Communication Patterns and Assumptions
of Differing Cultural Groups in the United States
(Adapted from Elliott, C. E. (2010). Cross-Cultural Communication
Styles, pre-publication Masters thesis)
African American Communication Patterns
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (1999), African
Americans comprise 13 percent of the U.S. population.
Animation/emotion: Communication seen as authentic is generally
passionate and animated. Communication that is presented in a neutral or
objective way is seen as less credible, and the motives of the speaker may be
questioned. The assumption is that if you believe something, you will advocate
for it. Truth is established through argument and debate. "Conversational style
is provocative and challenging, and the intensity is focused on the validity of
the ideas being discussed" (Kochman 1981 pp. 30-31). Effective teachers of
African American students are often found "….displaying emotion to garner
student respect" (Delpit, 1995, p. 142). African Americans tend to perceive
greater emotional intensity when rating the expressions of others (Matsumoto,
Directness/indirectness: Generally directly facing and talking with the
person with whom you have an issue or problem is preferred. Someone who won't
face you directly shows his or her claim or problem to be invalid; the
assumption is that anyone with a legitimate problem would come to the other
person directly. A lack of response to a general accusation or allegation
by someone is viewed as an indication of innocence. The internal attitude of an
innocent person is "I know they aren't talking about me, so I don't have to
respond."(Kochman 1981 p.90). Responding to a general accusation shows that the
"mark hit home." A direct accusation will usually bring a direct denial and a
request to confront the person making the allegation.
In terms of romance, men and often women will usually state directly whether
they are interested in a potential relationship. Ignoring or acting subtly
disinterested is not interpreted as a sign of disinterest from a woman; it may
be seen as a rude or arrogant response (Kochman 1981).
Teachers are often expected to show they care by "…controlling the class;
exhibiting personal power; establishing meaningful personal relationships;….
pushing students to achieve the (class) standard; and holding the attention of
the students by incorporating African-American interactional styles in their
teaching" (Delpit, 1995, p. 142).
Eye contact: Tends to be quite direct and prolonged when speaking, less
so when listening. This is the opposite of the dominant-culture pattern in which
the speaker tends to look away from the listener and the listener looks directly
at the speaker. The overall amount of eye contact is not different from
dominant-culture patterns; it is when the eye contact occurs that differs
(Johnson, 1971, p. 17).
Gestures: Frequent and sometimes large gestures are normative. The
expressiveness of the communication is what is valued, and if the gestures
increase expressiveness they are seen as enhancing communication. (V. Valdez,
September 1998, personal communication).
Identity orientation: Traditionally, African Americans have a more
collateral orientation than European Americans (Nichols 1986, management
training session). Self is viewed and decisions are made within the context of
the group and by assessing how the action will affect others in the collateral
Turn taking and pause time: Turns are taken when the speaker is moved to
speak; urgency, status, and the ability to command attention from others
determines speaking order. The right to continue speaking is granted by others
depending on how well the speaker's idea is being accepted (Kochman 1981 pp.
34). Responses from others are usually made at the end of each of the
speaker's points, and this is not felt to be an interruption of the speaker
(Kochman 1981 pp.26-27). Turn taking in dyads is also regulated by non-verbal
cues that differ markedly from those of the dominant culture. These include:
hand gestures, postural shifts which mirror the conversational partner,
intonation drop, tempo slowing, and lessening of intensity. The change in gaze
direction employed in the dominant culture is often not used (LaFrance &
Mayo, 1975, pp. 7-8).
Pause time is often brief; people in groups may interrupt or speak on the
ends of other's sentences.
Space: Research on use of space among African Americans is mixed. Some
studies indicate that, in race-matched pairs, black children will stand closer
to each other during conversation than white children do. Other research has
shown that African American adults employ a greater public distance from each
other (LaFrance & Mayo, 1978, pp. 79-80).
