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Infant Toddler Development Training
Module 5, Lesson 2

Culture Differences and Communication

Think about how cultural differences between families and professionals might lead to miscommunication and conflict. Be aware of the different styles of interactions between families and professionals in various cultures. Consider the impact on conflict resolution when differences arise between the family and the professional. Some issues to be aware of:

  • Importance of saving face in some cultures
  • Importance of preserving harmony - not being confrontational
  • Emphasis on indirectness and subtlety

3 adults on couchThe cultural frame of reference you have may prevent you from understanding someone else's method of communication. The culture we were raised in carries with it a set of expectations and norms about how we function in the world - how we interact with family and community members, our feelings about higher authority, how we deal with conflicts and communication, etc. "Verbal communication, including voice tone, the pace of speech, modulation, pauses in conversation, how interruptions are perceived, or how quickly one gets the point in a conversation are all derivatives of cultural learning" (Jordan, 2001, p.13) It is important when dealing with others from cultures different than our own to suspend assumptions about how someone is acting or speaking and consider some alternative meanings of what they are doing or saying. It is important to examine our own perceptions and avoid making premature judgments or conclusions. (Bruns & Corso, 2001; Chen, McLean, Corso & Bruns, 2001; Friend & Cook, 2003; Thorp, 1999)

While the United States is viewed as an individualistic culture, most of the world's cultures and most immigrant groups in America are more collectivistic. Other collectivistic groups in the U.S. are African American, Native American, and Alaskan Native cultures.

Different cultures value different attributes in individuals. These attributes or value orientations usually exist along a continuum, from individualism to collectivism (Friend & Cook, 2003). Individualistic cultures place emphasis on individual goals, personal achievements, fulfillment, and competition. Collectivistic cultures value interdependence and the cohesion of the group. Differences occur in many arenas of everyday life - communication, social interactions, family life style, child rearing techniques, etc.

Another cultural consideration important for communication is whether the culture is "low" or "high" context. Low-context cultures communicate in direct, concise, verbal ways where detail and logic is valued. The United States is considered a low-context culture. High-context cultures, on the other hand, "rely less on verbal communication than on understanding through shared experience, history, and implicit messages. Fewer words are spoken and less emphasis is placed on verbal interactions" (Lynch & Hanson,1997, p. 68). More emphasis is placed on nonverbal cues and messages. Native American, African American, Latino and Asian cultures are considered high-context cultures. This has implications for effective communication between low and high-context cultures. Let's look at some cultural features among four minority cultures. Notice ways in which they may differ from the dominant U.S. Anglo-European culture. Remember that these are general characteristics on a continuum and may not apply all the time to all families (Kalyanpur & Harry, 1999; Lynch & Hanson, 1997; Tharp & Yamauchi, 1994).


Individualistic Collectivistic
Low-context: Direct, explicit communication - "get to the point." High-context: Indirect cues, communication relies on context of the conversation and past experience.
Talk: Self-assertion is achieved through talk; talk used to achieve comfort in a group. Silence: Silence is valued and used communicatively; comfort derived from silence.
Directness: Individuality and uniqueness are asserted; opinions are expressed to disagree, persuade, and avoid ambiguity. Indirectness: Hints and subtle cues are used and ambiguity tolerated to maintain harmony.
Uneven turn-taking: One party may dominate; both parties may introduce topics and speak at length about them. Balanced turn-taking: Turns distributed evenly; each party takes short turns and does not randomly shift topics.

Based on Watkins, R., & Eatman, J. (2001). An Introduction to cross-cultural communication. (Technical Report #14; Chapter 2). Champaign-Urbana, IL: Culturally and Linguistically Appropriate Services for Early Childhood Research (CLAS) Institute.

Harry, Kalyanpur and Day (1999) propose a model of cultural reciprocity to assure families are actively engaged in the special education process. This model can be effective in early intervention also. The four steps in the model have been adapted for early intervention and include:

  1. Identify what cultural values are embedded in the professional's interpretation of a child's developmental issues or in the recommendation for services.
  2. Find out whether these values are recognized by the family, and if not, how their view differs.
  3. Acknowledge and respect any identified cultural differences, and fully explain to the family the cultural basis of the professional assumption.
  4. Through discussion and collaboration between the family and the professional, determine the most effective way of adapting professional interpretations or recommendations to the value system of the family (pp.1-12).

Go to the Resource Bank to read the document, Different Perspectives Worksheet This compares some possible differing perspectives between families and professionals about the child.

After reading the lesson up to this point and looking at the chart, answer the following three questions.

  1. How can these differences increase the distance between families and professionals?
  2. Have these differences caused negative attitudes toward "un-involved", "non-compliant" parents? Toward professionals who "don't understand" or "are trying to tell me what to do"?
  3. How can you minimize these differences?


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