“How I had learned to communicate was different than the style used where I now was”
In her two-part panel discussion during the first SENSE Professional Development Day, Nandini Bedi made us aware of our communication styles. Her presentation revealed how style is a fundamental part of cross-cultural discourse. The styles we use and encounter as linguists are diverse, and we need to keep that in mind as we dialog and write.
When speakers use inductive communication, listeners are responsible for discerning the message. They must pick up on hints and patterns as the speaker gradually reveals their main idea. Nandini took her example from English textbooks, which position target structures within a text. After making sure students have understood the general idea, the structure is highlighted so students will notice it. Lastly, how the grammar works is finally explained. The textbook moved from general to specific, indirect toward direct.
In contrast, speakers who use deductive communication state their core message up-front, only filling in details and context as the narrative goes on. Deductive communication is the standard for academic articles written in Western scientific tradition. An introduction or abstract gives readers the main idea, and more details and context are eventually provided in the text body. Deductive communication makes the speaker responsible for comprehension. They must pre-empt any questions recipients might have.
Nandini emphasized that each communication style is nothing more than that: a style. Every style has advantages and pitfalls, and any style can leave their audience lost, especially if speakers don't share the same one. For example, inductive communication might seem evasive to deductive communicators, and deductive communication could feel rude to inductive communicators.
Our preferences for a given style reflect the communication patterns we acquired at home, at school, and at work. In other words, our cultural backgrounds are good predictors for the way we interact in the world. High-context cultures such as India encourage detailed context-giving. Nandini explained that explicit politeness strategies (which often adds to the length of interactions) are key to navigating highly stratified societies. Deductive communication has more social currency in low-context cultures such as Dutch culture. The Netherlands are more socially homogenous than India, Nandini pointed out.
Like languages, we can either acquire or learn our communication styles. The key to success is knowing your purpose and your audience. Nandini emphasized that when we speak, we must put ourselves in our interlocutor’s shoes. We need to think about how they will receive our message, and the method we choose should correspond to how well our idea will be received.
Nandini’s presentation was a wonderful reminder to be mindful of others' expectations for interaction. Following the formal presentation, attendees shared personal accounts of cross-cultural miscommunication. The crux of each example was invariably rooted in cultural assumptions. As professional communicators, we inhabit the spaces between our clients and their audiences. It is our responsibility to mind the gap and leave a footprint that anyone on the other side will recognize.