Communications and Cross
Cultural Differences
Not only do cultural differences affect
the messengers, they also affect
the message transmission and
reception in several ways
Cultural Differences Affect the Message
The only way a concept can be transferred is
the messenger must use forms of
communication the people understand
The message must be translated so that the
people understand it with a minimum of
The message must be contextualized into local
cultural forms
Church buildings
Forms of worship
Leadership style
People must develop a theology in which
Scripture speaks to them in their historicalcultural setting
Symbols and Communication
Communication is the transmission of
information from a sender to a receiver.
Ideas and emotions cannot be
communicated directly from mind to
mind—must first be expressed in forms
that others can receive them through their
The linkage of meanings and feelings to
forms that create “symbols.”
Nature of Symbols
Symbols link together:
Ex. “tree”: type of plant; genealogical
descent; a certain kind of animal (tree
frog); a symbol of craziness, “up a tree”.
Types of Symbols
Symbols do not stand alone, but are parts of a
larger system, within which individual symbols
have their meanings.
Words are used to communicate cognitive
Gestures and tones of voice to communicate
Several systems are used simultaneously
• Spoken language
• Paralanguage
• Kinesics or body language
• Temporal and spatial symbols
• Estimates are 38% is communicated verbally;
62% is communicated nonverbally!
Meaning of Symbols
Symbols acquire meanings of ideas, feelings and values
in two ways:
• Many symbols refer to events in everyday life, but in
pointing to specific things, they do not point to others.
• Symbols gain their meanings partly from their
relationship with other symbols that belong to their
same domain or field.
• Things that point to some things and not to others are
called denotative meanings. Also called explicit
• Some symbols have meanings that come from other
domains or thought and feeling, which are called
connotative meanings.
• Ex. “Red neck”, “Reds”, “red-eye special.” The word
red does not mean the color, but some definition from
politics, sports, or travel. Also called implicit meaning
Denotative and Connotative
It is easy to learn denotative meanings of
symbols, but often difficult to learn
connotative meanings
• It is not obvious that they exist
• Must look at how it is used in context to
discern the meaning
• Important to learn both sets of language
Words have Implicit as well as Explicit
Explicit and Implicit
Denotative Meaning
Connotative Meaning
The meaning of
Ideas, feelings, and
values consciously
associated with the
Basic structure of the
words as category
Deep beliefs, feelings
and judgments
associated with the
Cultural Differences in Symbol
Different cultures have different symbols
Body motions, tones of voices, tastes and use of
silence all can mean different
There are cultural variations in the symbol
• Blackfoot Indians do not talk for 5 min in greetings
• Gbeya (CAR) talk only after a meal, never during the
There are cultural variations in the symbol
system used for different types of communication
• Protestants communicate religious messages by song
and spoken words
• Tribal cultures express the same through dance, drums,
drama, bardic chants.
If symbols only had explicit,
denotative meanings, translation
would not be too difficult
Words have connotative meanings,
many of which are implicit—this is
Form and Meaning
Initially we tend to equate the two: we associate
denotative and connotative meanings to sounds,
within our own culture
When translating to another language the
distinction is necessary.
If you want to communicate you must use their
words, and other symbols that communicate as
well: gestures, architecture, worship forms and
Some cultures communicate respect by removing a
hat, while others, by removing their shoes
Songs need to be written in the melodies and
rhythms native to the culture
Even if translated correctly, if the music is foreign—
the message spoken communicates that this
religion is for foreigners.
Importance of the connotative
meanings for translation
Most early missionaries emphasized on
denotative meanings, thus resulting in a
“literal” or formal translation. (shepherd,
In statements of fact, denotative
meanings are usually most important
With the use of analogies, allegories,
metaphors, humor and idioms. etc. in
connotative meaning: In societies where
“fathers” are seen as unfaithful, distant
and authoritarian, thus referring to God as
“father” can be confusing
More on Connotative meanings for
To minimize misunderstandings, recent
translations emphasize “Dynamic
Equivalents” to convey the same idea or
• This may mean changing the symbol or word.
• In Bible referred to a tax collector “beating his
breast”, but in West Africa, this same action
conveys taking pride in one’s accomplishment.
When speaking of repentance they would say,
“He beat his head.”
Nida’s Guideline for Dynamic
Translators should not alter the original
text, when it refers to historical events.
Idioms and figures of speech are more
difficult: “white as snow”, “millstone”,
“camel” [“very, very white”, “a heavy
stone”, “an animal called camel”]
Nida warns:
In certain cases a literal translation is impossible
because of connotative meanings associated
with certain cultural objects—In Balinese, the
viper is considered a snake of paradise. The
phrase “generation of vipers” (Mt 3:;7) is not a
denunciation at all. The meaning can be
maintained by substituting a more generic term,
as “vermin.”
Translating Implicit Meanings
The words in any culture have implicit meanings
that reflect the world view of that culture. If no
equivalent words for biblical words exists, what
do we do to preserve divine revelation?
It is understood that there is always some
distortion of the original message.
