Mixed media sculpture by California artist Keiko Nelson – Inner Landscape – which symbolizes the Japanese kimono tradition in fusion with the West

Mixed media sculpture by California artist Keiko Nelson – Inner Landscape – which symbolizes the Japanese kimono tradition in fusion with the West.

Cultural Communication Codes:  Bridges to Understanding Asian Culture

By Julia So
November 2009

Do you recall the first time you stepped into a business reception at one of the major hotels in your area and found yourself amidst a sea of Asian faces?  If so, you may have also noticed a multitude of conversations in some incomprehensible languages – Cantonese Chinese, Gujarati, Hindi, Korean, Malay, Mandarin Chinese, Tagalog, Thai, Vietnamese, and perhaps others.

If you have been put off when people in your presence speak a language other than English, you are not alone.  As a Chinese American that speaks a fair amount of Spanish, Japanese and three Chinese dialects, I still am linguistically challenged and unable to participate in all of the conversations likely to occur at a reception of Asian American professionals.  Generally, there is not much more I can do except smile and say, ”I wish I could understand what you are saying.”  Not surprisingly, this comment often overcomes the awkwardness and the conversation soon resumes in English.

But do these professionals speak English? You may wonder.  Of course they do.  Otherwise, it would be impossible for these successful business people to survive or even thrive in the United States.  If they speak in their native language, their intention is not to offend you. They may do so to reaffirm their ethnic identity or simply because it is more convenient.  Some of them, particularly the recently arrived immigrants, may not even be aware that conversing in a language other than English in the presence of an English-only speaker is often considered impolite in the United States.

As our nation becomes more linguistically diverse, our knowledge of the cultural communication codes of others can help us increase mutual understanding.  In body language, for example, simple common courtesies such as an Asian’s “limpy” handshake can trigger negative reactions in this country.

Before you equate a “limpy” handshake to a “weak” personality trait and thus avoid doing business with the individual, have you thought of how the other person may view you because of your firm handshake?  He or she may be reading you as aggressive and offensive, and conclude for a different set of reasons that you would not make a good business partner.

It is also important to acknowledge the diversity within Asian culture when it comes to cultural understanding.  Not all Asians or Asian Americans shake hands when greeting others.  Generally speaking, the Chinese nod at each other, the Thai and Cambodians put their hands together in front of their chest and nod at the same time, and the Japanese and Koreans bow.  In fact, the degree of a bow in Japan depicts one’s social position in that particular situation.  A 15-degree bow is for a friend or a customer, while a 30-degree bow is given to a supervisor or an elder in the family.  A 45-degree bow is reserved for special occasions such as delivering a formal apology or greeting a government official.

Another example of body language is the degree of eye contact when conversing.  People from certain cultures may misconstrue lack of eye contact as impolite.  In the United States, we perceive someone who does not look you in the eye as discourteous or perhaps dishonest.  But many Asians, like Koreans and Vietnamese, consider looking into another’s eyes while speaking as improper, particularly when addressing a superior or a person of authority. How unfortunate if this miscommunication has adverse consequences for bridging cultural gaps or closing a business deal.

It should not surprise us that hand gestures can cause problems.  Pointing a finger at someone while talking is considered insulting among the Chinese and Koreans – this hand gesture applies in the context of an authority figure disciplining a subordinate.  Similarly, curling your index finger upward with the intention of motioning to someone to approach you can evoke an undesirable reaction.  In the Vietnamese culture, this gesture is reserved solely for motioning to animals.

Understanding cultural communication codes not only serves to overcome language barriers, but also may facilitate mutual understanding. This makes learning about each other’s cultures extremely important, even among Asian Americans.

Julia Wai-Yin So, Ph.D., is principal of So García Associates. She lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico.