It is common for Eastern and Western cultures to communicate differently in everyday settings.
Between these two cultures, there are different patterns in speech, languages used, articulation techniques and emotional cues expressed.
At times stereotypical Eastern societies and Western societies express themselves in conflicting ways. Sometimes this can make doing business or socialising together challenging.
When I lived in Malaysia and Singapore, I got along with many of Asian background there. When I moved back to Australia, I realised people here have different mindsets and cultural values.
There’s much to be observed and learned from Eastern vs Western communication styles. That way you can understand cultural differences and minimise miscommunication, improving cross-cultural relationships.
Here are some key differences between Eastern and Western communication styles.
1. High context vs low context
In high context cultures (a term coined by anthropologist Edward T. Hall), communication is often indirect and some things aren’t openly said. Low context cultures involves direct communication and thoughts are clearly articulated.
Eastern cultures are often high context cultures. Collectivism and ‘saving face’ is a big part of Asian cultures. Before speaking some Asians might choose their words carefully to avoid pointing out flaws, upsetting or offending others – protecting their image at the same time.
On the other hand Western cultures are low context cultures. Westerners tend to be more individualistic, say things upfront and want to succinctly get their point across.
This can explain why some Asians are stereotypically seen as quiet and submissive while Westerners loud and assertive.
At times there is hidden meaning behind words. For instance in some Asian workplaces, employees usually say ‘Yes’ to tasks they are unsure of and keep quiet, which can lead to miscommunication down the line.
Personally I like to say ‘Yes’ to any challenge, then right away ask and annoy others how to get things done – learn as I go along and get things done.
2. Speaking up
Westerners are more likely to speak up and say their mind. On the other hand, those in Asian countries are instinctively listen more.
When there are people in a team who exhibit both these traits, that can get in the way of teamwork. Some people might dominate over others, carrying the team or showing off.
A study by the University of New South Wales on a class of Singapore university students found the class was mainly silent. It also found the students feared being wrong when asking questions but ask targeted questions. Often East-Asian international students often adopt the silent-strategy to deal with the English language barrier in classes, and are eager to learn just like European students.
Again, this communicating behaviour can be attributed to ‘saving face’. In Asian cultures listening and letting others speak is a sign of respect.
As I wrote in Why are some Asians so quiet all the time, generally Asians listen to learn from others and aren’t always passive. Westerners speak up to generate discussion among everyone and therefore learn through discussing ideas.
3. Non-verbal communication
Eastern and Western cultures interpret non-verbal communication differently. Not all emotions are expressed universally across both cultures.
Maintaining eye contact means confidence and paying attention in Western cultures. In Asian cultures that is a sign of aggression and rudeness. A study on eye contact perception found Japanese cultures perceive others’ faces as angrier and more unapproachable compared to Finnish cultures.
Beckoning with hands is considered friendly in the West. Gesturing with the left hand is considered dirty and offensive in Middle Eastern cultures. Pointing is seen as rude in Malaysia.
Smiling at strangers in public is seen as friendly in Australia and the UK. In Asia, it’s strange to smile at strangers and a smile could be a cover-up for negative emotions.
Emotions are nuanced. Sometimes silence is consent, but other times silence is also not consent.
Spending part of my life in high-crime country Malaysia taught me being silent and sour-faced at strangers is for your own safety. You never know what attention you might invite being friendly with a stranger. I might be seen as impolite avoiding friendly Aussie strangers but to me safety always comes first.
Hierarchical structures in Asian workplaces are common and obeying authority is key. In China, guanxi is important for developing good business relationships within various industries.
On the other hand there is more of a flatter level-playing field in the western corporate world. Sharing ideas openly is encouraged. Friday after-work drinks with colleagues and bosses is pretty common in Australia.
An academic review of Western and Chinese leadership models found over time there is a convergence of workplace styles in both cultures. Education and efficiency is valued across both cultures.
Having worked in many different roles and sectors over the years, I find most white Australian managers and executives like planning things out – drawn out months of consulting before projects get started. Sometimes it feels things take forever to get along yet alone get done in these settings.
Working with freelance clients from Asia is mostly an opposite experience. Their approach was to pay me right away before I did any work. That was nice but it made drawing up contracts at the start and gauging workload challenging – and later having to put up with changing project priorities.
Both Eastern and Western cultures tend to regard punctuality with respect to different degrees.
Asian cultures have more of a stickler for things being on time. Showing up on time to work or an appointment is expected in Asia. In 2018 a Japanese railway company made a public apology when a train left its station 25 seconds early.
While in Germany things run on clockwork, Spain and France are more relaxed about time where deadlines are more flexible and there is time for nice wine and dine.
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Not all of us will always get along. Sometimes it can be hard to see past our cultural values and see things from another’s point of view.
Sometimes someone’s communication style might rub off you all the time, making you annoyed.
While you might not always agree with someone’s cultural values, you can respect these values and different communication styles. You can always try to listen, let others speak and genuinely ask questions. You can avoid raising your voice, attacking opinions and asserting your opinion over others.
When managing conflict arising from different communication styles, sometimes you have to agree to disagree to different approaches and opinions and walk away.
As Plato said, ‘Wise men speak because they have something to say; Fools because they have to say something.’
How you communicate leaves an impression on others. More importantly how you communicate is a reflection of yourself.
Notably being civil to each other’s views might be easier face-to-face in person compared to online interactions. Research has shown online racial discrimination is increasing and online hate is constantly being directed at Asians on social media especially during the coronavirus pandemic.
It can be easy to hide behind a screen and express opinionated thoughts anonymously. When someone gives honest criticism face-to-face, they probably are really honest.
One time I was walking in the city and a white guy randomly yelled ‘Hey chink!’ in my face. He looked young, rugged and didn’t look sorry. As he walked away looking at me, I walked away looking ahead. I didn’t see the point in confrontation.
Almost all of the time there is no point in engaging with hate speech. Sometimes even the most opinionated people just want to get on with their day. And so do you. And so do I.
When you make genuine effort to communicate with someone of a different cultural background, there’s always a chance you’ll both get along.
Have you encountered different communication styles?