• There is the addition of meanings not found in the
How do we avoid the loss of meanings or of
addition of unintended meanings to the Bible
Translation? (same question in
• In a few cases a new word is created or
imported from another source
• Must chose the most suitable word in the local
language, then make explicit through teaching
and preaching
Cross-Cultural Communication
We spend most of our time in communication—
Only when communication breaks down do we
stop to see what went wrong
The process is:
A sender whishing to communicate a message
Encodes the message into symbols
Transmits the encoded message to a receiver
Receives the symbols
Decodes the symbols
Learns the message
Responds to the message
Many things could go wrong in the process
hindering communication, esp. in a cross-cultural
Messages and Para-messages
Communications occurs in each of
the 3 dimensions of culture
• Cognitive: transmission of information
and meaning
• Affective: sharing of feeling
• Evaluative: conveyance of judgments
such as acceptance and censure
Ways of transmitting cognitive
Rituals and dramas – enacting
Signs – stoplights, turn signals,
bells to transmit directions
Language – spoken or written to
transmit abstract human
Ways of communicating feelings
and sentiments
Whether we like the person we are
talking to or not
How to indicate anger over the
Whether we are joking, serious
sarcastic, reserved or critical
Techniques: poetry, ironic comments,
tongue-in-cheek statements,
sermons, proposals, etc.
Ways of communicating our
Western-style teaching: focus on
Music, poetry, art and drama: focus
on moods and feelings
Preaching: focus is on values and
Secondary or Para-message
Unconscious communication of secondary
message by:
• Facial expression, gestures, tones of voice,
body postures, standing distances, use of time
• Techniques of transmitting feelings and values,
distrust, concern, disdain, indifference,
agreement and love
Determines the way the primary message
is understood
• Is the primary message irony, sarcasm, humor
or double-meaning, or straight
• Tells what the speaker thinks of the receiver
Media and Para-media
Words, tones, gestures, space, time, etc
Choice depends upon the occasion,
personal preference and culture
Touching is way of showing affection in some
cultures, but in others it is taboo
Drama and ritual and dance are important in
some cultures, but does not communicate in
Several media normally used at same time
With one we communicate one message
With the other we communicate another
message simultaneously
Multimedia communication helpful for
retention of message.
Percentage of Things we
After 3 hours
After 3 days
What we hear
What we see
What we see and
Medium to store information
Literates depend on the written page
almost exclusively, with limited mental
Oral societies depend on memory and
reinforce it with media techniques
Songs, poems, proverbs, riddles, chants,
Repetition and multi-media to retain their
knowledge: singing the same song over and
over, reenacting their stories in drama,
dances and rituals
Icons are used in houses, temples paintings
to recall religious beliefs
Senders and Receivers—
in missions both are people
Usually unconscious, but when attempting to
communicate in another language we become
conscious of the encoding process
Depends on many factors
• Use of appropriate cultural symbols
• Encoding according to our own experience: vocabulary,
pronunciation, feelings, etc. are determined by our age,
sex, position in society, past experience and present
Encoding takes into account the context (home,
Encoding is Multilayered
• Encoding is almost as fast as we can think
• Encoding of paramessages of attitudes and values
through tone, gestures, etc.
Receivers reverse the process
Filtered through beliefs and values of
their culture and personal experience
If their culture sees Christianity as
an enemy, it is difficult to
If they have had a bad experience,
Christians become stereotyped and
most of message is blocked
Filters and Feedback
People tend to see and hear what they
want to see and hear!
Beliefs, values and feelings act as filters
that open when they want to hear the
They will reinterpret the meaning to fit
their purposes, or fail to change in
The audience decide whether our message
gets through or not.
How do we know if we
Feedback—listening to those receiving the
Usually so intense on sending the message we
ignore the responses
Good communication begins with the “Art of
• Tune in to para-messages
• Formal methods of getting feedback: discussion, formal
research survey, ask key questions to see if message is
understood and its implications.
May mean to modify our communication
• Slow down, simplify the material, repeat, illustrate with
concrete examples, stop for questions
• If hostile, dubious or rejecting, must stop to build trust
and examine our paramessages
Static and Incongruity
Static barriers to distract people from receiving
• Classroom conditions, environment noise,
distracting mannerisms of the teacher (sender) or
a heavy accent
• Foreign clothing and behavior of sender, magic of
his technology or poor mastery of local language
• When sender speaks of sacrifice and simple
Christian living, but drives an expensive car or
dresses in tailored suits
• Missionary talks of loving people, but will not let
them into his house
• Foreignness is a type of incongruity: though
message is understood, sender’s mannerisms
(dress or stinginess) nullify the value of the
Two-Way Communication
Best communication is a dialogue
Both parties listen and learn
Danger is that neither side really
listens to the other
The more we listen and learn, the
more we are trusted, thus the more
possible we can communicate our
Reinterpretation and Response
Receivers interpret messages within their
culture and personal context
• Discard what they dislike or do not understand
– usually without trying to understand
• Even within the same culture people only
understand about 70% of what is said
• In cross-cultural settings the level seldom rises
above 50% is understood
• Must be clear, explicit, concrete and redundant
if we hope to be understood
New information leads to decisions
Information is not the only factor in decisionmaking: feeling is very important
Feelings influenced by the manner and context of
how the message is sent
Feelings are influenced by the degree of trust in
the communicator
• If messenger lacks credibility in their eyes, the message
is rejected
• If they sense the sender accepts and loves them, they
are more open
Deepest decisions tend to change lives:
evaluative determinations from the core of
• Changes in knowledge and feeling are not enough
• Only when decisions lead to shifts in allegiances and
behavior can we speak of lordship of Christ and Christian
Post decision evaluation
Peer pressures can be great
If there is little support for their new
beliefs from the local community,
without reinforcement from peers,
then reevaluation of new faith often
results in a weakening of their faith
Communication and the
Effective communication is essential to
our task
Need to be more aware of the implicit
elements of communication
Must become receptor-oriented in our
thinking – if not understood, it is we who
must change
As we communicate the gospel it is God
who works through His Spirit in the
hearts of the listeners, equipping them
to hear and understand the Gospel.
Without this divine work, conversion is

Communications and Cross Cultural Differences