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6.4 Behavior and Communication

Our behaviors are communicated both verbally and nonverbally. Culturally intelligent leaders pay attention to both cues. Earley et al.Earley, Ang, & Tan (2006), p. 83. noted, “When we meet strangers from other cultures for the first time, their outward appearances and overt behaviors are the most immediately obvious features, not their hidden thoughts and feelings.” I experienced this when on my first trip from the United States to France.

In my mid-20s, I went to France with my family to visit my uncle on my mother’s side. As we boarded the flight and found our seats, my father and I had challenges finding an overhead space for our bags. Because we did not want to hold up the line of people who needed to pass us to get to their seats, we needed some assistance. I explained to my father in our native Hmong language that there were flight attendants who could assist us. Not too far from us, I spotted a flight attendant and said to my father, “I think he could help us.”

My father, who was distracted and gently being pushed to the side by much taller passengers making their way to their seats, could not see where the attendant was. I said, while pointing in the direction of the attendant, “Dad, he’s over there.” My father looked up and, at that same time, I looked over at the flight attendant. We made eye contact, and because the plane was bustling with passengers, rather than calling out for assistance, I signaled with my hands for him to come over to us.

The next thing I knew, the flight attendant came over. I was so ecstatic to see that he was going to help us that what he said took me by surprise. “In our country, we don’t point our fingers at other people. It’s rude.” Because his voice was loud, other passengers turned to look at what was going on. Completely embarrassed, I said, “I’m sorry. I didn’t know.” He replied curtly, “Don’t ever do this [points his finger at me] again.”

“Okay. Thanks for letting me know,” I responded with an apologetic tone. It was certainly not my intention to point directly at him, or to call him to us in that manner.

After settling in our seats with the plane on its way to France, I found myself getting emotional about the situation. He thinks I’m rude for pointing? He’s rude for not even letting me explain. Besides, I didn’t point my finger at him. I was just pointing in the direction he was standing. And, what’s his problem that he doesn’t know pointing fingers is also rude in America? Does he think I’m NOT from America?

I describe the emotions I felt as my “emotional hijack” moment, which is when the thalamus in the brain bypasses the “thinking brain” (cortex) and sends signals directly to the amygdala (emotional brain); I took out my journal and deconstructed the situation. It was my way to slow down and understand what happened; it was an opportunity to think through my thinking.

From this experience, I was reminded of the impact verbal and nonverbal communication has within intercultural interactions. And that, sometimes, the intention of your communication does not have the impact that you hoped for.


Edward HallHall (1990). found that silenceA critical communication device that plays different roles, depending on the cultural context. serves as a critical communication device and that it is viewed differently in different cultural contexts; he called these cultural contexts high-context and low-context cultures. Societies around the world fall into one or the other cultural context. Hall explained that in high-context cultures, pauses and silence reflect the thoughts of the speaker whereas, in many European countries, silence can be uncomfortable. Aida HurtadoHurtado (1996). found that women of color used silence and outspokenness as a mechanism of testing knowledge and acquiring new knowledge about social environments. She argued that women of color use silence as a strategy for obtaining and reconstructing knowledge, and the usage of outspokenness compliments silence in “knowing when to talk and just exactly what to say is especially effective if individuals are not expected to talk.”Hurtado (1996), p. 382.

As culturally intelligent leaders, we have to recognize the moments of silence and their meaning. As an educator in the United States, I often come across students in my classroom and training who are from high-context cultures. The majority of them do not speak unless specifically called out to provide a response; this differs from my students who are from low-context cultures, such as the United States, who constantly raise their hands and have something to say. The following is another example of silence and talk:

A few years ago, Dr. Osmo Wiio, a communication scholar from Finland came to the United States as a visiting professor. While riding a public bus to the campus, a woman sitting next to him struck up a conversation, intending to be friendly. “I see by your clothes that you may be a European. What country are you from?” Wiio replied curtly, trying to discourage further conversation: “Finland.” He held his newspaper so as to cover his face. But his fellow passenger stated, “Oh, how wonderful! Please tell me all about Finland.” Professor Wiio felt very angry that a complete stranger had initiated a conversation with him. In Finland, a cultural norm discourages striking up conversation with strangers in public places.Rogers & Steinfatt (1999), p. 151.

