Academic Cross-Cultural Differences – Communication

In academic cultures, there are substantial differences in terms of communication between students and staff members. Communication can take place in a virtual room, in a physical space or in a written way. In order to thoroughly understand communication-related cultural differences in the academic world, it is of interest to take a closer look at certain situation in class.

The first part of this blog series handled general observations of cross-cultural differences.

Develop a Keen Awareness of Style Differences

Cross-cultural misunderstandings can be avoided by learning about differences in conversational and written etiquette and by avoiding projecting our styles onto someone else’s. In order to develop a more mindful communication with culturally different people, it is of great importance to develop a keen awareness of style differences (Dreasher, 2018).

Four people sitting on their knees around a Japanese table on pillows. The table is filled with food.
Developing a keen awareness of style differences helps us to develop a more mindful communication with culturally different people. Photo: Lena Segler-Heikkilä.

Direct and Indirect Communicators

The way of how people communicate in different cultures can be examined from the perspective of directness and indirectness. Direct communicators have the tendency of disclosing their needs, intentions and wishes through spoken and written words. In a discussion that is getting nowhere, for example, a direct communicator would ask: “Can we get to the point?” Indirect communicators tend to camouflage their needs, intentions and wishes in their message. For representatives of indirect communication, preserving harmony is far more important than being totally honest. In the above-mentioned situation, an indirect communicator would e.g. express her- or himself as follows: “The next lesson starts at 10 am.” There is a hidden meaning in the message and the audience is supposed to decode the meaning of it.

High Context and Low Context Communicators

Differences in communication styles can be studied from the high context and low context perspective as well. This approach is connected to the usage of multimodal resources such as body language, context and environmental clues. High context communicators are skillful in interpreting the meaning of the message by exploring signs that are beyond the words that have been said or written. Low context communicators focus on the fact that has been expressed, “to the point” information and messages that are not ambiguous.

The Meaning of Silence

Silence communicates as much as the spoken word does. In some cultures, silence can feel very uncomfortable. It signals a possible breakdown in the communication process. Therefore, silence has to be filled with text, questions and comments. In these cultures, there is a strong need of avoiding silence in all ways. However, in certain cultures silence is perceived as a sign of respect and used as a way of reducing uncertainty by means of observation. Representatives of cultures in which silence is not understood as a negative phenomenon may ask questions about a certain behavior they observed.

The Little Words “Yes” and “No”

In some cultures, the word “no” is not in use because it has an extremely negative, impolite and too direct a meaning. The answer to a direct question has to be softened in some way, e.g. by asking back or by giving an unspecific answer. To name an example: A group of students is preparing a presentation. One of the group members asks another group member to present part X of the presentation that has been prepared together. It turns out that this student never has presented anything before and that he/she is very anxious. Instead of directly refusing to present the outcomes, the student says: “Wouldn’t Peter have the best skills?” or “Maybe, I will let you know”.

The word “yes” does not always have the meaning of “yes, I can do that” or “I agree with you”. In some cultures, it is used in order to express that someone has understood the contents of a message: “I understand what you mean”, “I got the point”.

The Learning Environment

The learning or working environment can be understood as a place to communicate as well as the level of support and feedback one gets from the colleagues and the students. The aim is to create an environment for learning that optimizes one’s ability to learn. The learning environment can be a physical place with certain technical equipment, decoration and furniture. It can also be perceived as a place of safety and inspiration and as a place that supports the inner growth of an individual. Do you feel safe in your learning environment and can you express yourself without any fear of judgement, laughter or inappropriate comments from others? Does the teacher integrate the students in the class in order to help them to express themselves? (Carroll & Ryan, 2005)

Communication in Class in Relation to Learning and Teaching Methods

The amount of group work and possibilities of reflection, encouragement and feedback, the teachers’ role (monologue or dialogue?) and the students’ role (observer or active participant?), the level, tone and style of language used by the teacher and the students can vary considerably in academic cultures. Another communication factor is included in the term multimodality, which means the whole repertoire of meaning-making resources that people use – e.g. visual, spoken, gestural, written, three-dimensional resources, depending on the domain of expression. The intention of the high context communication style is to use context and nonverbal channels in order to convey meaning or intention in the best possible way. Nonverbal channels as part of the message can be e.g. tone of voice, facial expressions, the use of silence and breaks between two sentences. In addition, social status and roles or positions can have an impact on the meaning of the message. According to Aaron and Harrison (2020), China, West Africa and Greece are examples of high context cultures, whereas e.g. Germany, the United States and the United Kingdom are low context cultures. Members of low context cultures expect intention or meaning to be delivered as explicitly as possible. In other words, straight talk, messages that are easy to decode, and the risk and responsibility of constructing a clear message is on the speaker’s side. When low context teachers and students work together with high context teachers and students, they need to learn reading between the lines in order to decode the non-verbal subtleties in the verbal message. Additionally, high context teachers and students need to remember that the other part has a straight, clear style of communication.

In order to successfully cooperate with students and teachers from different cultures, it is of great importance to reflect one’s own behaviour in comparison with the counterpart, to be open-minded and to increase personal amount of tolerance.

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Aaron & Harrison 2020. Cross-Cultural Consumer Behaviour.

Carroll, Jude & Ryan, Janette. 2005. Teaching International Students. Improving Learning for all. Abingdon, England: Routledge.

Dreasher 2018. A point of view: Communication is about More than Words.



Text: Lena Segler-Heikkilä, PhD, Principal Lecturer, Humak University of Applied Sciences, Interpreting and Linguistic Accessibility.