Written by: Ella Muja and Kamil Wojcik
According to the Oxford dictionary, the word communication means “the successful conveying or sharing of ideas and feelings”. It influences the environment, politics, economy, and culture.
Culture is the root of communication. Therefore, every aspect of communication is determined by culture, even the choice of medium. We are all individuals, but certain sets of perceptions, ideas, and behaviors are coded within our culture subconsciously.
In her article, “How Culture Controls Communication” (2011), Carol Kinsey Goman talks about high-context and low-context cultures. In high-context cultures, the message itself is not precise, leaving room for interpretation based on the situation or body language. While low-context cultures, the message is expected to be clear and there is no need to support it with nonverbal signals. Own culture is taken for granted, because two people with same background are likely to react and respond in the same way. Stereotypes and generalizations are valid, but only to certain extend. Like split between high or low context cultures. More and more people have mixed background, and this should be remembered. Companies put efforts to develop own cultures that shake things up even more.
The importance of communication is more crucial than ever in the current globalized world. Despite the slow and gradual vanishing of strong cultural differences and easy connections because of modern media or common language, problems with communications are one of the main reasons for misunderstanding. Not being able to communicate effectively has a significant impact on our life. Not only our survival depends on it, but it’s a key to a successful and fulfilling life.
Communication sits among the top skills valued in leaders and teams working under their supervision. It should be kept in mind that besides being great at communication, it requires active listening and reading with understanding. Receiver plays crucial role in successful communication. In international business, when two people from different countries with very different cultures meet in the neutral zone for negotiations, it’s worth remembering that both are leaving their cultural and business environments. Nevertheless, the communication process is influenced by them, and it would be very beneficial before this type of negotiation acknowledges each other’s background. This type of preparation can be taken as a sign of respect, but even more importantly it speeds up to develop common ground, where the unique connection is created. Not all rules will apply in every situation, therefore each time, this type of situation will face different challenges. (Iris I. Varner) After all, communication happens on the listener’s terms.
Everyone is a winner when surrounded by good communicators. Malcolm Gladwell in, “Outliers” tells a story about an airplane pilot who in order to save a passenger’s life has to perform emergency heavy landing* right after taking off; on the airport, he never visited before. In order to do it, he needs to take care of various problems, like making sure there is no panic on board, he needs to contact his supervisor and inform him about the risks of this kind of landing and why he doesn’t dump the fuel. He needs to get in touch with the airport and make sure they are ready for his landing. He needs to assure that the ambulance is waiting right there to take the passenger. All the tasks and decisions that had to be done resulted in the pilot talking for the whole 40mins that he had to put things in order. Gladwell argues that it was all possible due pilot’s communication skills. Furthermore, assumption that being a good pilot means having significant technical skills is wrong. This example shows that in order to manage the crisis and show the skills of a good pilot, he needed to be able to talk to all kinds of people, in a persuasive, open, and honest way. The pilot communicated his way out of this crisis.
*A Heavy or hard landing occurs when an aircraft or spacecraft hit the ground with a greater vertical speed and force than in a normal landing. It can be like in this case landing with an airplane’s full tank.
An interesting approach is taken by Thomas Erikson in, “I’m surrounded by idiots” who distinguishes four main groups of people based on their personality traits. According to a behavioral expert from Sweden, it’s rarely the case that the message would be received just the way it was conceived. Therefore, one must recognize first who is the receiver and communicate accordingly. That will guarantee greater chances of success. Actually, there are similarities found in the article by Iris I. Varner mentioned before. Both argue that by creating a safe area for communication listeners will use their energy to decode the message instead of reacting to the message in an unwanted way.
Erikson divides people into:
Reds who are hard-driving, competitive leaders, and very straightforward. The focus is on the performance where minor problems are pushed aside.
Yellows who are easy to connect with, very enthusiastic, energetic, and curious. Usually not that great of listeners, but rather fun seekers.
