communication between cultures


Communication with people from a different culture is a major challenge for anyone who has ever lived in a new country. As a refugee, you have been forced to leave your country, and you need to learn how to communicate well in the United States. Here are some things to remember about cross-cultural communication.

During the first several months you are in the United States, you will probably misunderstand lots of things. This is normal and not your fault.

One of the most important things you can do when you are communicating cross-culturally is to remember that any problems you have may well be caused by cultural differences. Try your best to be positive – if someone appears rude or mean, ask yourself if it is perhaps due to a cultural difference instead of assuming they are not nice.

If you don’t understand something that is said to you, ask the person to repeat what they said. Or ask them to say it again more simply. Do not be afraid to keep asking.

Sensitive topics
Many Americans are sensitive about certain subjects. These people are described as “politically correct.” This means they try not to say things that will offend a particular group of people. For example they do not tolerate racist or sexist jokes. This correctness helps to create an inclusive society, but it can cause problems if they think others are being disrespectful.

Most Americans do not like to talk about their weight, their age, or how much money they make. If you say something about someone’s weight, how old they are, or how rich or poor they are, they might be upset.

People also may not want to tell you where they are going or where they live. If you ask someone, “Where are you going?” they may think you have a bad intention.

Researchers have found there are some topics that are easier to talk about without having a communication problem. Common areas across cultures are children and sports. If you are having a hard time talking to someone, you can try to talk about these topics.

Small talk
Most Americans will “small talk” with you. They will ask how you are or talk about the weather. This is considered being polite. If someone says, “How are you?”, the other person almost always says,”Good,” “Fine,” or “OK.,” even if he or she is sad or unwell.

Please and thank you
In the US, people say “please” when they ask for something and “thank you” when they receive something or someone helps them. Americans tend to thank others even for little things. If someone holds a door open for you, it is polite to say thank you. If someone gives you a gift, you should also say thank you.

English as a second language
Learning English is one of the most important things you can do to help you adjust to life in the United States. Some refugees can speak some English when they arrive in the United States. If you do not speak English, you can find free classes online and in your community. Visit the RCO’s ESL resource page to find online resources  or our In your city database to find ESL classes near to where you live.

Research shows one of the best ways to learn a new language is to immerse yourself in it and to listen to it first. Try to listen and practice English as much as you can. Pronunciation, or saying things correctly, is one of the most difficult parts of learning a new language. Your tone and which words you emphasize also matter. You might feel frustrated because you are saying something correctly, but Americans cannot understand you. Not all Americans are used to foreign accents.

Nonverbal communication

When we are in a conversation with other people, we communicate in two important ways: using words and with nonverbal behavior. Nonverbal behavior is the way we use our body to communicate. It includes facial expressions, gestures, eye contact, posture and tone of voice.

Some people think nonverbal communication is more important than the actual words we say. It helps people decide if they like and trust others.

Different cultures use different types of nonverbal communication. Here are some of the ways Americans use nonverbal communication:

Eye contact
Most Americans make eye contact during important conversations. If you do not make eye contact, people may think you are lying. People who look directly into your eyes are often viewed as more trustworthy, intelligent, and kind. If you come from a culture where people do not look into each other’s eyes, this may be very hard for you to do.

Facial expressions
Americans smile a lot to show they are happy and to be polite. When you meet someone new, they expect you to smile at them.

If you stand up straight, people tend to give you more respect.

Most Americans shake hands when they meet. Sometimes people will hug each other if they already know each other. If you feel uncomfortable shaking hands, you do not have to shake hands.

In the US, people have more “personal space.” This means if you are talking to someone, they will probably stand at least a foot away from you.


People in the United States are taught to “stand up” for their beliefs. This means if someone disagrees with you, they may argue with you to try to prove their point. This can be very uncomfortable if you come from a culture that values “saving face.” In some countries, getting into an argument may mean you have lost face.

Americans argue not out of anger or to fight, but to show you why they believe they are correct. Arguing is generally acceptable as part of conversation, unless you are speaking very loudly (screaming) or using bad or rude language. Students are allowed and even encouraged to disagree with their teachers. Children may argue with their parents. Workers can disagree with their bosses, but politely.

Sometimes, especially in US politics, people argue so much that nothing can get done. One famous professor, Deborah Tannen, criticizes  Americans for approaching anything that needs to get done as an argument between two sides. If you feel uncomfortable in an argument, it is okay to explain that you do not feel comfortable arguing. However, you may need to learn to tell people that you disagree with them or else they might think you agree with what they say.


One part of communication that can be very hard when you are adjusting to a new culture is humor. You might make a joke that people around do not understand. Or someone might make a joke that you do not understand. Since humor is cultural, sometimes even if you understand the joke, you might not think it is funny.

Many Americans like to tell jokes. Sometimes, jokes can be funny and everyone laughs. Sometimes, jokes can be offensive. For example, someone might tell a joke based on race or gender. These people and jokes are not politically correct!  If someone tells a joke that offends you, you can politely say you find it offensive or disrespectful and ask them not to tell you any more jokes of that kind.

Freedom of speech is protected by the US Constitution. Because of this, the US media can make jokes about things that people in other countries may not joke about. For example, in the US, there are some newspapers that are “joke” newspapers – they write news that is satirical or funny, but not true. For example, a US satirical newspaper paper called the Onion wrote a story about the President of North Korea. They said he was voted the most handsome man in the world. Some people in North Korea and China thought the story was true. But the story was just a joke.

In the US, some people like to watch comedies. They might also like to watch stand-up comedians, or people who tell jokes for a living in theaters and clubs. Sometimes, comedies can be inappropriate.

Some Americans like to trick each other. In America, there is a holiday called April Fools’ Day. It is on the first day of April. On this day, many people like to try to play tricks. For example, someone at work might make you believe something is true when it is not. People call these jokes “pranks” or “pulling your leg.”

Contracts and agreements

In the US, written contracts and verbal agreements are important legally and in relationships.

Agreements are typically verbal. For example, someone may ask you to do something and you say yes or no. This is an agreement. In America, verbal agreements are generally taken very seriously. Sometimes, when you make a verbal agreement, you may also shake hands. Shaking hands is a symbol that you are both going to fulfill the agreement.

One problem with verbal agreements is that sometimes the people can misunderstand. For example, you may make a verbal agreement with someone that you will meet them at 5pm that day. But, maybe they misunderstood and thought you meant the next day.

If you agree to something, it is important to Americans that you either fulfill that agreement or that you let them know you can’t complete the agreement. Even for something small. For example, if someone asks you to have lunch and you say yes, you should either go to lunch or you should call them and tell them you can’t come before it is time for the lunch.

Contracts are written agreements that state what two (or more) people agree to. When you move into an apartment you sign a lease. When you start a job, you may receive an employment contract. If you buy a car on credit, you might sign a loan agreement. All of these are contracts.

If you sign a contract, you probably have a legal obligation to fulfill that contract. So it is very important that you read it carefully. If the contract is in English, you may want to ask for help translating it. For a simple contract, you can ask a friend or you can email and we will try to help you understand the contract. If it concerns money, work, or legal services, you may want to use a professional translator or ask your caseworker for advice.

These are generalizations about American culture – not facts, but instead ideas to help you better understand why an American may be acting a way you do not understand. Remember, neither way is better than the other way – just different.
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