Cultural Misunderstandings





Misunderstandingis a communication occurrence that we frequently experience in ourdaily interaction with people of diverse cultures. As we relay ourideas and thoughts in verbal messages to individuals from a culturedifferent from ours, there is always the prospect of beingmisunderstood. The cause of misunderstanding varies depending on theprevailing circumstance and from a speaker’s error of expressing tothe audience his or her thoughts to an error in decoding of themessage by the listener. In some cases, the environment might warpthe meaning of the message (LeBaron,2003).More often than not we are not even aware that we misunderstood oneanother, in some other instances we realize communicationmisunderstanding but we may not pay too much attention to correct it,especially when it does not affect our interactions. The followingexample will illustrate cultural misunderstanding between a studentfrom China and a teacher in United States of America.

Lee,an international student from China, has been studying in the Unitedstate for over six months. Being an above average student, he is hardworking and has been doing well in all the exams done so far. After anight party that he had been invited by a classmate, he woke up witha severe stomach upset. Worried he rushed to the hospital where hemet a reception who directed him to Dr. Tracy, who was on duty.


[Lee’sthoughts: how do I share with a woman doctor considering the natureof my ailment, facing down]

L:Hello Dr?

[Dr.Tracy’s thoughts: Seeing a foreign student, she assumes it is bestto make him more comfortable by not going directly to enquiring abouthis ailment.]

Dr.Tracy: Hello there. What is your name?

[Lee’sthoughts: Still staring downwards…]

L:Am Lee.

[Dr.Tracy’s thoughts: Assuming that the patient is shy thus lookingdown and intending to make him much at ease smiling at Lee]

Dr.Tracy: call me Dr. Tracy Lee. Are you from China or Japan?

[Lee’sthoughts: could she be laughing at the fact that am Asian or mysickness?]

L:Am from China ma’am.

[Dr.Tracy’s thoughts: Apologetic and intending to capture his attentionand shift his look to focus on her]

Dr.Tracy: Sorry for the confusion. You know sometimes it is hard todistinguish one from the other. For how long have you been aroundLee?

[Lee’sthoughts: Irritated by the doctor’s indifference to his primarycause of being at the hospital]

L:seven months.

[Dr.Tracy’s thoughts: Sensing the tactic might not yield the desiredeffect]

Dr.Tracy: how can I help you, Lee?

[Lee’sthoughts: Relieved that the irrelevant line of questioning is over]

Lhave been having serious stomach upsets since early this morning.

Dr.Tracy: what could have triggered that, or is it a problem you havealways had?

[Lee’sthoughts: Firm but shyly]

L:had attended a friend’s party last night and could have beensomething I ate.

[Dr.Tracy’s thoughts: Obviously as a result of eating new foods notaccustomed to]

Dr.Tracy: ok. That will be a minor food poisoning as a result of eatingsomething foreign. Don’t worry I shall prescribe something thatwill work fast. Anything else?

[Lee’sthoughts: Looking relieved, but embarrassed by the obviousrevelation]

L:no thanks. That’s all for now.

[Dr.Tracy’s thoughts: Careful how you explore the foreign cuisines inthe future]

Dr.Tracy: well then, don’t worry about time you will be accustomed toour foods.

[Lee’sthoughts: Whatever, it was not even worth it.]

L:I shall doctor.

Wilmot’sRelationship Theory of Communication

Accordingto this theory, every communication has a relationship aspect. Thetheory is primarily concerned with the effect of communication onboth the receiver and the sender. Wilmot argues that the relationshipbetween the two people communicating determines to a great extent,the type of communication and the level of understanding between them(LeBaron,2003).Communication in any form of interaction is also deeply influenced bycultural variability. In this vein, cultural variability may serve asthe source of misunderstanding in communication. Wilmot furthercontends that even though this may not be the general principle, theconcept of individualism and collectivism as shaped by the underlyingcultural values and norms have a significant influence on theindividual’s communication behavior.

