The lights are on but nobody is home

Fantasy tree house in forest

Different Ways of Communicating


“How do I work with limited eye contact and little obvious response from Aboriginal clients? Also, do we talk too much?”

Have you ever sat down and talked to a person with a different cultural background? You try to talk to them but you get little or no response. When this happens it can feel like a very strange new experience and sometimes even a little frightening. Some people start questioning themselves or the humanity of the other person. You might think “I am talking to a person here, another human being, but there is no response. It’s like the lights are on but nobody is home.”

Hardwired Communication Habits
As we grow up in our own culture we learn different habits. Some of these habits include how we communicate with each other. In academic terms these are called communication mores. They are the cultural habits we learn from our own cultural group of people. Cultural habits are hardwired into the way we do things every day.

Most people think the way their own cultural group communicates is the normal way all humans communicate. But the truth is our hardwired way of communicating is only the normal way of communicating within our own particular group. All cultural groups and even sub-groups will have different communication mores.

So when we meet somebody from another culture and their communication style is different it often confuses us because we feel like we are not getting back the appropriate responses; just like in the question above where the questioner is having problems getting responses they understand from the person of the other cultural group.

Need for Cultural Competency Training
For people who have had no cultural competency training this can be a horrific experience; enough to make them feel totally incompetent in their job or to make them give up and leave their job. Some will blame themselves; others will blame the other person or their culture for being different. But there are many different cultural ways of communicating and they are all okay, only different.

What Can We Do About It?
Some people try to learn all the dos and don’ts of a particular culture. However a better way is to try and learn about cross cultural communication, including what happens when two cultures collide, what differences can occur and to understand that these different ways are all okay.

Then we need to learn the skills necessary to work in this new communication environment. One way to learn this is to watch the other people’s body language/position, how much they look at each other and even their tone of voice. This will teach you the communication mores of that particular cultural group.

If you then mimic that communication behaviour you will find people are very responsive, using communication responses that are familiar to them, their habitual ways of communicating.

For anyone to learn the communication mores of another culture means that you have to put in some work. Going against our own habits is very hard at first and takes a lot of training. And the truth is you might never get fully proficient at the other cultural way of communicating but you will now know why your communication might be failing with a particular person. This allows you to adjust and change the way you communicate or find somebody else who can communicate more appropriately.

So to answer the question above, “How do I work with limited eye contact and little obvious response from Aboriginal clients?” you might like to try this.

Mimic the Persons Communication Behaviours
First, try to mimic the person’s communication mores.
For example, arrange seating in the way the people will sit when they’re talking to each other. Many aboriginal and other indigenous people around the world will sit beside each other and look at a common point out in front of them or just look forward, rather than the “aggressive/confrontational” position of looking at each other across a desk, or just sitting in front of each other.

To arrange this in an office situation it’s good for both people to sit at the same table looking in the same direction. If in a consulting situation position yourselves beside each other, with a half to one chair space in-between. If the person is a client or patient, you might have their file in front of you both, to which you can refer or point at different times. Or you might have a blank piece of paper so you can map out the conversation with the other person. Or you might have a reference book or picture or something else you want to refer to.

Whatever the situation, look at the thing in front of you without worrying about getting eye contact.This will take the concentration off the person you’re talking to and put it onto the subject making the other person feel less threatened and therefore far more comfortable.

Many aboriginal people do not like direct eye contact or ‘in your face’ communication, which is often the Western way of communicating.



Question Two: “Do we talk too much?”

Quite simply, yes we do. We do not let silence reign. Someone once said, “Silence is golden” and this is how it is with many non-Western cultures around the world. Much more silence and space between question-and-answer is the appropriate way to communicate for them.

So if you are working with a client who has different communication mores to most Westerners, first introduce yourself. Then sit as I suggested above, ask the question you need to ask, and then wait for the response.

If you have more time you could get to know the person a little bit more, like asking them where they’re from or that sort of thing. But if you’re using the wrong communication mores then even these sorts of questions are going to be very difficult and cause confusion.

If the person is English second language then use clear sentences and be prepared to wait even longer. (They are likely to be translating back and forward in their heads, thus prolonging the response time even further.) Do not just keep on repeating the sentence or get louder in the way you ask questions.

Just ask your question clearly and then wait for a response. Sometimes waiting quietly for 30 seconds can feel like  f-o-r-e-v-e-r and it can be very uncomfortable. So do whatever you need to do to help alleviate that feeling and stop yourself from repeating the question, or talking further. You might doodle, draw or read the person’s file. But just keep sitting and waiting. And then wait some more. You might be very surprised at what happens.

Richard Trudgen

Jan 2015

For more information on this topic please read “Cross Cultural Active Listening”, available on the Why Warriors Web Store by March 2015.

We regularly answer community development questions from readers.  If you have any questions about working in Aboriginal communities please send them in.

About Richard Trudgen

Richard was born in Orange NSW and trained as a fitter and turner. He moved to Arnhem Land in the NT in 1973 and became a community worker, learning to speak Djambarrpuyŋu. Has now worked with Yolŋu people for over 45 years. He was the CEO of Aboriginal Resource and Development Services (ARDS) for 10 years during which time he developed discovery education methodology with Rev Dr Djiniyini Gondarra OAM and also established Yolŋu Radio in 2003. He is the author of Why Warriors Lie Down and Die and facilitated ‘Bridging the Gap’ seminars, and delivered corporate training across Australia. He is currently the CEO of Why Warriors Pty Ltd, a community development social enterprise organisation working with Yolngu people. He spends his day writing, producing podcasts and building online learning platforms, producing videos and working face to face with Yolngu. He is also involved in building online cross-cultural training material to build understanding between Indigenous peoples and the Dominant Culture.

Add your comment: