Interpersonal Communication Styles
While all cultures use verbal and nonverbal communication, communication styles vary greatly. What something means in your home country could mean something entirely different in the U.S. While this may seem obvious, it’s important to keep in mind as you intern or train in the U.S. For example, in some cultures it is considered rude and intrusive to speak in very close proximity to another person. In others, it may be considered very rude or standoffish to keep one’s distance when conversing. It’s crucial to be culturally sensitive and aware of how your behavior might be interpreted, particularly if you are interested in having an international career. Anthropologists and communication experts have explored these ideas in great depth, but let’s take a look at some of the basics of intercultural communication.
Proxemics & Personal Space
American anthropologist Edward T. Hall coined the term “Proxemics” in 1963 as he studied the use of space as it relates to interpersonal communication. It can be defined as, “The interrelated observations and theories of man’s use of space as a specialized elaboration of culture” (Hall, Edward T. (1966). The Hidden Dimension. Anchor Books.) The main idea is that people from different cultures have different concepts of what constitutes one’s “personal space” and that the way we use the space around us is generally shaped by our culture.
For the most part, people in the United States, Canada, the UK, and Nordic countries have the largest personal-space requirements. Those living in South America, Europe, and Asia have far smaller standards of personal space. In general, people in the United States tend to expect more personal space. It’s helpful to try and pick up on social cues. For example, if you are speaking with someone who takes a step back, you may be too close to him or her without realizing it. Don’t take offense—it just means you have different concepts of personal space.
Population can also come into play here—those in densely populated cities are often more accustomed to having less personal space than those in lesser-populated areas. Try and be mindful of the space between you and someone else and be understanding of those who may unintentionally get too close to you, too, since their concept of personal space likely differs from yours. If you’re unsure, let the other person lead!
In the U.S. and Canada, eye contact is extremely important, as it is used to show your interest and attention to the other person. In other countries, eye contact can be considered intense or inappropriate. While it may be a practice you are not accustomed to, eye contact is an important part of respectful communication, especially when in a professional work environment. Keep this in mind as you interact with your American colleagues so you can minimize any miscommunications.
Direct vs. Indirect Communication
Direct communicators are those who get to the point quickly; the truth and conveyance of information matter more than feelings. Indirect communicators prefer to maintain harmony and imply and suggest the meaning of their words instead of saying them outright. For example, you may have already noticed that Americans state very clearly what they want or mean. In the United States, much emphasis is placed on being direct or blunt and keeping emotional distance. While in other cultures this behavior can be seen as insulting or aggressive, directness is the norm in the U.S. Additionally, Americans don’t typically leave silences in conversation and they may start talking immediately after you!
Greetings & Small Talk
Another aspect of the American style of communication is that Americans often greet each other by saying “How are you?” or “How’s it going?” as they walk by, without giving the other person a chance to respond. This can be confusing, as they are technically asking a question that does not require a response. It’s not that they don’t care how you are or are being rude—they’re just saying hello! To make things even more confusing, though, if someone stops and makes eye contact and asks you how you are, they genuinely do want an answer.
You may have also noticed people you don’t know engaging in what is called “small talk” with you. This conversation is less about the content and more about establishing a positive interaction. Common “small talk” includes chatting about the weather or something noncontroversial. It could also be about recent sports games or something that is obvious, like your surroundings. Small talk is essentially a way for strangers to minimize any awkward silences with each other and demonstrate friendly intentions. Examples of a place you might encounter small talk include riding in an elevator, waiting for or using public transporting or while on line in the grocery store.
Be careful with these! It’s always best to err on the side of caution and avoid them if you’re not sure what they might mean.
Always be mindful of how you present yourself to others as the same actions can be interpreted differently depending with whom you are communicating. It’s equally important to be sensitive to how others address you, as it may not be how they intended to come across. Before you get offended, understand that this may just be a cultural miscommunication. Don’t take certain things personally, as they may be attributed to cultural differences. Being aware of these cultural differences in communication and varying norms for one’s personal space increases cross-cultural understanding and will greatly improve your experience in the U.S.