Time: Linear time is not internalized to the extent it is in the dominant
society. Being a more relationship-oriented culture, African Americans tend to
be more relaxed in this regard--"The right time is when we get there." Anger
from others at being late is often met with puzzlement-"I'm here now, let's get
started" is a common response to this kind of situation (Nichols 1986).
Touch: Among friends, African Americans employ more physical touch than
European Americans do (LaFrance & Mayo, 1978, pp. 80-81) and less than that
usually seen among people of Latin or Arab cultures. African Americans tend to
touch children more often and for greater lengths of time than do
European-Americans (Coles, 1971).
Vocal patterns: Black English contains a wide range of both volume and
pitch within its acceptable pattern. The voice can range from a very quiet, deep
sound to very loud and high-pitched, and all may be considered appropriate.
Expressiveness and compatibility with the speaking situation is what determines
whether the pitch and tone are "correct" (Olquin, 1995). There is not a fixed,
relatively narrow range, as is the case in some other cultures.
Native American Communication Patterns
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (1999), 2.2
million persons were classified as American Indians or Alaska Natives in 1994.
(Approximately 1.5% of the U.S. population).
Animation/emotion: The preferred communication style is
restrained, "…in order to not impose one's energy or emotion on others"
(Elliott, 1992). Often Indians will speak dispassionately about something very
meaningful and important to them.
Directness/indirectness: Indirectness is usually preferable (Locust,
1988). This gives others the chance to refuse a request without directly saying
no, or to evade a question that is felt to be too personal or simply a subject
the listener does not want to discuss (Darnell, 1988, p. 5). Elders with high
status may sometimes be very direct with those younger than themselves. An
untrue allegation or accusation will often simply result in no response from an
Indian person; to reply is seen as lowering oneself to the level of ignorance or
over-emotionality of the other person. It also involves entering the negative
energy space of the accuser (Locust, 1988, p. 122) and may be interpreted by
other Indians as a sign of guilt, an indicator that the accusation is true.
Silence on the part of Indian people is often interpreted by Anglos as
indirectness, although the actual meaning may be quite different (Basso, 1970,
Eye contact: Direct prolonged eye contact is seen as invasive. It's
avoidance is practiced to "protect the personal autonomy of the interactors"
(Darnell, 1988, p. 6). Eye contact is usually fleeting, and the gaze of listener
and speaker will often remain around the forehead, mouth, ear or throat area.
Direct gaze to an elder or very respected person is seen as especially rude,
unless one is in a formal listening/storytelling situation, in which case
"…listeners may look at (the speaker) more directly … without violating his or
her personal space by eye contact" ( Darnell, 1988, p. 15).
Gestures: A relatively restrained use of gestures in normal conversation
is typical. Storytellers or elders may often use gestures, which are
larger and more frequent than those found in usual conversations.
Identity orientation: Traditional American Indians have a lineal
orientation-their identity is spread vertically over time. Ancestors, the
present collateral group or tribe, and the potential people who are not yet born
are all part of a person's felt identity and will be considered when making
important decisions (Samovar, Porter, and Jain, 1981).
Turn taking and pause time: In formal group speaking
situations, turns are usually taken by everyone present, and no one else
speaks until the previous speaker is completely through and a few moments of
silence have ensued (Darnell, 1988, p. 5). Speaking too quickly after the
previous speaker may be seen to indicate that the next speaker, talking so
quickly after the first, is a rash person who does not think things through
before he or she speaks, or is showing disrespect for the importance of the
other person or of what they had to say. Interrupting another speaker is
unbearable rudeness, and may lead to severe social consequences if the person
interrupted is an elder. When interacting with members of other cultures in
which appropriate pause times are shorter, Indians may have to be rude (by their
own standards) in order to participate in the conversation at all (Basso, 1988,
p. 12). This is a stressful experience for the person, who feels forced to
violate their own standards and self-concept in order to be heard.
