Help Improve Your Relationships

Kevin Y. Kawamoto
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

Communication challenges can affect anyone regardless of age, but as a person gets older, a number of physiological, cognitive, socio-cultural and even environmental factors can interfere with effective communication. This article will explore some of those factors and offer tips to improve the communication process.

What is Effective Communication?

Understanding communication challenges can help us foster healthy relationships. (Image by

Effective communication involves the accurate sending and receiving of information between or among people. For example, when the message that Person A sends to Person B — whether through verbal or nonverbal communication (or both) — is received by Person B just the way that Person A had intended, that is successful communication. If Person B, however, misunderstands the message that Person A sent, that leads to miscommunication, and miscommunication can result in conflict and strained relationships.

Let’s say, as a simple example, that Harry tells Sally, “You look nice today!” Harry intended that to be a friendly compliment, but Sally took it as an insult because she thought Harry was implying that she doesn’t usually look nice and that today was an exception. This is an example of miscommunication. The message Harry sent to Sally was not received as he had intended it to be received. In technical terms, Sally did not “decode” the message the way that Harry “encoded” it. Or Sally may tell Harry after seeing him jog around the block, “You’re so fast!” Harry misheard Sally, maybe because there was a car passing by at the time, and thinks she said, “You’re so fat!” He responds, “You’re not exactly a runway model yourself.” What caused these misunderstandings?


“Noise” doesn’t mean loud and unpleasant sounds that cause a disturbance. Yes, that is one definition of noise, but in interpersonal communication study, noise is actually anything that gets in the way of effective communication and may or may not have anything to do with sound.

Noise can be external, such as the distraction of people talking in the distance while a couple is trying to have a private conversation with each other in a restaurant. But noise can also be internal, such as a mental disturbance that makes it difficult for an individual to focus on what someone is saying. Eliminating noise, when possible, often improves communication effectiveness.

Feedback and Nonverbal Communication

Feedback is also an important part of the communication process. So, if Person A is saying something to Person B, and Person B doesn’t quite understand what Person A is talking about, Person B might have a confused look on her face and ask for clarification. That reaction from Person B is feedback, without which misunderstandings may persist and lead to problems down the road. Whether we realize it or not, most of us are continuously scanning the face and body language of the person with whom we are interacting, looking for signs of comprehension, confusion, disagreement, discord, harmony, surprise and so forth.

In the example above, after Sally told Harry that he’s so “fast,” she may have noticed that his nonverbal communication was not what she expected. If he had said, “Thanks, I’ve been practicing,” that would make sense. But if he did not look happy, that is a form of nonverbal feedback. Sally could have asked, “Did I say something wrong?” And Harry might have responded, “Did you call me fat?” These are examples of verbal feedback. Sally could have then used the feedback to clarify her initial statement. “No, I said you’re so FAST,” emphasizing the “st” sound in that word. “Oh!” Harry would likely respond. “Thanks, I’ve been practicing.” Feedback helped correct the miscommunication.

Nonverbal Communication

Because human beings are not born talking, our first ways of communicating are nonverbal: crying, cooing, smiling, frowning, wiggling around, looking irritated or uncomfortable and many other signs that parents learn to decipher. (Most pet owners can also tell when their pets are feeling happy, sad, sick, upset, tired, etc., just by reading their pets’ behaviors.) As such, most people are sensitive — some more so than others — to nonverbal communication, and this skill can be useful when someone you know loses the ability to communicate using language but is still able to communicate nonverbally.

Feedback does not have to be a one-time thing. It can be back-and-forth and ongoing. For example, an adult male caregiver says to his mother on Friday afternoon, “Mom, remember I’m picking you up tomorrow morning at 10 a.m. to go grocery shopping.” (That’s the initial message that son is sending to mother.) His mother receives the message accurately — she heard what her son said and understands what the words mean — but is also confused because normally they go shopping together on Sunday mornings, not Saturday. Her facial expression indicates some confusion, which her son notices.

Before he can say anything, she says to her son, “Did you mean Sunday morning? Not tomorrow, right? Tomorrow is Saturday.” That’s her verbal feedback to her son indicating she is confused, but she already conveyed nonverbal feedback to him through a confused facial expression. Her son then replies, “No, I mean tomorrow. Saturday. I told you earlier I can’t take you on Sunday because I am going to a friend’s wedding on Sunday!” This is part of the “feedback loop.” You keep talking back and forth in reaction to the initial message until, ideally, you reach clarity.

The feedback loop ends when mother says, “Oh I forgot you told me that. I better write myself a note and put it on the refrigerator.” Hopefully the son doesn’t roll his eyes, which would be another form of nonverbal feedback.

