Cultural Differences and Multicultural Audiences

Learning Objectives

  • Understand how perceptions of cultural differences impact communication.

Culture is a term used by social scientists, like anthropologists and sociologists, to encompass all facets of human experience that extend beyond our physical fact. Culture refers to the way we understand ourselves both as individuals and as members of society and includes the beliefs, values, behavior, stories, religion, rituals, material objects, and even language itself. Culture is part of the very fabric of our thought, and you cannot separate yourself from it, even as you leave home, defining yourself anew in work and achievements. Every business or organization has a culture, and within what may be considered a global culture, there are many subcultures or co-cultures. For example, consider the difference between the sales and accounting departments in a corporation. You can quickly see two distinct groups with their own symbols, vocabulary, and values. Within each group, there may also be smaller groups, and each member of each department comes from a distinct background that in itself influences behavior and interaction.

Recap: What is Culture?

This video illustrates an international conversation about culture that took place on the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs’ social media sites.

You can view the transcript for “What is Culture?” here (opens in new window).

This video, made by Canada’s HIRE IEHPs program (Health Force Integration Research and Education for Internationally Educated Health Professionals), takes a deeper dive into the definition of culture and how it is expressed in everyday life.

You can view the transcript for “IEHP Perspective_02_What is Culture?” here (opens in new window).


In everyday conversation, people rarely distinguish between the terms culture and society, but the terms have slightly different meanings, and the distinction is important to a sociologist. A society describes a group of people who share a community and a culture. By “community,” sociologists refer to a definable region—as small as a neighborhood (Brooklyn, or “the east side of town”), as large as a country (Ethiopia, the United States, or Nepal), or somewhere in between (in the United States, this might include someone who identifies with Southern or Midwestern society). To clarify, a culture represents the beliefs and practices of a group, while society represents the people who share those beliefs and practices. Neither society nor culture could exist without the other.

It is through intercultural communication that you come to create, understand, and transform culture and identity. As James Neuliep defines it, “Intercultural communication occurs whenever a minimum of two persons from different cultures or microcultures come together and exchange verbal and nonverbal signals.”[1] One reason you should study intercultural communication is to foster greater self-awareness (Martin & Nakayama, 2010). Your thought process regarding culture is often “other focused,” meaning that the culture of the other person or group is what stands out in your perception. However, the old adage “know thyself” is appropriate as you become more aware of your own culture by better understanding other cultures and perspectives. Intercultural communication can allow you to step outside of your comfortable, usual frame of reference and see your culture through a different lens.

Intercultural Communication

The American anthropologist Edward T. Hall is often cited as a pioneer in the field of intercultural communication (Chen & Starosta, 2000). Born in 1914, Hall spent much of his early adulthood in the multicultural setting of the American Southwest, where Native Americans, Spanish-speakers, and descendants of pioneers came together from diverse cultural perspectives. He then traveled the globe during World War II and later served as a U.S. State Department official. Where culture had once been viewed by anthropologists as a single, distinct way of living, Hall saw how the perspective of the individual influences interaction. By focusing on interactions rather than cultures as separate from individuals, he asked people to evaluate the many cultures they belong to or are influenced by, as well as those with whom they interacted. While his view makes the study of intercultural communication far more complex, it also brings a healthy dose of reality to the discussion. Hall is generally credited with eight contributions to the study of intercultural communication as follows:

  1. Compare cultures. Focus on the interactions versus general observations of culture.
  2. Shift to local perspective. Local level versus global perspective.
  3. You don’t have to know everything to know something. Time, space, gestures, and gender roles can be studied, even if we lack a larger understanding of the entire culture.
  4. There are rules we can learn. People create rules for themselves in each community that we can learn from, compare, and contrast.
  5. Experience counts. Personal experience has value in addition to more comprehensive studies of interaction and culture.
  6. Perspectives can differ. Descriptive linguistics serves as a model to understand cultures, and the U.S. Foreign Service adopted it as a base for training.
  7. Intercultural communication can be applied to international business. U.S. Foreign Service training yielded applications for trade and commerce and became a point of study for business majors.
  8. It integrates the disciplines. Culture and communication are intertwined and bring together many academic disciplines (Chen & Starosta, 2000; Leeds-Hurwitz, 1990; McLean, 2005).

Hall indicated that emphasis on a culture as a whole, and how it operated, might lead people to neglect individual differences. Individuals may hold beliefs or practice customs that do not follow their own cultural norm. When you resort to the mental shortcut of a stereotype, you lose these unique differences. Stereotypes can be defined as a generalization about a group of people that oversimplifies their culture (Rogers & Steinfatt, 1999).

The American psychologist Gordon Allport explored how, when, and why people formulate or use stereotypes to characterize distinct groups. When you do not have enough contact with people or their cultures to understand them well, you tend to resort to stereotypes (Allport, 1958).

As Hall notes, experience has value. If you do not know a culture, you should consider learning more about it firsthand if possible. The people you interact with may not be representative of the culture as a whole, but that is not to say that what you learn lacks validity. Quite the contrary; Hall asserts that you can, in fact, learn something without understanding everything. Given the dynamic nature of communication and culture, who is to say that your lessons will not serve you well? Consider a study abroad experience if that is an option for you, or learn from a classmate who comes from a foreign country or an unfamiliar culture. Be open to new ideas and experiences, and start investigating. Many have gone before you, and today, unlike in generations past, much of the information is accessible. Your experiences will allow you to learn about another culture and yourself and help you to avoid prejudice.

