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Cross-Cultural Considerations

Where you come from, how do people make speeches?

Where you come from, what does the audience expect?

Customs and expectations differ around the world. Prepare yourself for international speaking engagements by researching common practices and learning to avoid misunderstanding:

 

Things to research before addressing your audience:

  • Know the taboos.
    Certain political subjects may be unacceptable topics for discussion, and religious or sexual matters may be considered inappropriate for you to address, especially as an outsider. To know about particularly sensitive topics, you may reference travel literature, or, if you are traveling from the U.S., check on travel warnings with the State Department website. In some places, you may need to completely hold back any direct criticism or accusation.
  • Know the preferred structure.
    Different cultures have different storytelling conventions. In some cultures, especially in most of Asia and Africa, it is acceptable to begin an explanation with context, working up to the thesis. In some cultures in Middle Eastern countries and Southern Europe, it may be more acceptable to digress and tell parallel stories between points. In some cultures in Northern Europe and North America, it may be more common to be immediately direct with the thesis and then explain its support.
  • Know the rules of politeness.
    Men and women may dress alike or very differently in your host culture. Speakers may be expected to be very formal and thank their hosts before speaking. The audience may applaud, or they may pound their fists on tables, or they may sit and smile with their arms folded.

 

Things to avoid in any case:

  • Avoid idioms: expressions that would require living in your culture to understand.
    For example: “Looking out for number one” in the United States means to follow self-interest, but a cultural stranger interpreting the words literally might think of looking out a window and trying to see the numeral “one.”
  • Avoid using hand gestures without checking what they mean in the culture.
    For example: Holding up the index and middle fingers means “peace” in the United States, but in Great Britain, if the backs of the fingers are facing another person, it is an offensive gesture. Be especially wary of beckoning movements with the hands or fingers.
  • Avoid digression, inside jokes, and contractions.
    Especially when dealing with a language barrier, try to keep your points simple in their expression.

 

In any less predictable speaking situation, take your time to research the specific audience as much as you can. For more tips on this, check out our “Getting Ready To Speak” page.