Space: Often a side-by-side arrangement is more comfortable than a
face-to-face orientation, especially in two-person conversations. If interacting
with non-Indians or people whom they do not know well, Native Americans often
prefer a slightly larger interaction distance--more than arm's length--for
Psychological space can be maintained by silence. This may be employed if
the listener is asked a question he or she feels is invasive or regards as
something that should not be addressed with the other person, because the other
does not have the standing of an intimate friend or relative. Sometimes the
subject is simply seen as inappropriate.
Time: For Native people raised in a traditional environment, "clock" time
is not internalized to the same degree as it is in the dominant culture. The
"right time" for something is when everything and everyone comes together; then
the appropriate activity will ensue. Time is felt to be more a matter of season,
general time of day, or when the person is internally ready for a particular
activity. "Every living thing has its own inherent (time) system and you must
deal with each plant or animal in terms of its own time" (Hall, 1976, p. 71).
The imposition of "clock time" by members of other cultures may be interpreted
as arrogant, uncaring, or oppressive behavior. Related to this is the tendency
of Indian parents not to worry if their child is "not developing on time"
according to others' cultural or psychological standards.
Touch: Touch is usually reserved for friends or intimates; however, many
Indians have adopted the European American custom of handshaking, at least
outside of traditional settings. The Indian handshake is very light and
fleeting, to avoid imposing energy on the other person or receiving energy one
does not want.
Vocal patterns: A relatively narrow, quiet range of pitch, tone, and
volume is viewed as the proper adult communication pattern, especially when
non-Indians or elders are present. Talking quickly, loudly, and very animatedly
may be viewed with some disapproval.
Anglo or European American Communication Patterns
European Americans (ER's) comprise around % of the U.S. population.
Animation/Emotion: Emotionally expressive communication is not a
preferred mode in public communication situations. In fact, European Americans
worry that intensely emotional interactions may lead to a loss of self-control,
and therefore should be avoided. (Kochman, 1981). What people know is not
necessarily expressed in behavior. There is a strong preference to preserve the
appearance of cordiality and friendliness, even when strong differences of
opinion are present. European Americans prefer to speak about beliefs, opinions,
intentions and commitments. The prescribed value of "equality" in U.S. culture
commonly leads to a presumption of sameness: people assume that if they
feel or think a certain way about a situation, others would feel or think much
as they do, if placed in the same or a similar situation (Samovar, Porter, &
Directness/indirectness: European Americans tend to speak very directly
about certain things. Their general form of communication tends to rely
heavily on logic and technical information rather than allusion, metaphor, or
other more creative or emotional styles of persuasion. "Good" communication is
believed to be linear: the speaker should move through their "points" in a
straight, logical line, with an explicitly stated conclusion (Kaplan, 1967;
Stewart & Bennett, 1991, p.156).
Eye Contact: The European American convention for eye contact is for the
speaker to make intermittent brief contact with the listener, and for the
listener to gaze fairly steadily at the speaker. Children are specifically
taught to look at the speaker (Kochman, 1981), and will be reprimanded if they
do not. Direct eye contact is believed to be a sign of honesty and sincerity
(Stewart & Bennett, 1991, p. 99; Johnson, 1971, p. 17; Althen, 1988,
Gestures: European Americans tend to use a "medium" range of gestures in
usual conversation-not so large or frequent as Arabs or Southern Italians but
not as restrained as the English or Japanese (Althen, 1988, pp.141- 142).
Identity orientation: European Americans have an individualism
orientation. They view the "self" as located within the individual person, who
is seen as having a separate but equal place among other individuals. Self is
viewed, and mature identity is believed to be formed, primarily as an autonomous
individual. Children are raised to become self-sufficient; ideally, neither they
nor their parents expect them to live with older generations of the family after
about the age of twenty. A young person who lives with parents after this age
may be regarded questionably by themselves and others (Condon, 19; Althen, 1988,
Turn taking and pause time: Ideally, turn taking is signaled by the
speaker looking directly at the listener and ceasing to speak. Pause time is
very brief; often people speak on the end of the first speaker's last sentence
Space: The usual distance for social conversation is 2-3 feet--about
arm's length. Standing closer than this will usually be perceived as intimacy or
invasiveness, depending on the relationship of those involved.
