The communicative style of Americans

The preceding sections concerned some values that generally prevail among Americans another way of describing differences between people from diverse cultural backgrounds, besides comparing their values, is comparing their communicative styles. According to communication scholar Dean Barnlund (writing in Public and Private Self in Japan and the United States), “communicative style” refers to:

  • The topics people prefer to discuss
  • People’s favorite forms of verbal interaction (ritual, repartee, argument, self-disclosure),
  • The depth of involvement people seek from each other
  • Communication channels people tend to rely on (vocal, verbal, physical)
  • The level of meaning to which people are generally attuned (the factual or the emotional content of messages)

When people with differing communicative styles interact, they frequently feel uncomfortable, and they often misjudge or misunderstand each other. To help understand why that happens, and to try to reduce the communications problems that arise when it does happen, it is helpful if foreigners (anywhere, not just in the U.S.) know something about the communicative style of the local people and how it compares with their own communicative style. With that knowledge, the foreigners will be better able to understand what is happening when they are dealing with the local people, and will know some of the ways in which the local people are likely to misunderstand or misjudge them. Here are some generalizations (subject to exceptions) about the communicative style of Americans:

Preferred Topics

In casual conversation (called “small talk”), Americans prefer to talk about the weather, sports (males discuss sports more than females do), jobs, people they both know, or past experiences, especially ones they have in common. As they grow up, most Americans are warned not to discuss politics or religion, at least not with people they do not know rather well, because politics and religion are considered controversial topics. Sex, bodily functions, and perceived personal inadequacies are considered very personal topics, and are likely to be discussed only between people who know each other very well (younger people generally discuss sex more freely than older people do).

Favorite Form of Verbal Interaction

In the typical conversation between Americans, no one talks for very long at a time. Participants in conversation “take turns” frequently, usually after the speaker has spoken only a few sentences. Americans prefer to avoid arguments. If argument is unavoidable, they prefer it to be restrained, carried on in a normal conversational tone and volume. Americans are generally rather impatient with “ritual” conversational exchanges. Only a very few of them are common: “How are you?” “Good, thank you. How are you?” “Good.” “It was very nice to meet you.” “I hope to see you again.”

Depth of Involvement Preferred

Americans do not generally expect very much personal involvement from conversational partners. “Small talk” – without long silences, which provoke discomfort – is enough to keep matters going smoothly. It is only with very close friends (or with complete strangers whom they do not expect to see again) that Americans generally expect to discuss personal topics.

Some people from other countries prefer even less personal involvement than Americans do, and rely more on ritual interchanges. Others come from countries where much more personal involvement is sought, where one wants to learn as much as possible about another person and keep open the possibility of developing a relationship of mutual interdependence. For Americans, getting to know another person is generally a process of learning more about the other person’s feelings and experiences in life.

Channels Preferred

The ideal among Americans is to be somewhat verbally adept, speaking in moderate tones, using relatively few and restrained gestures of the arms and hands. They do not touch each other very often.

By contrast, others might prefer even quieter conversation, less talking, and even more restrained gestures. Or they might be accustomed to louder voices, many people talking at once, vigorous use of hands and arms to convey meanings or add emphasis, and/or more touching between conversation partners.

Level of Meaning Emphasized

Americans are generally taught to believe in the “scientific method” of understanding the world around them, so they tend to look for specific facts and physical or quantifiable evidence to support viewpoints. Underlying this search for facts is the assumption that there are “truths” about people and nature that can be discovered by means of “objective” inquiry that is carried out by trained people using “scientific” means measurement of observation.

Compared to Americans, people from some other countries might pay more attention to the emotional content or the human feelings aspects of a message, and be less concerned with what Americans would call “facts.” They may not assume the existence of an objective “truth,” but may suppose that “facts” are relative, depending on who is observing them.

Many misjudgments and misunderstandings can arise from interactions between people who have different communicative styles. Here are some examples:

  • International visitors in the U.S. might hear little but “small talk” among Americans, and derive the erroneous conclusion that Americans are not intellectually capable of anything more than simple talk about such subjects as the weather, sports, teachers, or their own social lives. The conclusion that Americans are intellectually inferior is also reached by many people who regard argument as a favorite form of interaction, and who find that Americans are often not very good at arguing.
  • Responding to people who customarily speak little and who rely heavily on ritual conversation, Americans might use the labels “shy,” “too formal,” or “too polite.”
  • Vigorous arguing (with raised voices and much use of hands and arms, and perhaps more than one person talking at a time) of the kind that is “natural” to some people may alarm Americans, who expect violence, or at least long-lasting anger, to follow from loud disagreements.
  • What Americans might regard favorably as “keeping cool” – that is, not being drawn into an argument, not raising the voice, looking always for the “facts” – might be seen by others as coldness and a sort of lack of humanness. Conversely, Americans are likely to see those who do not “keep cool” as being “too emotional.”
  • Embarrassment or unease almost always results when someone raises a discussion topic that the other person thinks is inappropriate for the particular setting or relationship.
  • Americans are likely to view a very articulate person with some suspicion.

These are but a few of the many misjudgments that arise between Americans and people in the U.S. from other countries. It can be very helpful to be aware of the differences in communicative style that produce them. Please keep in mind that not every American has the same communicative style. Americans from different part of the U.S., different ethnic groups, and different age groups all have their distinguished communication styles. Within groups there might be differences as well. Talking about differences in communicative style, when such a difference seems to be causing problems, is usually a good way to reduce the negative effects of the differences.