The Challenges of Cross Cultural Communication

You may be great about reading some people, but there are still a lot of people whose distinct outlook and culture may elude you.

One of the most important parts of learning how to read people is accepting that this process varies considerably across different cultures, despite the presence of universal basic emotions. In a recent study, Humintell’s Drs. David Matsumoto and Hyisung Hwang seek to investigate the main methodological barriers that confront those of us who want to learn to accurately read the facial expressions of those outside our own culture.

Hopefully, by better understanding these challenges future research can be effectively guided to help all of us fine tune our emotional recognition skills. But how do you as a follower of this blog gain anything from this? Try keeping these points in mind as you read future articles or peruse previous blogs and see if any of these hold for the research that we have reported. Not only will this make all of us a better scholar, but it will enrich your own abilities to read people.

The first of these methodological critiques is the way in which actual experiments are conducted. While Matsumoto and Hwang applaud the efforts of researchers to point out similarities and differences between those of various cultures, they caution us against jumping to any conclusions about the source of any differences.

Many differences, they point out, are just the result of the specific group selected and need not be reflective of an entire culture. This may be especially true in culturally diverse nations or regions where people who live just down the street approach the world from different cultural or social backgrounds.

Their second point is similar in focusing on the potentially biased nature of sampling, i.e. who is brought into the study. Often these experiments are conducted on international students at a university, where they are taken as representative of their home culture. Certainly, this can be seen as flawed as these participants may not be reflective of that culture, either due to a similar flaw as in the last critique or because of their more specific nature as an international student.

In a third argument, Matsumoto and Hwang make a point relevant to all aspects of emotional recognition, namely that many facial expressions also closely resemble other purposeful nonverbal behavior. For instance, raised eyebrows may be a sign of surprise, or it may be a gesture indicating greeting. This problem is even more relevant to cross cultural communication where gestures vary drastically between groups and may not be known to the researcher.

Finally, they question the traditionally bounded nature of many of the questions asked. We may want to test what factors lead to successful emotional recognition, but what exactly does recognition consist of? In doing research, this has to get simplified in order to test it, but especially with complex cross cultural considerations, this simplification may obscure the very real complexities.

This last point is especially salient when conducting advanced statistical analyses. While these are certainly useful, Matsumoto and Hwang also caution that it may be best to ask participants more open-ended questions.

Many of these points reflect broader methodological problems in other fields of social science, and they are not easy to wrestle with. However, they are important to keep in mind both for researchers and people like yourself that are just trying to learn about these fascinating topics.

We definitely recommend that you use these to review other research an, in the meantime, check out some of our official resources on cross-cultural communication! Maybe you’ll develop your own method-based critiques.

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