Category Archives: Communication

My favourite ESL phrase from (some) Europeans

“How many people are in your group?”

“We are five.”

meaning “There are five of us.”

I’ve heard French and Belgian people say this, so I assume it’s from the French “Nous sommes cinq”, so “We are five” is a direct (but inaccurate) translation of how many people are in your group.


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(Some) Tales from Africa

I recently had the fantastic opportunity to visit the African continent for the first time to travel and to present at the International Association for Cross-Cultural Psychology. South Africa definitely lived up to its name of the “Rainbow Nation” not only with its people but with its ecosystems. I highly recommend everyone to visit the beautiful city of Cape Town, the picturesque town of Stellenbosch, and to do a safari at the Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve in Mpumalanga!

But the tales from Africa I want to share today are actually stories from others who have visited Africa and from a student in Canada from Kenya. Both speak to the importance of being culturally sensitive and knowledgeable in successful intercultural interactions.

Tale #1: Allergies in Africa

This story comes from a management graduate student whom I met at the Cultural Intelligence Research forum at SIOP San Diego 2012. We were seated at the same table for lunch and we were discussing food allergies. As is more common in Western cultures (or at least I perceive it to be so), he has nut allergies (his background is German I believe). After the chef came out to ask him if everything was ok, the student shared with us his experience in Africa (forgot which country). Basically, he was with a tribe and they were inviting him to eat their food. He suspected that parts of the food had nuts in it and he knew that 1) people in the area do not have and would not understand nut allergies and 2) to mention his allergy or just plain refusing to eat the food would be rude to his host (i.e., his host almost “killed” him).

So this is the route he took. He explained to the host that nuts were part of his family totem. And that was all it took for him to save the host’s face in having serving him nuts and him not having to eat the nuts, because in this tribe, people don’t eat what’s on their family totem. A successful tale of someone being culturally knowledgeable and solving the problem in a culturally sensitive way.

Tale #2: Don’t look me in the eye

I recently attended an Intercultural Skills Workshop for the Graduate Studies Office led by Phyllis Powers. As part of the workshop, the facilitator invited international students to share their experiences. One of the cultural differences we discussed was the amount of eye contact; in some cultures (like North American), eye contact is a sign of attention and caring but in other cultures, eye contact could be construed as a sign of intimidation and lack of eye contact is a sign of respect.

One student from Kenya shared a very interesting story about eye contact. He mentioned that back in Kenya, he lived in a farm and they had various types of animals, and he’s learned to how handle these animals. One way to intimidate goats is to get down to their level, look them straight in the eye, and stare intensely. He explains that, in the animal kingdom, eye-locking is intimidating and challenging, and that is what he’s learned to do (or not do) with people also.

He also shared a story of someone from a Western country visiting a company in Kenya. As the Westerner was meeting a few people in the company, he noticed that most of the employees avoided his gaze and their eyes seemed shifty. The Westerner reported back to the superior of the Kenyan company that the employees there must be sketchy because their eyes were shifty. However, the superior of the Kenyan company said that the people who lock eyes were actually the sketchy ones!

Tale #3: Let’s shake hands again…and again…and again

When the same student from above first came to Canada, he would shake hands with his supervisor (who’s not from Kenya or other African countries) when he first sees the supervisor in the morning. Then repeats this every time he sees the supervisor. Eventually, the supervisor got quite uncomfortable and this became clear to the student.

He then realized that people in Canada only mainly shook hands the first time they meet and “never” again, while he was operating on the Kenyan saying and practice of “A good person is not greeted once.”

Hopefully you’ve learned a little bit about some different customs from very small parts of this large, diverse continent that is Africa!

South African Masks & Drums @ Cape Town Greenmarket Square

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Culture, Indirect Communication, and Your Health

Happy New Year! I haven’t had time to think about a new year resolution yet (too many deadlines, yes, this early in the year, life as an academic…) but perhaps one should be to be more consistent with my blog and not let “the perfect be the enemy of the good” (attributed to Voltaire). I have so many ideas for a blog post but keep postponing it because I want it perfect. Out goes perfect and in comes posts!


I was at the hospital with my grandmother and aunt the other day for my grandmother’s knee surgery check-up by the Physio doctor (<–if this blog post were perfect, I would’ve spent extra time to look up what they are actually called, but I’m not going to :-)). According to my aunt, sometimes when the doctor asks my grandmother if she has had any pain at home, she’ll say “No” or that she’s getting better. Also, today, when the doctor was telling my grandmother that she should start pressing on her knee (to get rid of something around the scar), my grandmother said, “Never done it.” And we all assumed that she meant she knew she’s supposed to do it but she never got around to do it at home (like when she’s supposed to do a bunch of exercises for her knees at home).

Here’s where my cultural interpretation comes in.

1) My aunt doesn’t understand why my grandmother (also my grandfather) keeps telling their doctors that they have had no pain at home or that they’re getting better even though they have been in pain and sometimes things aren’t getting better. I think it’s because, in a collectivistic culture like Thailand (yes, I am back in Thailand now, and all my family’s here), the main social goal is group-harmony, and I think that my grandparents are trying to “please” the doctors by saying something they think the doctors would like to hear and not “complain” about their situation.

However, you can see why this is a problem. Doctors need to accurately diagnose the health conditions of their patients and they can’t always use machines to probe…sometimes they rely on verbal reports from the patients. But if the patients are “eager to please” the doctors and not tell them of their actual issue, the doctors can’t help them.

Perhaps there should be a way to educate patients about how to communicate to doctors or doctors ensuring patients that they want to hear the truth because they want to heal them. Or some kind of established norm that might be different from what the patients are used to for their own good.

2) When my grandmother said “Never done it” above, my grandmother meant that the nurse who was rehabilitating her after the surgery never did this one particular knee compression move on her, and therefore she has never been taught or told to do it previously. The confusion is both her fault and the Thai language’s fault.

First, it’s the Thai language’s fault because in Thai, some sentences do not require a subject, in this case, we don’t know who’s “never done it”. Was it my grandmother who’s never done it? (like we all though) or the nurse who’s never done it? (like what my grandmother meant). I am pretty sure because of this Thai is a higher context communication language, consisting of more “implicit, indirect messages” than low context communication, where the message is directly and clearly embedded in the message sent.

Second, it’s my grandmother’s fault for not clarifying this issue at the doctor’s office; it was only revealed that it was the nurse who’s never done it after we got home and my aunt was telling my grandma to do that move. But then again, it might not be her fault as to again her motivation to not cause a problem/conflict with the doctor or the nurse (i.e. telling the doctor that the nurse has never done it could mean the doctor scolding the nurse).

In this case, perhaps the doctor could be trained to probe when there is ambiguous communication. “Who’s never done it?” would’ve clarified the situation. Also, my grandmother, again, could’ve been reassured of the need to reveal all information for the doctor to help her better, so that she is more motivated to reveal information than conceal them (again, characteristics of a collectivistic culture, whose people tend to use high context communication).

A small example of how knowing about a patient’s culture and their communication style can potentially improve their healths and even save their lives.


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