Cultural Aspects of Expatriate Living – The Relationship Between Language, Culture & Communication

by Solidbasics International – Relocation & Mobility Consultancy


Culture shock can never be completely avoided but the effects of it can be softened. It occurs when one’s own cultural values and beliefs come into conflict with those of another culture. The greater the differences between the two cultures the greater the chance of culture shock. The most obvious conflict area is language. Of all aspects of culture, language is the most pervasive and the use or misuse of language is the most obvious area of cross-cultural problems.

Culture is defined here in the anthropological sense, not in the fine arts sense. The anthropological term “culture” refers to all the learned behaviour and accepted mores within a specific society or group of people. Therefore, if culture is made up of learned values, these can be studied and a plan of action can be devised to help us anticipate the resultant culture shock.

Cultural differences and the misreading of these differences are the most frequent cause of conflict between groups from different cultures or countries. These differences are mostly unconscious, which makes them harder to cope with.


Culture is, by nature, learned behaviour. There is nothing innate about it: it is not instinct, behaviour that is the result of our genetic heritage. Nearly all of a culture is learned through use of language. Non-verbal communication occurs in all societies, but language is the primary medium of communication between human beings.


The relationship between language and culture is an inseparable one. While scientist still debate how much of our experiences is perceived within the conceptual and grammatical perspective of a person’s language, sharing them is impossible without a common understanding of these perspectives. People never realize the impact this has on their thinking until they learn a completely different language. Your language provides the framework within which you perceive reality: structural comparisons between two languages often highlights the differences in the way their speakers experience the world. So, to lessen culture shock, lesson number one is to learn as much as you can of the language of your expatriate destination. Even if you can not speak it, this improves your understanding of their point of view.


What is said may not be what is heard. Have you ever said to someone; “That is not what I meant”? What you say may not be heard as you meant it. It may be heard as something totally different from what you meant. Culture acts as a filter for meaning. If this confusion is found when speaking among users of the same language, imagine how much greater the confusion is when the very thought patterns of the hearer are totally alien to you. For example, the word “it” in English covers a multitude of meanings. In the Navajo Indian language there is no generic “it”. You would have to use a form that describes a specific shape, form, or size of “it”. Even among languages with a common origin this problem might come up: many West-Europeans take their lunch in the canteen, from the Latin “cantina”. Italians however, might eat lunch in the “mensa”, the so similar sounding word “scantinato” is the basement! So, lesson number two is to be aware that what you say and what you hear may not be what is perceived by the party on the other end of the conversation, and to understand that what might be simple and clear to you might not be so to someone else.


Being aware of cultural differences in language use can aid in adjusting to cultural differences, but only through total immersion in the cultural tradition of the country can you avoid most culture shock. Since most expatriates never reach that level of immersion, be resigned to the fact that at some point in your experience abroad you will find yourself in a state of culture shock. But that too shall pass. In communication, more than anywhere else, there are no stupid questions.