Culture Clash in Conversations at Work

Conflict Remedy Blog by Lorraine Segal

Is it an interruption or a cultural difference?

No one likes to be interrupted. But what constitutes an interruption can vary greatly by culture. If two people are relying unconsciously on different rules, it can lead to unnecessary negative judgements and assumptions.

In my Jewish American family, the entire time I was growing up, probably none of us ever finished a sentence before someone else slid in a comment or exclamation. It was just our way communicating, of showing we were engaged in the conversation.

As an adult, I was told a number of times that I was rude for interrupting when someone else was talking. I had to train myself to communicate differently, although it didn’t feel natural to me.

Layered Communication—following a different rule.

I was relieved when I found out this was a cultural difference rather than rudeness, that Jews Puerto Ricans, Italians and other cultures tend to interrupt by N. European standards. This style of communicating even has a name—layered communication. The people who thought I was rude and I were operating by different rules of how to have a conversation.

Conflict or collaboration?

One of my favorite examples of this occurred at a college I used to work at. My closest colleague was a Puerto Rican woman from New York. We once had a meeting together, with her assistant, a young woman of Northern European background, to plan a presentation on diversity issues.

My colleague and I talked, loudly and at the same time, finishing each other’s sentences, rapidly and enthusiastically pulling the presentation together. Her assistant was utterly bewildered. She kept looking back and forth between the two of us, as if she was at a tennis match. She couldn’t figure out what was going on. Her experience and rules made our conversation look like a fight, a battle of rudeness, but she could also see we were clearly collaborating successfully, with appreciation for each other’s contributions.

When I teach the topic of Intercultural communication at work, we look at a number of variables that can create conflict or negative assumptions. So, before you write someone off as “rude” or “cold and formal”, I encourage you to ask yourself what cultural differences might be in play. Simply knowing that these differences exist can open up a better conversation, better connection, and better understanding.


Lorraine Segal

Lorraine Segal, M.A. is a Conflict Management and Communication Consultant, Coach, and Trainer. Through her own business, Conflict Remedy, Ms. Segal works with corporations and non-profits as well as governmental entities and individuals to promote harmonious and productive workplaces.  She is a consultant and trainer for County of Sonoma. And, at Sonoma… MORE >

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