communication, culture, people

How differences in culture lead to miscommunication

Did you know that in the Japanese culture they rarely use the word ‘no’? Consider what this means for businesses and organisations who are looking to communicate with Japanese people, but don’t have an understanding of this etiquette.

eSense Translations explores some of the important differences in communication between cultures and how this can affect our connections with others.


In Japan, ‘no’ is considered rude; a form of confrontation that may upset the social harmony. Japanese people will instead use other phrases that will imply this response. In hearing more subtle answers such as, ‘It could be difficult’ or ‘I will have to think about it’, recipients must read between the lines to understand what their Japanese counterpart actually means.

Japan is an example of what is considered a high-context culture. Most other Asian countries also fall into this category, as do many Arab, African and Latin American countries. These cultures tend to not be as direct in their communication and leave a lot of information unspecified and up to the recipient to interpret. Cues may be picked up from body language, context and reading between the lines of the actual words spoken.

Difficulties in communication most often occur when people from low-context cultures, such as our own in the U.K., other English speaking countries, and those countries who speak other Germanic languages, try to communicate with the people from high-context cultures. Although, the British are often known for their manners and perhaps their politeness, in communication we still tend to be more specific and direct in what we say, particularly when this information can affect important decisions. People therefore from low-context cultures may miss the subtleties in language expressed by those from a high-context culture. And equally those from a high-context culture might find our manner of expressing ourselves a bit confrontational, even aggressive.


However, we Brits do share the same values as the Japanese when it comes to expressing our emotions. Both nations were shown to be amongst the most emotionally-neutral cultures, particularly when conducting business. An emotionally-neutral response means the person keeps their emotions subdued, and acts calmly and rationally. In Britain and Japan, as well as Norway, the Netherlands and Indonesia, it is expected that emotions are kept in check in this way.

Getting angry at work, slamming a door, crying or being overly excited, for example, would be frowned upon in these cultures. In Britain, we instinctively believe that this is not acceptable behaviour.

In contrast other countries, such as France, Italy, the U.S and Singapore are more accepting of a show of emotions. In their cultures, it is acceptable to laugh out loud, talk loudly and quickly look to make connections with a person who they have just met.

Neither way is right or wrong. It is simply what people have become accustomed to. However for successful cross-cultural relationships to be formed, whether these are business or personal, people look for their reactions to be mirrored or empathised by the recipient. This is where an understanding of these differences becomes essential.


There are further differences in communication styles across cultures that can also lead to misunderstandings and affect our ability to build relationships. eSense Translations shares a few of these examples below:


Tone of voice – monotone or expressive and fluctuating

Speed and pace of speech- leaving gaps between sentences or speaking rapidly

Physical space- differences in boundaries of personal space

Group vs. individual mentality


Often the values and etiquettes we hold in our own culture are taken for granted, as they are learnt subconsciously. Being able to respond appropriately to different styles of communication can therefore be a challenge, particularly if you are unfamiliar with that culture.

When working with an interpreter to assist with communication, they should be aware of these differences and be able to act as a guide to avoid such misunderstandings. eSense Translations ensures all its interpreters are experienced and therefore have the knowledge required to make certain communication is always effective.


By Lorna Paice

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