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What color is your suit? The importance of color in cross-cultural interactions.

What color is your suit? The importance of color in cross-cultural interactions.

By: Julie Parenteau, Ph.D. and Jennifer Alvarez

 

People communicate in all different ways. We use words at times, while our body language does the talking at other times. And in some cases, silence is used instead. Today we share a more subtle, but hugely important form of communication that can wreak cultural havoc in certain settings. We are talking about color. Let’s explore this fascinating topic in further detail.

Start by looking around you. What color are the walls in your office? What color flowers do you buy for your special someone to show your affection? What color are you wearing right now? How do poeple react to you when you wear that color? Colors are used in particular pink suit mencultures to represent culturally specific ideals and values. For instance, if you were to walk into a formal interview in a pink suit in the United States, what judgments might be bestowed upon you? How might that be different if you were interviewing with a Korean company?

 

Red

In much of the Western World, red is popping up all around us because St. Valentine’s Day is around the corner. Red, in that part of the world, represents love and warmth. This perspective also applies in the case of Chinese brides who typically wear red for good luck. To write a Chinese person’s name in red ink, however, means that that person is dead to you.

Red represents purity in India, but for South Africans, is used to show mourning following the death of a loved one. Red is also the color associated with Communism, in addition to Santa Claus and Satan. Interestingly, psychologists suggest that the color red has been used to stimulate brain activity.

 

Pink

Pink, a lighter shade of red, symbolizes trust in Korea. In Western cultures, pink is pink suit womenconsidered a girl’s color and often suggests femininity. Pink roses, on the other hand, represent gratitude and appreciation as opposed to red roses which represent love. Psychologists have found that pink works in suppressing the appetite and relaxing muscles.

 

Orange

In Western cultures, people often think of pumpkins and falling leaves when thinking of orange. In the Netherlands, orange is known as the color of royalty while in Northern Ireland orange is the color associated with the Protestant church. Orange roses represent enthusiasm, which supports studies that have found orange to be an appetite stimulant.

 

Green

Green has several meanings across cultures. While it symbolizes money and nature in the United States, green is also affiliated with jealousy and greed, as well as disease in some Asian countries. Green is considered the color of Islam, but to the Irish is used to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.

 

Blue

Blue is the symbol of wealth in many Eastern cultures, but represents immorality or even death in China. For Iranians and Egyptians, blue is the color of mourning. Western cultures consider blue to be a depressing, sad color and talk about people who are emotionally down

as “having the blues.” Such thoughts align nicely with those of psychologists who have studied the calming effects of the color blue.

 

Photo courtesy of www.snailcream.co.uk

Photo courtesy of www.snailcream.co.uk

Purple

Purple, once thought to be the color of royalty across much of Western Europe, has transcended to the color or loyalty in Western cultures. In contrast, widows in Thailand wear purple when in mourning. Researchers have determined that purple produces a peaceful environment and may even be used to reduce migraine headaches.

 

Black and White

Thought by many to be the absence of color, white is associated with purity in Western cultures and black is associated with mourning. Asian cultures however, have a different perspective. For those in China, Korea, and India, for instance, white is the color of death. Therefore, gifting white flowers or anything wrapped in white paper is culturally inappropriate.

 

Because of the culture that we grow up in, we tend to view colors like those around us. As we travel and venture out into the world, our perspectives broaden. We may begin to see shades of color where there were none before. Perhaps there is a local name for a specific color that was not previously in your purview.

Understanding how colors work across cultures can help people interacting in multicultural settings to avoid cultural faux pas. When deciding how to dress or what type of gift to give, it is particularly important to take color into consideration. Something as basic as the color ink used to write someone’s name or the color of the paper used to wrap a gift can make or break a business deal. Think carefully about this as you go into your next international negotiation.

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For additional insights into working effectively across cultures, contact the staff at Global Perceptions. Our professionals will set you on the right path!

Linguistic hierarchy: How language shows respect

Linguistic hierarchy: How language shows respect

By Jennifer Alvarez and Julie L. Parenteau, Ph.D.

