Here's How To Use Those Epic Cultural Communication Charts

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If you missed last month’s Business Insider article, These Diagrams Reveal How To Negotiate With People Around The World, and you do business with people from other countries, you owe it to yourself to go take a look.

The article features author Richard D. Lewis’ series of “National Communication Patterns”. Each diagram in the series shows how people from a given country tend to communicate, including how they decide when to speak or stay silent, choose their words or emotions, or how to influence others.

Even the most experienced travellers will be surprised by how many different communication styles exist across the globe. Especially between countries they had thought were similar. For example, If you think Americans communicate just like the British, or at least like Canadians, you should think again.

It might just scare you when you recall the times you negotiated, managed, presented — or communicated anything — in any of these countries, but didn’t know what you didn’t know.

Well, you’re not alone. Since it was published on March 26th, the article has had over half a million views. That’s an impressive number. In part, it’s a testament to how important the right intercultural skills are in today’s global business environment.

Since many of you are seeing these diagrams for the first time, here’s an important cautionary note. You know how David Letterman will look into the camera before someone performs an outrageous stunt and say, “Please don’t try this at home, or without professional supervision”? Well, beware: For all though the diagrams are powerful tools when used correctly, failure to do so can cause problems — including mistrust, damaged relationships, and lost business.

In this and future blogs, we’ll take a “deep dive” into many of these diagrams giving you the insights you need to get to more results with anyone, anywhere.

So let’s begin with a few big-ticket items that will start us on the right track: We’ll introduce you to your own scepticism, you’ll learn to recognise a trick your brain plays on you that I call the “I thought so!” Syndrome, you’ll see how the diagrams can help you understand the madness to someone’s method, and finally you’ll gain a new appreciation for the importance of context.


In a society such as the U.S. A. where advertising rules the day and false claims run rampant, being sceptical about something you’ve never heard before is a natural reaction. Add a bit of cultural superiority along with some occasional cynicism, and you have a distinctly American communication pattern. For example, when we say, “You must be kidding!” it’s often said with intensity, but seldom do we mean it literally. What we’re usually thinking is “How can that possibly be true? I don’t think it is, but if you can convince me, I’m willing to listen to what you have to say”.

It’s always difficult to accept information that challenges fundamental beliefs. But with the right mindset and a strong desire to always try to see things from someone else’s perspective, even the most sceptical American can become more adept at intercultural business.


Let’s say that you’ve had experience working with the French. While looking at the French diagram, you start nodding your head in agreement when you read, “Be prepared for vigorous logical debate”.

“No kidding!” you think to yourself. “They always argue about everything!”

Because you’re feeling vindicated, you forward this to your coworkers with the comment, “No wonder everybody hates the French!” And that’s where the “I thought so!” syndrome grabs hold.

You see, without realising it you just experienced a phenomenon that cognitive scientists call confirmation bias. It’s when you encounter new information, but your mind filters out anything that doesn’t support your existing belief.

But the real insidious part to a cognitive bias is that you actually begin to think your opinion was “validated” by an expert. As a result, you now have less tolerance for the French than before!


You’ll notice arrowheads on the diagram outlines. These show the various phases of the communication as the discussion progresses, including verbal and non-verbal behaviours, reactions, responses, justifications, etc.

The vertical height of each diagram is labelled the “Word Base” and has also been referred to as the “conversation range”. But these terms are vague and don’t convey what’s actually taking place. So instead let’s think of the diagram’s height as the “Number of Words Spoken” at any given point in the discussion.

Although individual personalities, preferences and experiences affect communication, the diagrams transcend those differences and instead highlight the behaviours common among those in the group. Culture after all is the very definition of shared collective wisdom. Its influence is so ingrained in our psyche that our conscious minds are seldom aware of any influence at all.

You know all those things we take for granted and call common sense? Things like professionalism, courteousness, accountability, efficiency and candor? Can we assume that these are all universally accepted values? Well as it turns out, not so much. The funny thing about common sense is that much of it isn’t as common as we’ve been lead to believe.

Take for instance the recent Malaysian Airlines Flight #370 tragedy. Many have criticised the Malaysian authorities for repeatedly giving ambiguous and noncommittal statements. How can the authorities behave like that when so many families are desperately waiting for updates on the situation?

But turn on CNN for a few hours and you’ll soon notice how often they need to correct something they reported earlier. In fact just last week on The Daily Show, Jon Stewart showed a CNN video clip where the anchorwoman corrected a news story…that was broadcast less than a minute earlier!

So why is it that we’ll tolerate behaviours that prize speed over accuracy, but we have no tolerance for someone who has values that place such a high priority on accurate reporting that they’d sooner evade answering questions now than have to admit they were wrong later on?

Or could it be this simple: We misjudge behaviours when we don’t realise they incorporate values and beliefs that are different from our own?

And that’s precisely what’s at the heart of most intercultural miscommunications. You see, the best way to reduce any “madness to their method” is to understand the there is a method to their madness.


There’s an old Finnish joke about an American who flies to Helsinki to meet with his customer. After a long day of meetings, the American and the Finnish customer decide to go out for drinks. After about 20 minutes of drinking vodka in complete silence, the American finally speaks up and says, “So Jukka, Cheers!” At which point, Jukka argues, “Wait a moment. Did we come here to talk, or did we come here to drink?”

Now take a look at the Finnish diagram versus the American diagram, and you’ll see some remarkable differences. The Finns are very succinct (e.g., small diagram height) during all phases of the discussion, and get even more succinct when summarizing at the end of the discussion. On the other hand, Americans are not only more verbose throughout the discussion than the Finns, but will increase their use of words to stress a point, or responds to stress. And although Americans by their own standards finish the discussion more succinctly than any other time during the discussion, it’s still considerably more verbose than the Finns ever communicate.

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So the next time you overhear someone say that all Germans are rude, the British are wishy-washy, or that you can’t trust anyone from [insert nationality of your choice here], consider what George Carlin once said,

“Have you ever noticed that anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac?”

George’s observation makes us chuckle because in some odd way, we relate to what he’s saying. Who hasn’t been convinced at one time that they were right and everyone else — faster or slower — was wrong?

Look at it this way:

Americans think Germans are rude because the Germans are always too blunt.

The Germans think Italians are rude because they waste everyone’s time with too much talking.

Italians think the Japanese are rude because the Japanese won’t make an effort to explain their position.

The Japanese think Americans are rude because Americans will say anything to anyone, in front of everyone.

…And around and around it goes.

When it comes to communicating with people from other cultures that have very different beliefs, priorities and behaviours, it’s best to not think in terms of right and wrong. But to think in terms of how its’ different.

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As the CEO of Global Context since 2005, Stuart Friedman has partnered with Richard Lewis and taught his communication charts and other aspects of cross-cultural studies.

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