but come from different cultural backgrounds, imagine how critical it is when one person is speaking the language from a second language perspective and is unfamiliar with the cultural context of that language from where it is spoken.

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