insight magazine

Yes, No, Maybe So: How Culture Impacts Communication

When I became aware of how my cultural background influenced my communication style, I realized we all have communication quirks that have professional consequences. By Dixon Chan, CPA | Winter 2020

gen next 310“Perhaps,” “allegedly,” “presumably,” “possibly”—these are hedging words that I often use when I speak to clients and coworkers. While these phrases certainly have a place in professional communication, they are also a direct reflection of my own cultural values and upbringing.

Growing up in a traditional Hong Kongese family, I was raised to speak responsibly and modestly, to always leave room for ambiguity, and to use a nonconfrontational tone of suggestion rather than statement. But as I began my career, I noticed that my lack of assertiveness created some small, surprising challenges. Coworkers and clients would repeat their inquiries to get a sense of assurance from me, or they would direct their questions to someone else because they didn’t quite trust my answers.

In his bestselling book “Outliers,” Malcolm Gladwell examines an instance when cultural differences in communication styles impacted aviation safety. In the ‘80s, South Korean flights suffered multiple deadly crashes, drawing widespread press coverage and heightened scrutiny. While the crashes were initially attributed to poorly trained pilots and outdated planes, Gladwell theorizes that the Korean culture and language were the true culprits. Koreans employ oblique language, similar to how I was raised to speak. Because of this cultural difference, commands can be perceived as suggestions because they lack an authoritative undertone. Flight safety depends on quick judgment and clear communication, and Gladwell argues Korean cultural norms may have led to important information being disregarded, leading to disaster.

While CPAs don’t have to make split-second decisions like pilots, they still need to be able to communicate complex information clearly and accurately. We are responsible for dissecting and reporting financial information to people with cultural backgrounds that are often different from our own. Whether we’re communicating with a client, a colleague, or a live audience, it’s vitally important to consider how our own cultures influence our tone and delivery of information. Think about whether you speak in a tone of suggestion or command; whether you often use the words “I” or “me” versus “we” or “us;” and whether you use the passive or active voice in conversation and emails. Sometimes the best insights into the effectiveness of your communication style can come from gauging the reactions of the people you’re communicating with. Do they seem confused or like they need reassurance? Do they seem thrown off or possibly offended?

If you’re a young professional like me, know that the language you use and how you communicate conveys credibility and confidence—or the lack thereof. As the accounting industry continues to evolve in a globalized economy, understanding how culture plays a role in communication is an essential soft skill to hone.

ICPAS member Dixon Chan, CPA is an accountant at a not-for-profit organization in Chicago.


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  1. SP Webster | Dec 22, 2020
    Agreed, cultural nuances in communication are indeed a hurdle to overcome and recognizing the its influence should not be underestimated!
  2. Bob Clinkert | Dec 18, 2020
    Insightful article. Your points are very valid. These things can be easily missed or just melded into an overall impression instead of being identified and handed as cultural differences.

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