Time: In European American culture, time is thought of as linear and
monochronic - that is, one thing or one person at a time should be given full
attention. Time is conceptualized as having a past, present, and future, and is
often thought of as a real object "which should be saved and not wasted"
(Samovar, Porter, & Jain, 1981, pp. 113-114). It is not seen as a human-made
abstraction. People often speak of losing, wasting, or finding time. Many
European Americans feel pressured by the passage of time, and consequently tend
to behave in an "efficient" and task-oriented way. If a person has an
appointment with you at 3:00, most European Americans would begin to be
affronted if the person is not there by a few minutes after 3:00, and would want
an explanation of why they are not. This behavior can be interpreted by members
of other cultures as coldness-U.S. Americans may be seen as having little
interest in personal relationships and trust building, valuing only efficiency
Touch: Most European Americans tend to "employ very little touching in
public" (Samovar, Porter, & Jain, p. 175) that is, beyond the expected
greeting ritual of the handshake. Lack of touching may be related to cultural
values of objectivity, efficiency, and autonomy. European Americans have been
described by members of other cultures as touch-avoidant. Compared to the amount
of touch that occurs in Latin American, Southern European and Arab cultures,
this is certainly true.
Vocal patterns: Tend to be in a mid-range of pitch and on the low end of
vocal variation. "Adult," mature communication in public is believed to be
objective, rational, and relatively non-emotional. Someone who is expressing
himself or herself in a very passionate way may be suspected of irrationality
Thought patterns and Rhetorical style: Directness in stating the point,
purpose, or conclusion of a communication is the preferred style (Kaplan, 1967).
Kaplan describes the English language style graphically as an arrow:
This style of communication may be viewed by other cultural groups, with
quite different styles, as abrupt or inappropriate. It is in strong contrast to
the Asian style, portrayed by Kaplan as a spiral. It is also quite different
from the Romance style (including Hispanic), which is portrayed as an arrow with
sharp turns in the shaft.
Asian American Communication Patterns
"Asian" is a very broad term, encompassing people from southern India to
Indonesia to northern Mongolia. The statements below apply most clearly to
people from northern Asian countries such as Japan or China, although they may
apply in varying degree to Asian people (or their descendants) from other
nations. "Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are persons of Asian or Pacific
Islander ancestry" and represent "more than 50 ethnic groups and speak more than
800 languages or dialects. Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are the
fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population, nearly tripling in size from 3.5
million in 1980 to almost 9.6 million in 1998." (CDC, 1999). People designated
as "Asian" comprise approximately % of the U.S. population.
Animation/emotion: The control of emotional display is highly valued. An
overt display of strong emotion could result in a loss of face for both the
speaker and the listener.
Eye contact: Japan and China are overtly hierarchical societies in which
it is always important to know one's status relative to the person one is
speaking with, so the proper forms of language and nonverbal communication can
be used. Direct eye contact lasting longer than a second or two is avoided,
especially with those superior to oneself in the hierarchy or with elders. To
behave otherwise would be disrespectful.
Gestures: Gestures are usually kept close to the body and are quite
restrained. They are used less frequently than is normal among English or
Identity orientation: Japan is usually characterized as a group-oriented
collateral society, similar to Latin American or Arab cultures. This means a
person's identity and status are intimately tied to the identity and status of
their family, and this persists throughout the individual's life span. Decisions
are often made in relation to obligations to family, and secondarily to one's
own desires. In Japan this sense of "family obligation" and a tie to the sense
of personal identity may be extended to the company one works for. China is seen
as a lineal culture, also group oriented, but with a greater sense of personal
identity being tied to ancestors and to forthcoming generations than is
experienced by most modern Japanese-Americans.