 

Learning a second language is not only about learning vocabulary and sentence structure. It is also about learning culture. In this post, we talk about forms of respect inherent in different languages. While some cultures are more hierarchical in nature, others are less hierarchical, and their languages reflect those differences. We have taken examples from English, French, Spanish, and Japanese to demonstrate these concepts. While reading, consider the words you use in everyday life. Think about how your native language compares and then ask yourself two important questions: 1) how does your native language reflect hierarchy and 2) what does that say about the importance (or lack thereof) of hierarchy in your native culture?

 

2013-07-13 15.54.04Let’s begin with English! English spoken in the Southern region of the United States shows respect when speaking to others in positions of authority or elders by using Sir (for men) or Ma’am (for women). People in the Northern United States tend to use the terms Mr. or Mrs. in front of the person’s last name instead. However, referring to people simply by their first name has become the norm throughout much of the U.S.

 

           Hello (formal): Hello, ma’am or sir/Mr. Smith.

           Hello (informal): Hello.

 

           You’re welcome (formal): You are welcome, ma’am or sir/Mrs. Smith.

           You’re welcome (informal): You’re welcome.

 

           How are you? (formal): How are you, ma’am or sir?

           How are you? (informal): How are you?

 

The French language also distinguishes between formal and informal settings, showing respect for strangers, those in positions of authority, and elders. The “tu” form is used in informal situations, while speakers use “vous” to refer to people in formal settings. Both mean “you,” but “vous” shows a deeper level of respect for your conversational counterpart. Both the subject pronoun and the verb change to reflect this. Below are a few examples of everyday phrases in both a formal and informal setting in French.

 

          IMG_2184Please (formal): S’il vous plait.

Please (informal): S’il te plait.

 

What is your name? (formal): Comment vous appelez-vous?

What is your name? (informal): Comment t’appelles tu?

 

How are you? (formal): Comment allez-vous?

How are you? (informal): Ça va?

 

A fellow Latin-based romance language, Spanish, like French, differentiates between a formal “you” and an informal “you.” When in an informal setting, such as with friends or family, use the “tu” form. When speaking to strangers, someone in a higher position such as a manager, as well as older adults, use “usted.”  Again, note that the verb ending is also different to reflect the change in subject use. Some everyday phrases that are used in the Spanish language are listed below to show both formal and informal usage.

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How are you? (formal):  ¿Cómo está usted?

How are you? (informal): ¿Cómo tú estás?

 

What is your name? (formal):  ¿Cómo se llama usted? OR ¿Cuál es su nombre?

What is your name? (informal): ¿Cómo te llamas? OR ¿Cuál es tu nombre?

 

Where are you from? (formal):  ¿De dónde es usted?

Where are you from? (informal): ¿De dónde tú eres?

 

Japanese has two types of “respect languages.” The context of the situation and the identity of the person to whom you are speaking are the criteria used to determine which type of language is spoken. The two types of “respect languages” are: “sonkeigo,” which translates to respectful language, and “kensongo,” which is the use of modest or humble language. Following are a few examples.

 

Sonkeigo, the respectful language, is used when talking about superiors and customers.  This type of language is never used to refer to one’s self. This language is only used when referring to someone else. It is necessary to use different verb conjugations when using this type of respect language. To show respect to an elder, for example, one may change the word “suru,” meaning “do,” to “hasaru.” Altering the verb in this way shows deference or respect despite the fact that the two words have the same meaning.

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Kensongo, the modest or humble language, is used to describe one’s actions or the actions of someone in a group such as customers in a business. Kensongo is used to describe situations in which someone is speaking of an action that took place while assisting another. For example, the word carry, which is “motsu,” is changed to “mochi shimasu” because the term is being used to retell a story in which that person helped someone carry something.

 

“I had to motsu the books.” This is adequate because someone is talking about a personal action they did for themselves. Alternately, that sentence would read, “I had to mochi shimasu the books for the customer today” if the person did the action for someone else.

 

Understanding how language shows respect for authority is important for everyday conversations, but is also extremely important for business transactions. Whether or not you make an attempt to speak the other language in negotiations, make sure that you are aware of hierarchical protocol prior to engaging the other party. Showing such deference will go a long way.

 

For more language learning tips to help you through your cultural adaptation process, contact Global Perceptions, your relocation specialist in Puerto Rico.

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