There is so much more meaning to a message than what exists in the spoken/written word. For example, if a person says, “You know, Barbara, I really like you” it will have different meanings depending on if it is said by/to a man or a woman, in a work environment or a bar. Eye contact, physical distance, relationship between the speaker and listener, context, the tone of voice, and the stress put on certain words are all aspects of the message which give meaning to the words being said. In fact, these factors can provide much more meaning than the words themselves. Sarcasm is a perfect example of how non-linguistic aspects of communication relay meaning. If a friend says to me, “Gee, I can’t wait to vote in the upcoming election”, the way I interpret that message will be based upon my knowledge of my friend’s political views, the situation with the current campaign, and my ability to understand the meaning behind the tone of voice.
Our ability to interpret such cues is subconsciously developed through our process of socialization. The meanings that we attach to certain non-verbal aspects of communication seem inherent to us. Our interpretation of these cues just comes naturally. Now take into consideration that every culture has its own set of cultural cues that each member of that culture understands. It’s easy to see how a person from Culture A and a person from Culture B may interpret the very same words in totally different ways. Here are some examples:
When Sarcasm Means Sincerity
Marsha thought things were going well with her new French friends, particularly Bertrand. He continually invited her to interesting and fun events, but he was constantly making fun of her. One day at an art exhibit, while looking at a particularly abstract piece, Marsha says that she cannot understand what the artist was trying to express. Bertrand smiles and responds, “Yes, I’m afraid French art is far too advanced for Americans to comprehend.” Marsha was desperate; she really liked him and could not figure out what she was doing to cause his constant teasing, so she asked her host mother about it. “My dear,” the host mother told her, “this means that he really likes you. In France, when someone feels comfortable enough to tease you, that means that you have been welcomed as an intimate friend.”
When Now Doesn’t Mean Now
Joshua, an American student in Heredia, Costa Rica, called his Costa Rican intercambio partner to meet for coffee. When he asked what time they should meet, the response was “Nos encontramos ahora en el parque.” For Joshua (and the dictionary), “ahora” literally means “now.” So, he grabbed his jacket and headed straight to the park where he sat on a bench and waited for over half an hour. His friend arrived without the least sign of repentance for being late. After discussing the matter with his Spanish teacher, Joshua learned that in Costa Rica, “ahora” means sometime within the hour. And, if you are meeting a friend someplace like the park, it is expected that it is no problem for one or the other person to wait for a while because you will spend some nice time sitting in the park, probably running into some other friends, or meeting someone friendly also sitting on a bench.
When Yes Doesn’t Mean Yes
Many business people have experienced this frustrating scenario in Japan. Sarah, a young businesswoman from New York, was sent to Japan to close a big deal for her company. While giving her pitch, she became more and more sure of the sale because her Japanese counterparts continually nodded their heads as she spoke. When she finished, she thought the deal was made and asked when they would like to sign the contract. She was shocked when she was told that they were not yet sure if they wanted to make the deal or not.