Pacing and pause time: Normally the pause employed is somewhat longer
than that of European Americans, and a little shorter than the pause typical of
Time: Traditionally, time is seen as cyclical and ever-returning. Asian
cultures are masters of waiting till "the time is right." They excel in
long-term planning and the initiation and maintenance of long-term
Touch: In public settings, touch is often so rare as to be virtually
non-existent. In one study which measured from, to whom, and where on the body
touch was allowed, "Japanese college students received less touch from mothers
and other family members than U.S. Americans received from casual acquaintances"
(Barnlund 1975 p. 154).
Vocal patterns: A relatively quiet and low-key vocal pattern is the
ideal. The overt expression of emotion is considered unseemly and childish (Tada
1975). Northern Asians, especially Japanese, tend to express emotion by
"intuitive, nonverbal communication of the sort that develops among family
members living under one roof" (Kunihiro 1976, p. 53). Indirect allusion and
metaphor are often used to express deep emotion. "The value of suppression and
restraint has deep historical roots for the Japanese." (Ramsey 1985, p. 310).
Thought patterns and Rhetorical style: Directness in stating the point,
purpose, or conclusion of a communication is not considered appropriate (Kaplan,
R. 1967). Kaplan describes the Asian style graphically as a spiral:
This style of communication may be viewed by other cultural groups as evasive
or obscure. It is in strong contrast to the European American style, portrayed
by Kaplan as a straight arrow.
Hispanic American Communication Patterns
"There are approximately 30 million Americans living in the United States who
are of Latin American or other Spanish descent, comprising 11.1% of the total
population." (CDC, 1999). As of 1994, "64 percent were Mexican Americans, 11
percent were Puerto Ricans, 13 percent were from Central and South America or
the Caribbean, 5 percent were Cuban Americans, and 7 percent were classified as
'Other' Hispanics." (Department of Health and Human Services/Public Health
Terms used to refer to this group of people can be controversial (Andrews,
1999). Some use the expression "Spanish people" to denote all people who speak
Spanish, but the expression should not apply to anyone other than individuals
who are natives of Spain. Many use the term "Hispanics," to denote all who speak
Spanish, but, again, this term does not literally apply to any people who do not
claim a lineage or cultural heritage related to Spain.
"Latino" is used to refer to people with a lineage or cultural heritage
related to Latin America, but should not be used to refer to the millions of
Native Americans in the region. Many use the term "Mexican" to refer to persons
with a lineage or cultural heritage related to Mexico, but it should only be
used to refer to the nationality of inhabitants of Mexico. U.S. citizens from
Mexico often object to being referred to as "Mexicans", as do members of
indigenous groups in Mexico.
"Mexican-American" is another term sometimes used to refer to U.S. citizens
with a lineage or cultural heritage related to Mexico, but, again, many object
to this use. The argument against "Mexican-American" is that other
nationalities, such as Germans, are not referred to as "German-Americans."
The term "Chicano" has been used recently as a distinct way to refer to U.S.
citizens of Mexican heritage, but it was originally used as a derogatory term
and is sometimes considered unsavory among more "assimilated" Mexican-Americans.
It often has a connotation of political awareness and activism.
Another group of persons from Mexico do not refer to themselves as
"Americans" at all. They consider themselves to be in an occupied country
because only 150 years ago large numbers of Mexicans became "American" citizens
overnight, when the United States won 50 percent of what was Mexico as the
spoils of war in the treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. In fact, the treaty
specifically recognized the rights of such people to retain the property deeded
to them by Mexican or Spanish colonial authorities and to receive education in
Spanish. (The treaty has obviously not been honored.)
A group that also does not refer to themselves as "Mexican-Americans" are
those who are in the United States because of economic conditions and plan to
return permanently to Mexico as soon as it is economically feasible. Although
they may have U.S. citizenship, their ties are primarily with family and friends
In short, if persons have cultural roots in Mexico, more should be learned
before referring to them with any single term. If persons have a cultural
heritage from Latin America, "Latino" is an appropriate term. Otherwise,
"Hispanic" is the most widely used nomenclature at this time.
