Cultural Variations of Message in Arabs and Americans

While the [Arab and American] styles are very different, most cultural differences tend to lie below the surface of one’s awareness. Without a conscious awareness of how another culture is different from one’s own, there is a tendency to see the differences of another through the prism of one’s culture. This is how the phenomenon of ethnocentrism occurs. When ethnocentrism occurs, cultural differences are no longer neutral, but rather negative. As Norman Daniels (1975) said that when differences aren’t perceived as differences, they are perceived as right and wrong.

Cultural Variations of Messages
In American and Arab Communication Preferences

Legal documentation
Poetry, Islam
Record Preservation
–       Stress accuracy-       Emotional neutrality, objective-       Technical, concrete-       Language used to transmit information
–       reliance on symbols, emotional resonance-       abstract-       language used to create social experience
Hall (1976)
Low-context-       meaning in message-       explicit-       details within message-       speaker responsible for message comprehension
High-context-       meaning in context-       implicit-       details in context-       listener responsible for understanding message
Levine (1985)   
Direct-       direct, to the point,-       clear-       simplicity valued-       objective-       emotionalism avoided
Indirect-       indirect, circular-       ambiguous-       embellishments valued-       subjective-       deliberately use emotion
Kluckhohn & Strodtbeck(1961)
Activity/Doing-       emphasize action, measurable-       tie between word and deed
Being & Becoming-       emphasis relationship within social context-       words for social effect
Dodd (1982)
Linear-       one theme-       organized with beginning and end-       object oriented
Non-linear-       not necessary to have one theme-       organization is not stressed-       people & event oriented
Literate Society-       written word valued-       singular experience-       factual accuracy stressed-       logic and coherence-       speaker and audience detached-       analytical reasoning
Aural/Oral Society-       aural experience valued-       group experience-       imagery and sounds stressed-       emotional resonance-       speaker and audience linked-       intuitive reasoning


Not only do the two cultures differ in how they view the role of language, they also exhibit distinct preferences for one particular rhetorical device over another in designing persuasive messages.

Repetition versus Simplicity

Repetition in Arabic is a decidedly positive feature. It is not uncommon to find a string of descriptive phrases or words all referring to one phenomenon (Shouby, 1951). Not only is there repetition within a message, but often times repetition is used as a strategy among messages. Repetition — to repeat something over and over again, or to be wordy or verbose — for Americans may have negative implication. For the speaker, it could imply that the statement was not heard or not taken seriously, and thus necessary to repeat it. For the listener, repetition can imply that the listener was not paying attention or perhaps is not mentally capable of comprehending. Repetition, even as a rhetorical device in public speaking, is used sparingly for emphasis.

Accuracy versus Imagery

Because of the powerful group experience in the oral tradition, a speaker seeks to engage the imagination and feelings of the audience. It is not uncommon for an Arab speaker to use metaphors that may seem outlandish to an American. However, creative metaphors, analogies, and story-telling are part of the rich fabric of the oral tradition. In fact, whereas an American may insert facts and figures to illustrate a point, and Arab speaker may use one strong, vivid example to convey a point. An Arab speaker also tends to be very generous in her use of descriptive adjectives and adverbs.

The Focus, By Hanna Ali Khliefat

Exaggeration versus Understatement

As scholars have noted, distinct cultural preferences exist regarding how much one may stress an event or feeling. Shouby (1951), for example, observed a tendency of overassertion by Arabs and understatements by Americans. Prothro (1955) sought to test Shouby’s observation. Not only did Prothro find such a pronounced cultural distinction, he cautioned that “statements which seem to Arabs to be mere statements of fact will seem to Americans to be extreme or even violent assertions” (1955, p. 10). Overassertion may have contributed to the American stereotypical perception of Arabs as violent, boasting, or insincere.

Words versus Action

Because of the symbolism of Arabic derived from the aesthetic realm of art and spiritual realm of religion, words may be more tied to emotions rather than concrete realities. In contrast, the American cultural preference tends to directly link word and action. The American preference for “words matching the deeds” is evident in many common American expressions such as “Practice what you preach,” “Do what you say,” and “Walk the walk, talk the talk.” Indeed, action appears preferable over verbal statement: “Actions speak louder than words.” If one does not “keep one’s word,” by fulfilling a promised action, then one’s “words ring hollow.” The “word versus deed” gap in Arab rhetoric may have contributed to a stereotypical image of Arabs as “lazy,” or “dishonest.”

Vague versus Specific

As evident in the cultural analysis and the observations of other intercultural scholars (Anderson, 1994; and Cohen, 1987), the Arab cultural preference is for indirect, vague, or ambiguous statements. This again stems from the function of language as a social lubricant aimed at promoting social harmony. Any direct question or answer could expose the other to a public loss of face. Americans may perceive such ambiguity as frustrating, confusing, and devious. This is because the American preference is for direct, frank and open communication which they tend to associate with honesty. Also an American would tend to give the specifics and details, describing “the whole in terms of its parts.” In contrast, an Arab speaker would simply speak in terms of the whole without feeling the need to dissect the phenomenon.

Source: Bridging Cultural Differences: American Public Relations Practices & Arab Communication Patterns, R.S. Zaharna, Ed.D.