Considerations in Intercultural Communication

To address an audience whose culture is different from your own, there are several concepts to consider. These points should be researched before your speech to avoid misunderstandings. You want to make a connection with this group and should communicate with them in a way that makes sense on their terms.


The world is becoming a smaller place with many connections between various peoples on all continents. It may not be unusual to present to and work with people from a country other than your own. When you encounter an audience whose primary language is not your own, there are several considerations to make.

You should do research about the country itself. It is not hard to find out what languages are spoken and if the language you speak is prevalently spoken. If the group does not speak your language well, you can still present to them. You can do this by augmenting your speech. You can use descriptive visuals, speak slowly and provide them with a manuscript. Avoid using any gestures, unless you know what the nonverbal communication is like for that audience.

It helps to gauge how well the group speaks your language. This can be done in a couple of ways. You could ask someone who works at the company or survey the group regarding how many speak your language and to what degree. No matter what level of language acquisition it, it is important not to dumb down content. You might need to employ tools to assist you with your presentation and comprehension but do not treat the audience as though they might not understand.

Communication Styles

Every culture has its own communication style. To be successful with your presentation, it is essential to know what this style is. There are cultures that enjoy an animated speech. There are cultures who prefer a muted speech. Some want to feel you are talking directly to them and others who do not. It is up to you to figure out what works best for them.

See caption for alternative text.

President Barack Obama and Ensign Jennifer Proctor make the “shaka” sign as they pose for a photo. Proctor and President Obama both graduated from the same high school in Hawaii.

One part of a culture’s communication style is the use of nonverbal communication such as gesture, posture, physical contact, and personal space. Every culture has a system of nonverbal communication. It is easy to make a mistake and make a gesture that is lewd if you do not research the country ahead of time. Thus, everything you communicate should be carefully crafted to be respectful toward people.

For instance, having grown up in Hawaii, President Obama occasionally posed with his thumb and pinky out in a gesture known as the “shaka,” a signal of friendship or community often associated with Hawaii. As a skilled intercultural communicator, Obama would be unlikely to use this gesture in Australia, Russia, or New Zealand, where it could refer to alcohol, drug use, or even gang activity.[2]

Here is another example. When you give a presentation, you usually introduce yourself to the host, or group, when you arrive; how you do the introduction depends upon the cultural style. Maria is going to give a presentation to a group of visiting Japanese business people. Before this meeting, Maria does research into the communication styles in Japan. She learns that when meeting someone for the first time in a business setting, people bow to one another after which they exchange business cards using both hands. She also learns that the beginning of speeches in Japan often contain indirect language about the occasion. Maria uses what she has learned the day of her presentation, which results in a contract with the Japanese firm. Maria made it clear to the group that she found them important enough to learn their way of communicating and integrated what she learned into her speech. A willingness to learn about other communication styles is very important for building a connection between the speaker and the audience.


Language and communication styles are steeped in the values and attitudes of the culture. Every culture has a value system of their own that guides their everyday lives as well as how they interact with the world around them.

You might think, “why is this important?” It is important because the audience will listen to your speech through their value system. An audience cannot set aside their values. They will interpret your content based upon what they value. For example, Maria learned that Japan is a collectivist society. This taught her that her audience will most likely place great value on the cohesion of the group. Knowing this value helps Maria to shape her presentation to connect with them specifically.

It is important to know about some of these values in order to tailor your speech so that you make a connection with the listener. If you create your speech and are unsure if you are being biased or that you are overgeneralizing, ask someone who has deep knowledge about the audience to review your presentation and coach you in this area. Being sensitive to the group’s values and ways of being is one of the most important goals. This sensitivity will help you build a connection, gain attention, and maintain both. Showing that you have done your research and are being sensitive to the group is respectful and opens many doors to future endeavors.

The bottom line is that it is essential to know about the culture. Like any group, everyone is not the same. Yet, there are characteristics and mannerisms that are unique to them. Every culture has a system of nonverbal communication, behavioral patterns, and language that holds meaning to its society. All these elements together make a composite of their uniqueness. To be successful, it is important to understand what their uniqueness is.

To Watch: How to Communicate across Cultures

In this video, four graduate students from the Stanford Graduate School of Business share their perspective on intercultural or cross-cultural communication. The presenters are Funso Faweya, George Hodgin, Willem Smit, and Chengpeng Mou.

You can view the transcript for “Lost in Translation: How to Communicate Across Cultures” here (opens in new window).

What to watch for:

This video is a great example of group presentation done well. All the speakers are highly attentive to speaking within their allotted time, and they have carefully organized the topics and flow of the presentation to keep the message coherent across all four presenters. The fact that they are using one unified slide show also helps preserve consistency from speaker to speaker. By distilling their thesis to the acronym STAY L.I.T. (Listen, Inquire, Test), they ensure that their listeners will come away with memorable insights from the presentation.

Try It

  1. Neuliep, J.W.: "The Necessity of Intercultural Communication." Intercultural Communication a Contextual Approach. Sage, Thousand Oaks, California (2006): 1–42.
  2. Wikipedia contributors. "Shaka sign." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 24 Aug. 2020. Web. 6 Oct. 2020.