Understanding Asian American Communication — by Dr. Julia Wai-Yin So

Do you recall the first time you stepped into an international business reception at a major hotel and found yourself amidst a sea of Asian faces? If so, you may also have noticed a diversity of Asian cultures and conversations  in some incomprehensible languages: Cantonese Chinese, Hindi, Korean, Malay, Mandarin Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, and perhaps others.  If you have been put off when people in your presence have spoken a language other than English, you are not alone.

As a Chinese American that speaks a fair amount of Spanish, Japanese and three Chinese dialects, I still am linguistically challenged and unable to participate in all of the conversations likely to occur at a reception of Asian American professionals. Often, at such a reception, there is not much more I can do but smile and say, “I wish I could understand what you are saying.” Not surprisingly, this comment often overcomes the awkwardness and the conversation soon resumes in English. But, do they speak English? You may wonder.

Of course they do. Otherwise, it would be impossible for these successful business people to survive or even thrive in the United States. If they speak in languages other than English, it is of course not to offend you, but because it may be convenient or because they want to reaffirm their national identity. Furthermore, some of them, particularly the recently arrived immigrants, may not even be aware that conversing in a language other than English in the presence of English-only speaker is considered impolite in the United States.

As our nation’s population becomes more ethnically and linguistically diverse, our understanding of the cultural communication codes of others such as body language has also come to be important. For example, simple common courtesies such as an Asian’s limpy hand shake or a lack of eye contact when conversing can trigger negative reactions in this country. Before you equate a limpy handshake to a weak personality trait and thus avoid doing business with the individual, have you thought of how the other person may view you because of your firm handshake? They may be reading you as aggressive and offensive, and conclude for a different set of reasons that you do not make a good business partner.

Additionally, you may want to take note that not all Asians or Asian Americans even shake hands when greeting others. Generally speaking, the Chinese nod at each other, Thai and Cambodians put their hands together in front of their chests and nod at the same time, while Japanese and Koreans bow. In fact, the degree of a bow in Japan depicts one’s social position in a particular situation. A 15-degree bow is for a friend or a customer while a 30-degree bow is given to a supervisor or an elderly in the family. Lastly, a 45-degree bow is reserved for special occasions such as delivering a formal apology or greeting a government official.

Another example of body language is a lack of eye contact when conversing. It can be misconstrued as impolite by people from certain cultures. Here in the United States, we perceive someone who does not look you in the eye as discourteous or perhaps dishonest. But many Asians like Koreans and Vietnamese consider looking into another’s eyes while speaking as improper, particularly when addressing a superior or a person of authority. How unfortunate if this mis-communication has adverse consequences!

Finally, it should not surprise us that hand gestures can cause problems. Pointing a finger at someone while talking is considered insulting among the Chinese and Koreans. This hand gesture applies in the context of an authority figure disciplining a subordinate. Similarly, curling your index finger upward with the intention of motioning to someone to approach can evoke an undesirable reaction. To the Vietnamese Americans, this gesture is reserved solely for motioning to animals!

Understanding cultural diversity and communication codes not only serves to overcome language barriers, but also may facilitate mutual understanding and international business. This makes learning about each other’s cultures extremely important.

Dr. Julia Wai-Yin So

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