Culturalfactors that guide a given group of people may cause different viewon various aspects and may play a huge role in shaping the prevailingcommunication behavior. For example, Wilmot states that a majority ofUnited States citizens have individualistic tendencies, and thisshapes the manner and way in which they communicate and interpretmessages. On the other hand in Japan Collectivism is the salientcultural tendency and as such communication is geared towards notionsthat concur with such a concept. Nonetheless, individual behavior isalso an important factor that shapes the general pattern of behaviorand communication of an individual (Turner,2011).

Contentaspect of human communication

Theaspect of human communication evident from the dialogue is culturalvariance. Human communication is affected by culture and two peoplefrom different cultures may have varied understanding of aconversation mainly due to cultural biases. Poor choice of words in aconversation between two cultural different people may causeconfusion, hurt feelings, and great misunderstanding. Every humancommunication has not only a relationship but also a content aspect,in the form that the former classifies the latter and as such itbecomes a meta-communication (Turner,2011).Every person reacts to the content in communication in the context ofthe level of interaction and relationship between the communicators.The term meta-communication denotes the exchange of information aboutthe manner and way to configure and interpret each other’sinformation. For example, the word “idiot” might be acceptedrather happily by a close associate but may be construed in a verydifferent way in another situation or person (Turner,2011).In addition, the use of gestures and body movement varies from onecultural group to another and may be a source of communicationmisunderstanding.

Sourcesof misunderstanding

Fromthe moment Lee heard that he was to be treated by a female doctor, hebecame a bit shy considering the nature of his ailment. As a result,he kept his stare face down out of respect for the elderly femaledoctor. This gesture according to Dr. Tracy was a way of avoiding eyecontact with her, an indication she translated to be out of being shyor embarrassed. According to LeBaron, (2003), avoiding eye contact inAmerica is a gesture that is associated with negativity. The latteris normally associated with lack of respect, ignorance, lack ofconcentration or embarrassment. In China, the same gesture isassociated with great regard for a person, and as a way of accordingone respect (LeBaron, 2003). Whereas Lee was bowing as a sign ofrespect to the doctor, the latter took it as being shy andembarrassed. This resulted in her trying to make him look at her asthey were talking a tactic that did not work.

Secondly,Dr. Tracy had this assumption that since Lee was a new student, hemust be uncomfortable in a foreign hospital. Thinking that he was astranger in a new world, she smiled reassuringly to get himcomfortable. Unknowingly, she irritates him more since in hiscountry, a smile or laughter done in a serious place or discussion isconsidered a sign of enjoying someone’s misfortunes (Stewart &ampBennett, 2011). Where the doctor intended to reassure the patient bylightening the situation and showing that she shared his pain, thegesture was misinterpreted wrongly due to their cultural differences.This led her to start a line of questioning that not only made Leemore uncomfortable but seemed insensitive to his immediate worries.All these cultural misunderstanding are happening because of thechallenges of the doctor’s ignorance and the element ofgeneralization.

Solutionsto the listed misunderstandings

Ina diverse modern world we are living in today, it is very difficultto learn all the cultures of other communities. As a result, thesemisunderstanding will always be there. The most important fact isthat it is vital to know how to learn from our mistakes and apologizein cases where we realize our mistakes. For those in public areashandling people from a multi-cultural perspective, it is vital tolearn the basics to avoid general mistakes. It is also important todeal with each client as an individual rather than generalizing theclient as per their culture to avoid stereotyping other cultures thusbringing cultural misunderstanding. According to Heinich, (2010), itis not acceptable for every doctor to generalize each individualpatient they get to attend. To ensure that the medics provide asufficiently adequate service to the various ethnic groups, there isneed to understand the basics behaviors and belief trends. This donecan ensure that all patients regardless of their varied culture andor background get the much coveted professional and competenttreatment.


Heinich,N. (2010). What does ‘sociology of culture’mean? Notes on a fewtrans-cultural misunderstandings.&nbspCulturalsociology,&nbsp4(2),257-265.

LeBaron,M. (2003).&nbspBridgingcultural conflicts: A new approach for a changing world. Jossey-Bass.

Stewart,E., &amp Bennett, M. (2011).&nbspAmericancultural patterns: A cross-cultural perspective. Nicholas Brealey Publishing.

Turner,J.F. (2011). Social Work Treatment: Interlocking TheoreticalApproaches. Oxford University Press.