How Culture Impacts the Way We Think and Speak

Declan Mulkeen

10 May 2016

Why is cross-cultural awareness important when speaking your (or another) language? Take English, the lingua franca of the international business world. It may be the same language across the globe used by companies, governments and international institutions – but is it understood in the same way? Discover how culture impacts the way different nationalities speak and understand English – important for anyone who works internationally.

How culture impacts the way you think and speak English – the world’s lingua franca

It is the hidden differences like the mindset, values, beliefs, attitudes, sensibilities, prejudices and preferences that also determine how we communicate

With the inexorable rise and global domination of English, are speakers across the globe speaking the same language? And are they speaking it the same way? You may learn the technical parts such as grammar and punctuation, but what about the nuances, about what words connote and not simply denote? Moreover, does your cultural identity determine the style and register in your usage of the world’s lingua franca?

It most certainly does. And therefore, for those us working in international teams where English is often the team language, an appreciation of what lies beneath the more obvious differences in cultures is vital.

However, it is the hidden differences like the mindset, values, beliefs, attitudes, sensibilities, prejudices and preferences that also determine how we communicate, whichever be the language of our choice.

Let’s look at three examples to understand the differences in the use of English between Asian speakers of English such as the Japanese or Indians and native English speakers:

1. Nouniness and Verbiness

“The candidate submitted an application for the job.” vs. “The candidate applied for the job.”

Indians and Japanese tend to use more nouns which make the language heavy and cumbersome; native users of the language, on the other hand, use more verbs which make the language more direct and dynamic, e.g:

“The candidate submitted an application for the job.” vs. “The candidate applied for the job.”
“The police conducted an investigation into the murder.” vs. “The police investigated the murder.”

Speak or write to express, not to impress

The nominalisation in the former examples, which makes the language wordy, is related to an attitude, even among many Indians who have acquired English through academic studies that using big words and complex sentences make language impressive. This results in verbosity that can also lead to confusion.

2. Use of Passive Voice

Japanese or Indians are more reserved and formal, and the impersonal or distanced nature of passive voice matches their sensibility better

Native users of English prefer the active voice whereas Asian users tend to use the passive voice more. This directly relates to how they communicate in their own language.

E.g. Native Japanese speakers who want to treat their colleagues to lunch will politely say: “Watasi ni harawasete kudasai”, which corresponds to “Allow the bill to be paid by me.” The English “Let me pay” or “I’ll pay” would sound a bit rude and abrupt. Japanese or Indians are more reserved and formal, and the impersonal or distanced nature of passive voice matches their sensibility better. The western attitude prefers brisker “who did what” style of the active voice.

3. Direct and Indirect Expressions

Japanese and Indians find it rather more difficult to say “no” directly. It can sound rude or “in your face”. They would rather imply a negative than say it out loud. This can cause misunderstandings as westerners sometimes might assume a deal is done and dusted, whereas there was never a “yes” implied.

“Kangaete mimashoo” or “Let me think about it” can often mean an “I’m sorry, no”

E.g. “Kangaete mimashoo” or “Let me think about it” can often mean an “I’m sorry, no”; a “Ah, soo desu ne” or “Ah, that is so”, depending on the intonation could mean, that is not so; or even a “Wakarimasita” or “I understand” could simply indicate understanding and not necessarily agreement.

An Indian may say “Haan ji” or “Theek hai”, which when literally translated means “yes”, rather than the more direct “No” or “I can’t” which makes them uncomfortable or embarrassed. It could sometimes even be simple face-saving. Westerners are often frustrated at this “miscommunication” and at times even question the honesty of the communicator.

Understand a culture’s impact

Our beliefs and values are reflected in our communication, we need to share more than just words when we switch languages

It’s important to have at least a “basic” understanding of the culture of the person with whom you are speaking. An Asian national would need to understand the more direct “cards on the table” style of, for instance, their American counterpart where no impoliteness is intended. Because our beliefs and values are reflected in our communication, we need to share more than just words when we switch languages; we need to share and empathise with the other’s sensibility.

Remember that while English may have established itself as the world’s lingua franca, each culture and nationality will interpret it from the perspective of their own language and thinking. It is important to bear this in mind.