Cultures and communication: Understanding world cultures

Understanding world cultures

In a face-to-face communication situation, people with the same cultural backgrounds tend to interpret each other’s messages and actions accurately. Even under ideal conditions, the message the receiver decodes is certainly not identical to the message the sender sends. In the context of intercultural communication, theorists use the iceberg metaphor (Figure 1) to describe a culture and its complexity.

The metaphor is based on the characteristics of an iceberg in water. The surface culture is very visible and comprises palpable features such as economic and social conditions, language, art and appearances. The deep culture is below the water line, so it is not visible and it hides legal and political opinions, hierarchy perception, group subordination, ideas, religion, ideology, tradition, habits, assumptions, understandings, values, judgments, time, and space dimensions.

Figure 1: The iceberg model of cultures (Adapted from Gillert et al., 2000, p. 19)

Figure 1: The iceberg model of cultures (Adapted from Gillert et al., 2000, p. 19)

Theorists argue that the hidden attributes affect deeply the surface culture. The attributes vary from a culture to another, generating so-called “cultural differences”. The theorists also state that someone outside of a certain cultural context cannot perceive its hidden cultural attributes. Intercultural misunderstandings occur when people from different cultures do not understand each other accurately, as Berthoin Antal and Friedman explain (2003, p. 6): “Intercultural misunderstanding and conflict occur when people interpret and judge what they see above the waterline of another person’s iceberg, so to speak, according to the submerged part of their own iceberg, their norms, values, and assumptions”.

From face-to-face to intercultural computer-mediated communication

Interculturalists also discussed and approached cultural differences and concluded that they influence intercultural communication (ICC) considerably. Gillert et al. (2000, p.17) acknowledge the contribution of Hall and Hall (1990) to identifying five dimensions that affect ICC in a face-to-face condition, based on the contrast of the world cultures. Two of the five dimensions may apply in the context of ICC mediated by computers, namely cultural context and time perception.

The first dimension entails communication context and message meaning and describes high and low context cultures.

High and low context cultures

Low-context cultures tend to be individualistic and promote a linear and logical communication, meaning that the message is expressed clearly to avoid ambiguities. Amant (citing Hall, 2002, p. 200) agrees that within low context cultures, people communicate information unambiguously and directly, “according to their communicative norms; speakers cannot rely on the context of a situation to convey standard, implicit information to understanding what is being communicated”. People from these cultures have sequential minds, preferring to do one thing at a time and downplaying their emotions and feelings.

By contrast, high-context cultures are more traditional and collectivist. Based on the information embedded into the communication context, the message itself is not explicit, assuming that any person is supposed to perceive the message and to react appropriately, without any additional explanation or detail. The communication context enriches a message because it may “convey as much, if not more, information about the topic being discussed as do the speaker’s words” (Amant, 2002, p. 200). People from these cultures need little personal space, and they touch and hug each other, which might look embarrassing for people from low-context cultures“.

Monochronic and polychronic time

The second dimension of intercultural communication is based on the concept that time is not universal. In the world cultures there are two different patterns of time perception, namely monochronic and polychronic.

Time perception is linear within monochronic cultures, meaning that people value schedules, timetables, orderliness and promptness. In polychronic cultures time perception is circular, that is people do several things at once and tend to value past events living on in the present. It also appears that “climate has considerable effect on our attitude to time” (Van der Boon, 2002, p. 23).

Some interculturalists do not accept the five cultural dimensions of Hall and Hall entirely, as Gillert et al. point out (2000, p. 24):

Only a little is said about the why behind these cultural characteristics, about how cultures develop (are they static or dynamic), or about how individuals deal with their cultural background in intercultural situations. The usefulness in Hall & Hall’s approach is clearly in its practical consequences.

But both dimensions, namely low and high context and monochronic and polychronic time, provide a support, which allows interpreting and understanding cultural differences. When doing that, interculturalists should be aware of the risks to stereotyping members of particular cultures.


Amant K. St., (2002), “When Cultures and Computers Collide: Rethinking Computer-Mediated Communication according to International and Intercultural Communication Expectations”, in Journal of Business and Technical Communication, Vol. 16, No. 2 April 2002, pp. 196-214, Sage Publications

Berthoin Antal A. and Friedman V. (2003), Negotiating Reality as An Approach to Intercultural Competence, Discussion Paper, Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin für Sozialforschung

Gillert A. et al., (2000), Intercultural Learning T-Kit, (Editors: Silvio Martinelli & Mark Taylor), Council of Europe and European Commission, online  [accessed March 2014]

Van der Boon M., (2002), “Tempus Fugit: Why are you always late?” in XPat Journal, Vol. 5, No. 3, Sept. – Nov. 2002

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One Response to Cultures and communication: Understanding world cultures

  1. Yes “Tempus fugit” … an Australian version is “tempus fudge it” loosely translated: don’t dilly around, do something, anything, about it.

    I have experienced dance, in particular Tango, as fantastic connector amongst the most differing cultures. I have danced with many people, with whom I could not speak. A dance can create a profound connection, without words. It’s all feeling and at the end of a 3 minute dance, there is a true exchange of smiles.

    The American Indians before they would start a powwow, they would dance for a day or two, non stop. After this, there had been a bond established that made decision making a flowing process with the common good as the spirit. How could this work with the rulers of our world? I have done it, the powwow, not the ruling of the world, and it is amazing.

    Finding a way, to communicate above words, to connect with each other, before talking, and learning to apply it, could be a proactive cause to facilitate agreeable decision making in a win-win spirit.

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