Cultural norms can also vary within a country. In some parts of the United States, a stranger attempting to initiate a conversation would be treated brusquely, while, in other parts of the country, the same stranger would be treated kindly.


Individual behaviors also differ based on a culture’s notion of self-disclosureThe degree to which individuals share personal information with others., the degree to which individuals share personal information with others. In general, collectivist and high-context cultures do not disclose much, while individualistic and low-context cultures are more self-disclosing. Take, for example, the following case study of a market research company that conducted surveys for their client, a health clinic:

ActiveSearch, a market research company in the Midwest, was contracted to conduct follow up surveys with patients of a local health clinic. The clinic wanted to improve the quality of services and care provided and especially wanted to receive feedback from their African, Southeast Asian, and Latino patients. The phone surveys were short, no more than ten questions that asked about the quality of service, reason(s) for visit, timeliness, and ability of staff to respond knowledgeably and appropriately. Phone surveyors made calls to 1000 patients who were seen by the clinic within a six month period. To the surprise of the market research company, they encountered what they perceived in the beginning as “resistance” to respond to the satisfaction survey. Results from the surveys were disappointing because less than 70 African, Latino, and Southeast Asians participated compared to 638 white patients who responded. After careful evaluation and reflection, the company realized their error. African, Latino, and Southeast Asians patients did not want to share their health concerns with the surveyors; they were suspicious of the company. Whereas, white patients were accustomed to taking satisfaction surveys and did not express concerns over how the information would be used.

ActiveSearch mistook the refusal to participate as “resistance.” The company did not realize that the African, Latino, and Southeast Asian groups they surveyed had cultural norms that spoke to keeping information within certain circles. The idea of sharing one’s health issues is considered a private family matter in these groups, and trust was a large issue as well, as they were not sure what the information would be used for. Many respondents may even have thought they would lose their insurance or health care if they gave out information. Understanding the different belief systems that underline the cultural norms of self-disclosure would have been helpful to the business.

Maintaining Relationships

In their communication behaviors, collectivist cultures emphasize the importance of maintaining relationships. They will shape messages that will not be offensive, shaming, or cause a person to lose face. To a person from an individualistic culture, however, the message may be unclear, indirect, and ambiguous. The following case study provides an example of this:

Savitha and Mary are new coworkers having worked together for the past six months. Mary feels that she would like to get to know Savitha better. She invites Savitha and other colleagues to a barbeque at her house. Savitha declines, saying, “Thank you but I have a family commitment that day.” Mary understands and says, “Of course. Hopefully we can do something another time.” Over the next year, Mary invites Savitha on several occasions to join her for coffee, dinner, or social events—sometimes with colleagues and sometimes just the two of them. Each time that Mary suggests a time to get together, Savitha responds that she is busy. Savitha says “no” because she also believes that her relationship with Mary needs to stay at a professional level, but she doesn’t tell this to Mary. Mary’s beginning to think that Savitha does not like her, and if that’s the case, why doesn’t she just come right out and say that?

In this example, Savitha is maintaining what she perceives as a harmonious relationship with her family, which Mary does not understand. From a collectivist culture, Savitha wants to ensure that the family relationship dynamics are not disturbed. Additionally, she wants to preserve the harmony of a professional relationship with Mary; rather than disrupt the flow of that relationship, she chooses to communicate this indirectly to Mary. She does not want Mary to lose face or take offense, yet the results are exactly the opposite of what Savitha expects. Mary thinks she is evasive. Both Savitha and Mary can learn about the different ways that different cultures express relationships and maintain healthy relationships. If both were aware of each other’s cultural norms, they could adapt their behaviors.

