Enculturation: Understanding Nuances of Communicating Across Cultures

September 23, 2015

When we provide media/communications training, we encourage clients to think outside of the reporter interview and extend their preparation to the conversations they will have throughout the day—with employees, customers, and over drinks at happy hour. Every conversation or interaction can impact your business, and good communications training prepares you for every situation.

Recently, COHN was challenged to help a “mainlander” client understand the communication differences when working within the Hawai’i market. This client deserves kudos for taking the critical first step in approaching communication outside their own culture: They recognize that it’s important to get it right, and they’re seeking help. Working with a local island-based firm, we are training their team and adjusting all of our communications materials to set them up for success in their new market.

Being the grammar nerd I am, this is one of my favorite nuances of written communications that we’re incorporating for our client in Hawai’i: The ʻokina, which is used in many Polynesian languages as a phonetical stop, is commonly misrepresented when typed in written language. Historically, the ʻokina was commonly represented by the grave accent (`) on computers, and more recently, it has been misrepresented with the apostrophe (‘). However, Word and Apple programs offer the correct typographical mark (ʻ).

Now, in celebration of ensuring good communication around the world, and just for fun, here are five international communication tips that surprised me. If you have any fun examples to add, please share them with us on Twitter (@cohnmarketing).

1. In Japan, talking with your hands is a distraction and is frowned upon. You should avoid using large hand gestures, unusual facial expressions, and any dramatic movements.

2. Turning your head from side to side to indicate “no” means “yes” in some parts of India.

3. According to a study published in the Wall Street Journal, investors are less likely to take a stake in a company that has logos or products containing the color red. (This one is true in the United States as well as other countries.)

4. In Argentina it is considered an insult to arrive on time for dinner. In doing so, you may appear greedy. It is best to be casually late. (This would drive me nuts!)

5. In Korea, smiling at a stranger is considered rude; Koreans interpret this gesture to mean you believe they are stupid.

*Sources:,,,,, Wall Street Journal.

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