Greens are the ones who say yes to everything and everyone, they seem to be the best team player and a rather neutral person, sometimes even passive. They are great listeners, at the same time might be seen as conflict-avert.
Blues are cold-blooded researchers, who never bring anything up unless they checked their facts. Detail orientated.
In a perfect world, teams would be balanced by an equal amount of each type to create a perfect blend. That is not the case in the business world. Furthermore, these types of personalities can be mixed which creates an additional challenge. As Eriksson outlines that only a fraction of the population show traits of one behavior type. Most people are a mix of two, in rare cases a mix of three types. According to the type, communication has to happen on different terms, these are terms set by the receiver. For example, Red likes to get straight forward feedback followed by facts. Feelings and sugarcoating is preferred to be left out. While talking with yellows it’s easy to lose the main topic even when addressing strictly, therefore it’s necessary to have an agenda, bring concrete examples, and repeat while assuring yellow actually listened. Greens need a much more gentle approach, assurance that this is not personal, and give a little bit back to them. Finally, when giving feedback to a blue person, there is a need for hard facts and readiness for push back. Blue will question and argue and use their knowledge to prove their point.
Although “I’m surrounded by idiots” is not a scientific book, it brings a few important facts about human interaction. Just from the giving feedback, all types of personalities in this way or another prefer to have communication-based on facts. It’s also worth mentioning that the author outlines that every each of the colors has different stress triggers. It is the stress when triggered during decoding the message that can significantly influence the process of communication. One’s behavior is based also on the real personality as well as on the mask we wear. Therefore, in order to create a real good base for the message to be conceived as well as received accordingly, everyone should act as they really are.
Additional complications create our body language which again differs very much between cultures.
Most people associate the term communication with spoken language, words, and linguistic expression. However, the field of communication also includes non-verbal behavior, also known as body language. More specifically, non-verbal behavior is communication that is non-linguistic, non-vocal and solely focused on one’s behavior (Burgoon, Guerrero & Manusov, 2011). This could mean facial expressions, body gestures, eye contact, or even physical appearance. Often, people don’t even realize that they are behaving a certain way because it’s a natural and cognitive reaction to what they’ve heard or seen. As basic as human behaviors may seem though, they are also complex, and there are many different types of non-verbal behaviors (citation). Some are used to voice opinions, some are used as emotional symbols or support, and some are simply reactions. A simple pat on the back or thumbs up given to a fellow colleague can represent a multitude of positive emotions. Whereas a disgusted or confused look on one’s face may imply a negative connotation. Each behavior has a different meaning, and are hardly noticed unless given a specific task to analyze and observe them.
Diving into the specific types of these behaviors, it is clear that a lot of humans share similar behaviors. This isn’t a surprise though, because the actions are natural responses to one’s surroundings. Only once the responses are linked to a social norm or conformity, does it start to become more culture specific, and perhaps learned (Bonaccio, Silvia, et al, 2016). Each type of body language has its own function, or meaning, that indicates different thoughts or feelings.
This brings attention to the first function of non-verbal behaviors, which is the displaying of personal attributes without vocalizing them (Ambady, Bernieri et al, 2000). During this function, people often make quick judgements of other’s appearances to infer their true personality. Although this may sound controversial, studies done at the University of Waterloo by Nalini Ambady, Frank Bernieri & Jennifer Richeson proved that these small judgements based off non-verbal behaviors were accurate. The specific study looked at observing these non-verbal behaviors during social situations or job interviews to infer one’s work motivation. One example given was when during an interview, a handshake being firm and brief implied that the company had welcoming and comforting employers. Whereas in a social situation, someone showing no positive emotions on the outside, such as smiling or head nodding, implied a less amicable person to work with. This work motivation study, although questionable at first, proved that small judgements of body language can say a lot about a person and their attributes.