The Concept of Face

An important aspect of interpersonal relationships is the concept of faceA concept related to interpersonal relationships that refers to one’s public image in social contexts.. “Face” is seen as one’s public image in social contexts, and this concept is very important in Asian cultures that have a collectivist identity. These societies are concerned with saving face, or how they will appear to those around them. Public criticisms that can lead to a person losing face may harm the person’s identity and image, especially within their families and communities. Losing face can lead to deadly consequences, as in the following example:

In August 2007, Mattell was forced to recall over 900,000 plastic toys due to excessive amounts of lead in the paint. Later that month, Zhang Shuhong, the CEO of Lee Der Industrial in China, the manufacturer of the toys, committed suicide after China temporarily banned the company’s exports. A Chinese newspaper said that a supplier, Zhang’s best friend, sold Lee Der fake paint that was used in the toys. “The boss and the company were harmed by the paint supplier, the closest friend of our boss,” the report said. It continued that “in China it is not unusual for disgraced officials to commit suicide.”

Later that year, in September, Mattel’s Executive Vice President for Worldwide Operations, Thomas Debrowski made a public apology to the Chinese government saying, “Mattel takes full responsibility for these recalls and apologizes personally to you, the Chinese people and all of our customers who received the toys. It is important for everyone to understand that the vast majority of these products that we recalled were the result of a flaw in Mattel’s design, not through a manufacturing flaw in Chinese manufacturers.”Selko (2007). Industry Week. “CEO Of Toy Manufacturing Company Commits Suicide”. Retrieved from

As this case illustrates, this situation even led to Mattel trying to save its face with the Chinese government and its people.


TimeAn important value dimension of culture that impacts the behaviors of people. is an important value dimension of culture and, as a result, impacts the behaviors of people. As discussed in Chapter 2 "Understanding Culture", time is regarded in some cultures as punctuality, while, in others, time is more relaxed and is viewed as contributing to the building of relationships. The following case study illustrates the notion of time and the behaviors of cultures based on their interpretations of time.

Tim, a white man, manages a production department in an American private business. Many of his assembly line workers come from the Southeast Asian and Asian cultures. Whenever his employees had a problem, they would want to talk and discuss the project at length. They not only wanted to understand the problem but they wanted to keep harmony in the organization. They would come back to him several times even after the problem was resolved. For this manager, the problem had a quick solution: he provides the solution and his employees should comply. However, he doesn’t understand why his employees keep coming back to him about the issues. He’s annoyed at the amount of time it is taking to manage the process.

Tim and his employees have been raised with different notions of time. Tim thinks that time is associated with efficiency and effectiveness. To him, when an issue is discussed and a solution is provided, he believes there should be no further discussion. For his employees, the act of coming back to the problem is not to find more solutions; rather, it is to continue to develop a relationship with the manager—it is to ensure that the relationship is harmonious and in balance. For them, it is a check-in point in the relationship.

LeBaronLeBaron (2003). noted that cultural understanding of time can impact conflict management and negotiation processes. As an example, she described a negotiation process between First Nations people and the local Canadian government. She wrote,

First Nations people met with representatives from local, regional, and national governments to introduce themselves and begin their work. During this first meeting, First Nations people took time to tell the stories of their people and their relationships to the land over the past seven generations. They spoke of the spirit of the land, the kinds of things their people have traditionally done on the land and their sacred connection to it. They spoke in circular ways, weaving themes, feelings, ideas, and experiences together as they remembered seven generations into the past and projected seven generations forward.

When it was the government representatives’ chance to speak, they projected flow charts showing internal processes for decision-making and spoke in present-focused ways about their intentions for entering the negotiation process. The flow charts were linear and spare in their lack of narrative, arising from the bureaucratic culture from which the government representatives came. Two different conceptions of time: in one, time stretches, loops forward and back, past and future are both present in this time. In the other, time begins with the present moment and extends into the horizon in which the matters at hand will be decided.LeBaron (2003), pp. 7–9.

You can probably guess the result of this meeting. Both sides felt misunderstood and neither was happy with the results. Their world views, including the language used in the negotiation processes, originated from separate paradigms. Because neither of the groups understood the dimension of time and the influence of language in their behaviors, it led to decreased trust between them.