The trickier question is whether the mother’s forgetting what her son told her is just a part of normal aging — maybe she has a lot on her mind and has trouble keeping track of all the details, as so many of us do if we don’t write them down — or is it a sign of something more problematic, such as a decline in her short-term memory ability, and if so, what is the cause of that? You can’t answer that question based on only one incident. If short-term memory loss is a recurring problem, that is something to take note of and bring up with her primary care provider, who can then begin investigating the matter. This investigation may involve a series of cognitive tests that address the so-called “cognitive domains,” but more on that later.

Socio-cultural Factors

Communication styles are often influenced by cultural norms and values. Students of Japanese sociology, for example, may have learned that Japanese culture is considered by many cross-cultural researchers to be a “high context” culture. This means that the Japanese people (this is a generalization, not applicable to every single Japanese person) rely heavily on the social context to convey meaning and do not always communicate explicitly through words as much as some other cultures do. 

When communicating in Japanese society and other high-context cultures — and this may also apply in Hawai‘i’s Americans of Japanese ancestry community especially among more traditional families — you need to be aware of the mood, the tone, the social context and the nonverbal cues much more so than in a low-context culture, where communication is more explicit and more verbal, where a lot of talking occurs.

In a high-context culture, you have to take in a lot of information through observation and using one’s senses. This is reflected in Japanese language use, as well. Because there are different forms of Japanese language — for example, certain words and sentence structures are used for people of different social status — speakers must be aware of the status of people with whom they are interacting or even just talking about. The Japanese translation for “I gave water to my boss” would use different words and sentence structure than “I gave water to my little brother.” To violate these linguistic norms would call negative attention to oneself.

Cross-cultural Communication

I recall one of my teachers in Japan trying to convey to mostly American college students how the Japanese use a lot of nonverbal communication alongside verbal communication to convey meaning. A lot of it has to do with the tone of voice, subtle facial expressions or a turn of the head, and other well-practiced bodily movements or understated physical gestures. Of particular importance was being able to detect when a Japanese person didn’t want to do something but also didn’t want to come right out and say, “No.”

The teacher demonstrated how a Japanese woman might decline the invitation to go out on a date with an American man by simply saying in a hesitant but polite tone of voice, “Chotto…” (Literally, “Wait…” but meaning more like, “Well, I’m not really sure…”) The teacher said, only half-jokingly, “That means no, she doesn’t want to go.” But it has to be said in just the right way, with just the right inflection and body language, with the goal of not causing insult or offense. This can be frustrating for people from a low-context culture who are used to more direct and literal communication, highly dependent on words and not subtlety of expression.

“Do you want to go or don’t you?” may be the more direct reaction from someone who grew up in a low-context culture. This is where two people who have very different communication styles can run into problems. One half of the couple expects the other to say exactly what’s on his or her mind and not mince words, while the other half thinks that that kind of communication is too direct and rude.

Another example was told to me by a professional kimono-dresser who was asked by a neighborhood acquaintance, not a close friend, what her opinion was of a recently purchased kimono. The kimono dresser felt that the kimono’s design was too colorful and loud for the neighbor, but she didn’t want to come right out and say that, as the neighbor was probably expecting to be complimented on her selection.

The kimono-dresser put on a pleasant expression and said (in Japanese), “My, it’s so lively, isn’t it?” That sounds like a compliment, but it was meant to convey that “maybe this kimono is not quite right for you.” The neighbor might have gotten the “message behind the message,” but she also was able to save face by not being told upfront, “This particular kimono is more appropriate for a younger woman, not someone of your age.” If the kimono-dresser was more familiar with the neighbor, she might have been able to be more frank with her. Instead, she chose this more indirect or circuitous route of conveying her true thoughts.

The bottom line is that communication style is heavily influenced by culture, and also by one’s particular family dynamics. Some families as a whole are loud and expressive. They may even appear to outsiders as being argumentative and hostile toward each other because they always seem to be talking loud and taking over each other.

Other families don’t talk much and don’t show much emotion openly (although that doesn’t mean they don’t feel emotion deeply on the inside). To outsiders, these kinds of families may seem emotionally repressed and even dysfunctional. These are dangerous assumptions to make and are usually the result of our own cultural biases. A difference in communication style does not mean that one style is right and the other is wrong. For people with very different communication styles to co-exist peacefully, they need to understand the other’s cultural norms and values and try to “meet” each other somewhere in between through a mixture of mutual understanding, compassion and compromise.

Some people are bicultural — for example the child of two parents who have very different communication styles — and can switch back and forth between different communication styles depending on whom they are talking to. Others have experience living and studying in multicultural settings and have learned the art of seeing the world through another person’s cultural lens. It doesn’t mean you have to agree with everything in someone else’s culture, but you do your best to understand how that person’s norms, values, customs, rituals, beliefs and behaviors affect their communication style.

What other factors can lead to communication challenges between individuals, especially those communicating face-to-face (e.g., interpersonal communication)? There are many, but Part 2 will address some of the most important in the next issue of The Hawai‘i Herald.

… To be continued

Kevin Y. Kawamoto, MSW, Ph.D., has taught classes at the university-level in both gerontological social work and communication.


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