The second function addresses the exercising of social control or creating a sense of hierarchy with non-verbal behaviors. More specifically, how different styles of body language can imply a sense of control and make people feel less capable. Although this may sound harsh, it is reality, and these types of non-verbal behaviors can be more obvious, because they can create a sense of hierarchy and in that case will be more apparent. Often this is seen at the workplace, when someone with a higher position for example is debriefing the other employees. In that situation, there is something known as the “power posture”, that is a combination of facial expressions, physical size, vocal pitch and body posture that results in the most effective way to get people’s attention and seem the most powerful in the room (Burgoon & Dunbar, 2006). Being a very active and open speaker will entrance people, and guarantee that the smiling, assuring facial expressions, and broad posture all add up to the level of power that person may hold.
This can easily be linked to the third goal of non-verbal behaviors which is the promotion of social functioning, because humans naturally follow the enthusiastic and charismatic people in the room. Delivering a speech for instance will be challenging for anyone, but trying to attract people and deliver a strong message is even harder. The best public speakers are known for their topics obviously, but even more for their body language’s ability to draw the audience in. Going back in time and looking at Martin Luther King Junior’s “I Have a Dream…” speech, his enthusiastic and active body language made his speech ten times more effective. His eye contact with the audience, hand gestures to encourage cheering or support, the fluency in his words, and of course smiling to the crowd were all contributors to that powerful landmark speech. Being able to entice people from public speaking will always be known from the speaker’s incredible choice of words, or direct communication with the audience, but combining it with the equal amount of non-verbal behavior makes it undoubtedly stronger.
The final two, and most common, purposes of non-verbal communication address the displaying of emotional expressions and creating high quality relationships (Bonaccio, Silvia, et al, 2016). The reason these are the most common is because people experience emotions every day, whether or not it is their own. Being able to express emotions openly and acting like one’s self will create a high level of trust in the communication and create that sense of vulnerability people seek in relationships. Ensuring people are honestly expressing their feelings is a key part of building compassion for others, both in an out of the workplace. Although, the behaviors and reactions to emotions are expected to be different between one’s personal lives and one’s employment. In the workplace, the body language used to express compassion and comfort are often simpler and less personal. This could be a pat on the back, a high five, or even a simple smile, just to let the other workers know that they have the support from their fellow coworkers.
The work environment is one where a professional attitude is required, and people should have professional conversations and reactions, unless stated otherwise. This professionalism is rather different than what people may then experience after work or on the weekend. These much more personal emotions can be expressed through facial expressions, hugs, crying, thumbs up, a quick kiss, or even a gentle and reassuring touch. Personal emotions are often characterized as unprofessional or inappropriate in certain situations, however they will allow for vulnerability, weakness, and openness to show, which once again is the secret behind having a high-quality relationship with someone. Understanding the different types of emotional expression, and different situations where it’s appropriate is a part of every human’s learning curve, but ensuring the understanding of one’s body language used to express them is essential for further growth.
As mentioned above, specific types of body language cannot be noticed until given the job to only focus on that type of communication. Recently, after observing a training session, small human behaviors that were never apparent earlier, began to stand out. It may have been something as simple as facing the person who has the speaking turn, or something as obvious as smiling when a joke was made. Take away the physical conversation and any observer would have been able to understand people’s feelings and reactions to the statements made, solely because body gestures speak for themselves. During the training session, the main topic was the art of thinking, and the human thought process, which was already a fascinating topic to discuss, not to mention observing it was even more captivating. One of the most important aspects of the session was the team’s ability to use silence to their advantage. After a statement with deeper meaning was said, a natural moment of silence, even as short as thirty seconds was taken for people to be able to process what was just said, and think about their own feelings in relation to the statement. The key to that was the fact that the silence was natural, and not forced. No one in the beginning said to use silence, or told someone else to remain quiet, it just happened. The ability for a team to create such natural and understanding non-verbal communication could be an art form. Body language is the unspoken language. It’s the most common communication method, but people hardly realize they use it. It wasn’t until observing that training session did it become apparent how dramatic its function truly is.
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