Monday, September 25, 2017


Developing a keen sense of observation is an essential part of learning to communicate in another culture. You may have heard of the “7% Rule,” an often cited –and greatly misunderstood—finding that verbal language accounts for only 7% of communication. This original study by Professor Albert Mehrabian of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in the 1970’s was widely circulated and over simplified. But at the most basic level, it reminds us that information is overwhelmingly conveyed by what we see, and less by what we hear.

As you struggle to practice communicating American-style, begin by “mirroring” the Americans around you. In other words, notice what native speakers do with their non-verbal language as much as what they say. Observe their demeanor, gestures, and expressive style.

Watching movies and TV programs without the sound can help you to tune into facial gestures, such as nodding, smiling and eye contact; body language, including posture and movement while sitting or standing; and the physical interactions between people as they listen or speak.

For business and academic purposes, watching interviews or round-table discussions among serious people is particularly useful. Doing this when you’re alone, you can mimic these movements as you watch. Additionally, talk to yourself in front of a full body mirror at home. Hold conversations with yourself, adding the gestures you’ve come to recognize and practice. Then gradually move this activity into the real world with others around you.

Even without further understanding “why” you should express yourself one way or another, you can routinely start to observe and mirror the style of those you admire and wish to emulate or impress.

As you “mirror,” you will begin to see what style is effective and appropriate for the region and culture of your particular industry or academic discipline. You will observe, for example, acceptable patterns for interrupting, confronting, disagreeing, adding substance or detail, and concluding an interchange.

Incidentally, “verbal” mirroring, done in the same way, is useful when working on your pronunciation or intonation.

Monday, September 18, 2017


Politeness is relative; what impresses people in one culture can offend in another. This is an important distinction to understand if you want to be taken seriously and viewed respectfully by your colleagues. And, it’s also important to grasp lest you think Americans are being rude to you, when nothing of the sort is intended!

People from Latin cultures, who take time to enter or conclude a conversation with deliberate words of personal politeness, may find American directness to be rudely impersonal. For example, entering the office and announcing “good morning” to your co-workers may be met with a silent nod, or even no acknowledgement at all.

East and Southeast Asians, who tend to wait to be called on before replying, may see Americans as rudely “interrupting” one another and never offering a chance for you to participate. In fact, the Americans would see their behavior as “enthusiastic” and “engaged,” while they would view you as “disinterested” or having nothing of value to contribute.
Here are some “usual norms” for Americans. As you read them, think about whether each is the case in your culture.
  • Not allowing much silence between speakers in a conversation.
  • Not waiting to be called on, but rather jumping into the conversation to express a point.
  • Speaking directly, rather than holding back your true views.
  • Expressing your disagreement, when you feel differently, rather than waiting to be asked your opinion or expressing it long afterwards.
  • Supporting another person’s comment, when you agree, rather than staying silent.
  • Explaining further if someone argues with your point of view, rather than flatly yielding to another’s opinion.
But all of these responses must be done “politely” by American standards. This may involve certain accommodating gestures or “softening” words or phrases leading to your point. It may be a challenge for non-native people to achieve this, and so must be learned and practiced.

Before adding helpful phrases and gestures to your vocabulary, begin by “mirroring” the Americans around you. More on this important technique of keen observation in our next Tip.

Monday, September 11, 2017


In physics, we learn that “nature abhors a vacuum.” In North America, we learn that Americans abhor a verbal vacuum. Americans are uncomfortable with silence and always want to keep the conversational flow going.

If your culture values silence (particularly common in East and Southeast Asia, and among younger, female or lower-level people in hierarchical cultures) –or if your unease with English keeps you from speaking needlessly—you must learn to add words or phrases around the core of what you want to say.

When there is a lapse in the conversation, Americans will feel the need to fill the void, to say something, anything! Especially in business, a smooth conversationalist will keep the talk moving. Business people may not add much content to the conversation, but they will add easy “lead-in’s” and re-phrasing to avoid an awkward pause (“well, I’m sure you’ve got a point there, but remember, as I said before, the important thing is to…”).

In academic and scientific circles, silent, thoughtful moments are more acceptable, but even there, verbal embellishments may be made. Instead of giving a one-word answer (“yes,” “no,” “okay”) you might instead stretch it out to say, “Sure, sounds reasonable,” or “No, I have to say I don’t agree completely,” or “Okay, I’ll get right on it.” When you’re not sure what to say in answer to a difficult question, instead of sitting silent you might mention the thought process that underlies the silence (“hmm, that’s a tough one. Let me give it some thought and get back to you”).

In casual conversation, it is equally important to keep the flow going. We talked in earlier Tips about how to follow a “ping-pong” or “basketball” model for maintaining a back-and-forth pattern. This is what makes you seem engaged with others and shows you are an interesting conversational partner.

And don’t forget, too, that non-verbal gestures –nodding, smiling, etc.—work along with words to embellish your statements and stretch out their effect.

Monday, September 4, 2017


For Labor Day week, let’s talk about the many attitudes about work around the world, and how Americans view this aspect of life.

Americans see themselves as hard-working. They prove this by comparing the short vacations they receive –initially often limited to two weeks a year—to the lengthy time-off their European counterparts enjoy. Yet French ex-pats will insist that yes, they may take the entire month of August for a family summer vacation, but on a given workday, they really work, staying later than the Americans and focusing their time better.

ESL teachers will notice immediately among students in an elementary English class that each country represented has its own approach to working and learning. Chinese students will speak very little, take careful notes, and concentrate on their own learning issues. Students from South America will see the classroom experience as a communal time, engaging in spontaneous discussion, taking fewer notes, and helping one another with answers to questions posed by the teacher. Europeans will mix speaking and listening, take notes but fewer than the Asians, and observe the classroom dynamics for non-verbal cues associated with the language.

Working styles will vary by culture, and there is no single best way to work. But in America, it is wise to adjust to the local approach. Here are some pointers: 
  • A serious, uncomplaining approach to work is an indication of mature professionalism and suggests you are involved and open to advancement.
  • Teamwork is admired. Team leaders and colleagues alike will see that you are a contributing member by the way you act in meetings or other group sessions.
  • Using body language to convey your involvement is important – making eye contact, nodding in agreement, “leaning in” and otherwise showing physical engagement with the group, and of course speaking up to make constructive comments.
  • Ways to NOT show team playing can include not actively participating or looking at all group members during discussion; monopolizing the conversation; or generally not participating in give-and-take as conversation-sharing unfolds.
Identify colleagues who are thriving, notice how they communicate their competence and forge relationships at work, and mirror that behavior.