In an earlier article I gave an example of how we interpret what others say differently when cultures mix, because we listen with cultural ears. In what follows I will explore the act of listening from two other perspectives, which are also important to communication — tone of voice and body language.
We react differently to what we hear, depending on how we interpret the tone of voice and body language used by the speaker. For example, an opinion or request expressed in a loud voice with many gestures can be interpreted very differently than the same opinion or request expressed quietly, with a few gestures. The cultural background of the listener plays a large role in determining whether a loud voice and animated body language will be interpreted positively or negatively. On the one hand, this could be interpreted as dynamic and enthusiastic. On the other, it could be interpreted as aggressive and authoritarian. A quiet voice can be judged as polite or weak, calm or indifferent. More importantly, how we interpret tone and body language influences to what degree we are willing to consider the other person’s opinion or respond to his or her request or offer.
We rarely ask ourselves whether we have interpreted tone and body language accurately. And yet there is no single “right” interpretation within intercultural contexts, because all of us have learned to listen with what I call cultural ears and see with cultural eyes. By that I mean that we have been culturally conditioned about what tone and body language mean. As a result we are quick to believe that our interpretation is the “right” one and that it accurately reflects what the speaker actually intended. Not being aware of this can negatively influence intercultural relationships. I will give you a few examples to demonstrate what I mean.
A French client in one of my seminars told the group about the communication problems she was having with her British manager. During the exercises dealing with tone, she became aware of something that she had never noticed before; she realized that she was more upset by the tone her manager used when commenting on her work, than by the content of what he said. She realized that to her his tone sounded inauthentic and condescending. So it was not the fact of her manager’s culturally learned tone of speaking but rather her interpretation of his tone which was contributing to her difficulties. She agreed that she had been listening with cultural ears and had been convinced that she was right about him, especially since some of her French colleagues had agreed with her. Now she understood why they all had the same interpretation.
Another French client, who was investigating potential partnerships with Japanese suppliers, realized that he did not trust a Japanese sales representative’s sincerity and competence because she expressed her opinions very quietly, with averted eyes. In this case he was interpreting her body language to mean that the salesperson was not being honest with him. In his culture he had learned that you must look someone in the eyes to demonstrate trustworthiness. He did not take into account that in the Japanese culture it is considered impolite to speak loudly or make direct eye contact with the person you are speaking to. He was listening with French cultural ears and seeing with French cultural eyes when interpreting her tone and body language as being less than honest and not sufficiently invested in the product she was representing.
The point I am making is not that other cultures are a particular way but rather that each of us brings our own cultural guidelines to listening without even being aware of them. As my clients and seminar participants discover, it is not easy to adapt to not believing your own ears and eyes. In other words, it is difficult to accept that our way of interpreting tone and body language is not reliable within an intercultural context.
The fact is that all of us, native Anglophones included, automatically bring our culturally conditioned tone and body language to speaking English. As a Canadian, I can’t copy or interpret the tone and body language of a British, American, Australian, Irish or Scottish person any better than I can copy or interpret the tone and body language of someone from a non-Anglophone culture.
So when we’re speaking English as a common language within intercultural business contexts, I suggest we all practice ignoring tone and body language. That is what I call listening with intercultural ears and seeing with intercultural eyes. I realize it’s a radical suggestion but by learning to ignore tone and body language, it frees us to focus instead on just the content of what is being expressed. That way we avoid adding layers of misinterpretation. When using a foreign language with people from other cultures, interpreting the content accurately is already enough of a communication challenge. So I encourage you to simplify your intercultural communications by focusing on the heart of the matter – the content.