In A World… is a series of posts about world building, where our contributors share strategies and tips for creating well-rounded worlds.
When I was in college, I had an internship where I was a mentor for international students. Before I (or any of the other mentors) was allowed to work with those international students, we had to take a course on intercultural communication. There were maybe twenty of us in this class, from all kinds of cultural backgrounds. Some were international students, some the children of immigrants (or immigrants themselves–like me!), and some who had studied abroad. And it was hands down my favorite course I ever took in college.
The class was rooted in empathy–in relating to other perspectives and understanding where someone else might be coming from even if we didn’t share those viewpoints. We discussed things like the cultural iceberg–the idea that most of a particular culture, like a real iceberg, is hidden beneath the surface. Food, clothes, festivals etc. are only the visible tip of the iceberg.
Often when people from different cultures meet, there is some difficulty in communicating. This might not necessarily be a language barrier, because even if you’re speaking the same language, there are many unspoken rules about behavior that could lead to confusion, or even conflict. But hopefully these cultural clashes can then lead to a conversation about differing cultural attitudes, which then leads to shared understanding.
As a writer, I constantly refer back to that class when I think about the various cultures I build. Communication is key even in fictional worlds. And how characters communicate with those from their own culture and those outside of it–even when they aren’t literally exchanging dialogue–can be a great world building tool.
And as always, a disclaimer: cultures are not a monolith. Communication across–and even within–cultures is very nuanced, and anytime cultures are put into broad categories, it can feel like stereotyping. Keep in mind that people within cultures communicate differently based on their own experiences, where and how they grew up, what kinds of people and communities they’ve interacted with, and dozens of other factors.
A good starting place to thinking about intercultural communication is deciding whether a culture is “high context” or “low context” because that’s going to dictate the amount of emphasis that is put on nonverbal cues.
High context refers to cultures where many communication is implicit. Direct communication isn’t the expectation, and there’s more of a focus on non verbal cues such as eye contact, tone, and facial expressions. Many countries in Asia and the Middle East are considered high context. On the other hand, low context cultures rely less on context and more on direct verbal communication. There are more explicit rules about the behavioral expectations. The US and many countries in Europe are considered low context.
Keep in mind, though, that no culture is fully high or low context, but rather on a spectrum with both high and low context characteristics. Many cultures are low context in some situations and high context in others, which means communication struggles can happen even between two high or two low context cultures.
For an example of a communication barrier between two low context cultures (in this case American and German), let’s look at The Bachelor Winter Games! On the show, an American contestant had made plans with the German one to meet at the jacuzzi. When she learned there was no more room in the jacuzzi, the American decided to meet with a friend. However, the German contestant believed that since they had made plans to meet there, they would meet there regardless of whether it was full or not. He believed that she should have told him if she wished to change or cancel their plans (remember, direct communication is a key part of low context cultures). Meanwhile, the American believed that if the jacuzzi was full, their plans no longer made sense, and therefore she was free to do her own thing (which is higher context since it involves an implicit understanding).
Once you’ve figured out how much emphasis a culture puts on nonverbal cues, you can start thinking about which specific aspects they value and how that might influence intercultural communication. Here are a few examples of things that high and low context cultures might value differently that you can think about when world building.
How much does your culture value time–especially other people’s time? How important is it to arrive on time to appointments? Is it considered okay, or even normal, for people to show up twenty or thirty minutes later than the time proposed? Or is it considered rude to keep another person waiting?
This is as much a personal preference as it is a cultural one, but it can be interesting to think about nonetheless. How much personal space is expected in public areas? Do people hover close by or brush into each other or even eavesdrop on nearby conversations? Or do people tend to give a wide berth to people outside of their own party?
Standing in Line
How do people in your culture wait for things? Do they wait their turn in a single file line? Do groups of people cluster near the front and maybe even push past each other? How upset do people get upset when someone cuts in line?
How much eye contact is expected in everyday situations? Is it considered rude to keep eye contact or to avoid it? And what about if there’s a power dynamic in play–for example an employee making eye contact with a supervisor?
Speaking in Groups
This can also be a personal preference, and might even change from formal to informal settings, but in general, what is the expected group communication style? Do people speak one at a time, allowing all opinions to be heard? Or do people interrupt one another to argue points, jumping in whenever they feel they have something to say?
This is of course not a comprehensive list by any means, but a few questions to get you started.
For further reading on intercultural communication: