Cross Cultural Communication Protocols

10Computers have protocols which enable them to speak to each other and more importantly, understand each other. This is an area that the human world could benefit from.

The words that we speak are only a small part of our communication. We have to add to that the tone of our voice, the pitch, the timbre, the volume, and even then that is only a small part of the total communication protocol that we are using every day. The larger part comes under the heading of body language which includes the way we stand, the way we smile, tension and relaxation of our body and so much more.

And just to add to the confusion different communication protocols exist in different cultures. Even two cultures that speak the same language can end up failing to understand each other because of the subtler forms of communication. I am originally from the UK but I now make my home in the USA and we were famously described as being ‘two countries separated by a common language’. Words change their meaning as they cross the pond which can result in total communication breakdown. I was recently in a tall building and suggested to a friend that we hop on a lift, all I got was a blank stare (A elevator is a lift in the UK, even if it is going down). Sometimes there are deeper meanings and some words that are cuss words in one country are pretty meaningless in another – and that is a ‘bloody’ nuisance.Man & Straight Jacket

When I first moved to America I found it quite hard to tell whether someone was joking or genuinely just not understanding what I was saying. There are little signals that a fellow Brit would give me which told me they were joking. I could not tell you what they were as they work on a subconscious level, I would just instinctively know when someone was joking because we used the same cultural protocol.

On a recent trip to view a university with my son the student guide told us about the drumming club that practiced in her house, I said ‘I bet your neighbors really love that’ (english irony), she replied ‘Yes they do’ (missing the point of my jest completely). In America those signals exist but they are subtly different, I don’t get them and I don’t always give them. In the UK we do something which helps our social interaction, we do it so much that it is almost a past time. We call it ‘taking the mickey’ sometimes referred to in a courser vernacular as ‘taking the P#$$’ (another one of those words that can be used much more freely in the USA than in the UK). The nearest American equivalent I can find is ‘yanking your chain’ but the Brits have made an art of it.

If I say something to an American in the British style of mick taking I usually get a strange look and a curt ‘excuse me’. I then have to back pedal frantically to avoid a confrontation. And if I am on the receiving end of such a comment then I am likely to miss the joke. It seems that when the boot is on the other foot and my chain is yanked I am the last to hear it flush! It’s me missing those little subconscious signals again.

I have now been living in the USA for 3 years and I think I have almost learned the language (I mean the subconscious one). I can sometimes go a whole week without having to explain away a faux pas as ‘an English thing’.

Since I started to realize the difference in cultural communication protocols I have also noticed that this has helped me understand how to be a better ‘big audience’ communicator. There is a different type of protocol that is used on the big stage, some may call it stagecraft, if you want to succeed you should learn to communicate in large group situations.

Stage one is recognizing that you may need to learn a new protocol. When I go on to speak I cannot act in the same way as I do off stage, I have to ‘perform’. Using the subtle signals that we use in personal conversation to communicate attitudes and feelings do not work so well in a larger arena. I had to learn a whole new protocol to communicate with the larger audience. You need to configure a new communication protocol that will allow you to be understood by your audience.

Stage two is being hyper aware of everything you are doing. As I learned this new protocol I have to experiment and become something bigger than myself. I have to stand two inches taller. Smile two inches wider. Learn to communicate my feelings and emotions in a bigger way, a way that can be seen and understood from the back of a large auditorium. Initially all this is done on a very conscious and deliberate level. I suddenly become very aware of every muscle in my face, of every movement. As I go through this process I ask myself if I am really communicating with the back row. I learn to express basic feelings like confusion, fun, anger, frustration, only now I use my whole body. All this learning is done through trial and error, trying something, measuring the response from the audience, then trying it again only making it bigger/smaller/different.

Stage three is internalizing the new protocol so I don’t have to think about it. Making it my own so that I can act and react without having to question weather I am doing it right.

Stage four is to go back to the beginning and learn it all again. There is always something new to learn and as professional communicators we should never stop going to school.Covent Garden - Inside

 Keith Fields

Leave a Reply