Animation/Emotion: In public ethnically mixed settings or with
unfamiliar persons, Latinos or Hispanics tend to be somewhat low-key. They may
often state their points quite directly, but in a relatively quiet and
respectful manner. In settings with only Hispanics present, a high level of
emotional expression is acceptable. (Olquin, 1995).
Eye Contact: Direct eye contact is often viewed as disrespectful. When a
person from a Latin culture is being spoken to, they may look away or down as a
sign of respect to the person speaking, especially if that person is
significantly older than the listener or is in a position of authority over them
(LaFrance & Mayo, 1976).
Gestures: People from Latin cultures tend to use a medium to high level
of gestures. This is consonant with a cultural pattern that considers a higher
level of emotionality in expression to be the norm (Kaplan, 1967; Albert &
Identity orientation: Latino cultures in general have a collateral
orientation. This means the person's identity is intimately tied to the identity
and status of their family throughout the individual's life span. Decisions are
often made in relation to obligations to family, and secondarily to one's own
desires (Condon & Yousef, 1975).
Pacing & pause time: If the person's first language is Spanish, pause
time tends to be relatively short. Among indigenous groups, the pause time will
be considerably longer, perhaps approaching that of Native people from what is
now the continental United States (Bennett, 1996).
Space: Latino's interpersonal distance tends to be somewhat less than
that of European Americans (ER's). The typical 2-3 foot "arm's length" spacing
preferred by European Americans is experienced by many Hispanics as cold,
unfriendly, or a way for the ER to show superiority. Since both people's
expectations for "normal" social distances are often unconscious, one can
witness the phenomena of the ER being backed across the room by a Hispanic
person, as each tries to conduct the conversation in a way that feels right for
them. This may be amusing to witness but is very uncomfortable for both
participants (Bennett, 1996).
Time: Latinos tend to operate in a polychronic fashion-that is, many
activities may be going on at once, and priority is given to the immediate needs
of people, especially those involved in one's collateral network. Time is a
fluid and malleable concept (Condon, 1997).
Touch: Latin cultures tend to use touch more than cultures originating in
Northern Europe, the U.S., or Canada. Levels of touch between members of the
same sex occur far more often in public settings in predominately Hispanic
cultures than they do in European American culture, and do not carry the sexual
connotation such behavior often has in the U.S (Condon, 1997).
Vocal patterns: The normal range of voice pitch for Spanish speakers is
narrower than it is for native English speakers; often pitch and volume that are
part of "normal" conversation in English are only present in Spanish in the
"angry" range of conversation. Consequently the Spanish speaker may experience
the European American as arrogant or intimidating. The English speaker may
experience the Hispanic as shy, lacking self-confidence, or think the
Spanish-speaker is mumbling when they are only speaking in the range that is
"normal" for them (Olquin, 1995).
Volume: In business conversation, a quiet and somewhat formal way of
speaking is appropriate for the Spanish speaker. The Hispanic can experience the
European American as "yelling at me" or showing irritation when the English
speaker operates at their normal volume (Olquin, 1995).
Thought patterns and Rhetorical style: Directness in stating the point,
purpose, or conclusion of a communication is not the preferred style (Kaplan,
1967). Kaplan describes the pattern of a Romance language as an arrow that makes
sharp turns before getting to its destination. The journey is part of the valued
This style of communication may be viewed by European Americans as
disorganized or intellectually weak, since it violates the direct linear
cause-and-effect norms of English speakers.
Summary of Normative Communication Styles and Values
Executive Summary and List of Chapters
Candia Elliott, Diversity Training Associates
R. Jerry Adams, Ph.D., Evaluation and Development Institute
Suganya Sockalingam, Ph.D., Office of Multicultural Health, Department of Human Resources, Oregon
January 1, 2016
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