Cultural Awareness: Navigating the Unspoken in Interpreting Appointments

In our very diverse and multi-cultural world where we can connect with anyone around the world at the click of a button, the need for effective communication between individuals from diverse  multi-cultural background has become as important as it ever was. The world is changing, what was acceptable to those even 20-30 years ago, in 2023 is not. Communication and how its portraited is now more important than ever.

This is evident during interpreting sessions, where bridging language gaps is essential for clear understanding. However, the role of cultural awareness in these settings often becomes overlooked.

In this blog post, we’ll explore the crucial importance of cultural awareness during interpreting sessions, and how it impacts the effectiveness of communication, supported by real-life examples that illustrate its significance.

Understanding the Depth of Cultural Awareness:

Cultural awareness goes beyond just comprehending language nuances. It involves a deep understanding of the customs, norms, values, and social contexts that shape individuals’ perspectives and behaviours. This awareness is critical for interpreters to accurately convey not only the words spoken but also the intended meanings and emotions behind those words.

Examples Highlighting Cultural Awareness:

Non-Verbal Communication: The role of eye contact varies across cultures.

For instance, in many Western cultures, maintaining eye contact is often seen as a sign of honesty and engagement. However, in some Asian cultures, prolonged eye contact might be interpreted as a challenge to authority or even rudeness. In Japan, avoiding direct eye contact during a conversation is considered a demonstration of respect. In Native American cultures, prolonged eye contact can be considered invasive.

Furthermore, in certain Middle Eastern cultures, eye contact between genders may be limited as a gesture of modesty and respect. A culturally aware interpreter would help navigate these differences to ensure a respectful and productive interaction.

Idiomatic Expressions: Idioms are culturally specific phrases that don’t directly translate. For instance, “raining cats and dogs” means heavy rain in English, but conveying this in another language requires understanding and using the appropriate idiomatic expression.

Here a few examples of idiomatic phrases:

  • Spanish: “Tomar el pelo” translates literally to “take the hair”, but it means to pull someone’s leg or tease them.
  • Romanian: A face din ţânţar armăsar  translates literally “to turn a mosquito into a stallion”,  but it means to make a mountain out of a molehill.
  • Bengali: হাত বা মাথা ব্যাথা  translates literally toeither the hand or the head hurts”, but it means to be in a dilemma or to be caught in a bind.
  • Polish: “Rzucać grochem o ścianę”  translates literally “to throw peas against the wall”, but it means to talk to a brick wall or to waste words.
  • German: “Das geht mir am Arsch vorbei” translates to “that goes past my backside”, but it means that you don’t care about something at all.
  • Japanese: “猫の額” (neko no hitai) literally means “cat’s forehead,” but it’s used to describe a small space, similar to the English phrase “a little pocket of space.”
  • Italian: “In bocca al lupo” translates to “In the mouth of the wolf”, but it’s used to wish someone good luck, similar to the English “break a leg.”
  • Chinese: “马马虎虎” (mǎmǎhūhū) literally means “horse horse tiger tiger”, but it’s used to describe something as so-so or mediocre.


Taboos and Sensitive Topics: Certain topics might be considered taboo or sensitive in some cultures. An interpreter with cultural awareness would anticipate these issues and handle them delicately to prevent discomfort or misunderstanding.

  • Some examples:
  • Religion: In many cultures, discussions about religion can be highly sensitive. For instance, in Saudi Arabia, it’s advisable to avoid discussing religions other than Islam in public conversations.
  • Death and Mourning: In some Asian cultures, direct discussions about death may be considered inappropriate or bad luck. Sensitivity is crucial to prevent causing distress, especially in settings like hospitals or funerals.
  • Politics: Political discussions can escalate quickly and become contentious. For example, in China, conversations involving sensitive political topics like Tibet or Taiwan might be best avoided in certain contexts.
  • Family Planning: Conversations about family planning and reproductive health might be uncomfortable or inappropriate in some conservative cultures. In some African countries, for instance, discussions about contraception could be considered private matters.
  • Personal Finances: Sharing personal financial details can be seen as intrusive in many cultures. In Japan, discussing one’s salary openly is generally avoided.


Gestures and Body Language: Gestures can carry different meanings across cultures.

For instance, the “OK” hand sign, widely perceived as a positive affirmation in many places, can be offensive in certain countries like Brazil, where it carries a vulgar connotation. Similarly, the thumbs-up gesture, commonly seen as a sign of approval, can be offensive in the Middle East, particularly in countries like Iran. An interpreter aware of such nuances can prevent unintentional misunderstandings.

Hierarchy and Formality: Addressing individuals with appropriate titles and levels of formality is crucial in many cultures. Failure to do so might lead to a breakdown in communication or even offense.

For instance, in Japanese culture, addressing someone with the appropriate honorifics, such as “san” or “sama,” demonstrates respect and social awareness. Conversely, in some Western cultures like the United States or the UK, a more informal approach is often acceptable, especially in casual settings. An adept interpreter would grasp these nuances and ensure that communication remains respectful and effective within the cultural framework.

Time Perception: Different cultures view time differently. Being punctual might be of utmost importance in one culture, while flexibility and fluidity might be valued more in another. An aware interpreter would manage expectations accordingly.

For instance, in Swiss culture, punctuality is a deeply ingrained norm, and arriving even a few minutes late can be considered impolite and disrespectful. On the other hand, in certain South American cultures, such as Brazil, a more relaxed approach to time is common, and being slightly behind schedule is often acceptable due to the emphasis on social interactions.

Benefits of Cultural Awareness:

  • Enhanced Accuracy: A culturally aware interpreter ensures that the message being conveyed accurately reflects the speaker’s intentions, emotions, and cultural nuances.
  • Improved Rapport: Cultural sensitivity builds trust and rapport between parties, creating a more comfortable and open environment for communication.
  • Conflict Prevention: Misunderstandings arising from cultural differences can lead to conflicts. A culturally aware interpreter can mediate and prevent such situations.
  • Effective Communication: The ultimate goal of interpreting is effective communication. Cultural awareness facilitates smoother interactions, reducing the risk of misinterpretations.


In the world of interpreting, cultural awareness is the fundamental foundation that ensures messages are accurately and sensitively conveyed across diverse cultural contexts.

At Silent Sounds we recognise the vital role that cultural awareness plays in our work and remain committed to providing services that honour the richness of every culture.

Stay tuned for more insightful posts on language, culture, and effective communication!