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.
“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trained pilots and outdated planes, Gladwell theorizes that the Korean culture and language were the true culprits.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.