Learning to Communicate Up and Down the Organizational Tree

Oct 14, 2021 | 2 comments

During our first year in Mexico, I was trying to learn when I should use a formal “you”, usted, and an informal “you” . My understanding was that tú was used between those who had a close relationship, and usted was used for those who were more acquaintances. I was frustrated because the Bible Institute secretary always addressed me as usted, but wanted me to use tú with her. I thought she was purposefully making a statement that I was not in her “inner circle,” and I took offense. As I grew in language and cultural awareness, I realized that she could not use tú with me, no matter how close our relationship might be; as wife of the school director, she had to address me as usted. The organizational structure of the Bible school, the educational system, and society in general dictated the use of tú and usted.

Last year, Mark Hedinger talked about observing organization structures in your host culture referring to the branches on the CultureTree®.  In his post, he states, “The interesting thing about patterns is that they repeat!” You often see the same organizational pattern in government, business, schools, churches, social clubs, etc.

Here are some organizational examples just to get you thinking and see this in concrete terms.

—Teacher, student, parent

—Employer, employee

—Pastor, congregation

—Landlord, tenant

—Government official, citizen

—Government official, non-citizen/visitor

How can learning organizational patterns help with language learning? Well, by observing the structures around you and asking good questions about what you observe, you can avoid making social faux pas when talking with people or even worse, making moral judgments about them when they speak or respond differently from what you expect.

There’s so much more, though. Does your target language make little use or extensive use of honorifics? (Honorifics are a title or word implying or expressing high status, politeness, or respect, Oxford Languages). For instance, Thai has many layers of honorifics.[1]  

By learning their structures, you can communicate appropriately, both verbally and non-verbally, with all the people you encounter. You can show respect in word and action for the people and their culture.

If you are new to the language and culture, here are some ideas of what you can do without having to speak:

1. Observe conversations between people. Listen and note down the genders, ages, and status/roles of each speaker. Listen for the pronouns and titles each person uses with the other. Note non-verbals that accompany their conversations. For instance, do they make eye contact? Are there noticeable gestures, posture, space?

2. Watch for these conversational patterns in other places between people. This will help you understand their way of organizing themselves and allow you to copy their communication patterns as you progress in the language.

What can you learn language-wise at more advanced levels?

1. There are always nuances of language and culture to be learned. As  you listen to more in-depth conversations, speeches, sermons, etc., how can you adjust your use of language accordingly?

2. Are you launching a new initiative? If so, with whom will you be interacting? Do you know how to converse with them appropriately? This would include more than how to address them. What are the expectations of what each person may discuss?

3. Are patterns of conversation more direct or indirect? Does that pattern change between people of similar status?

4. Are there degrees of showing honor that you still have not mastered?

Understanding and communicating well within the culture and organizational structures will let you communicate appropriately and with respect. Give to everyone what you owe them:… if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor (Romans 13:7).

Where has it been easy for you to give respect in a culture? Where has it been challenging?

You know God is good. But what about those parts of your life where you’re disappointed or confused and your questions to God seem unanswered? In this five-day challenge you will look for God’s sustaining grace in a variety of situations you often encounter on the field. Join before this challenge goes away! Join here.

[1] Kummer, Manfred. 1992. “Politeness in Thai.” In Politeness in language: studies in its history, theory, and practice, edited by Richard Watts et al.. 325-336. Mouton de Gruyter.

Photo by Van Tay Media on Unsplash

Karen Hedinger

Lover of languages. Director of CultureBound’s LanguageCourse. Wife. Learner.




  1. Michele

    This is so good- I may need to bookmark it to share with ‘newbies’ because I’ve seen so many people just outright ignore these rules because they don’t make sense to them. Language use is particularly confusing- I remember a few embarrassing moments in Indonesia, especially. Your questions at the end are great to think about too. I remember settling into the status system in Indonesia. I especially took pleasure in being able to stand up for someone who was older and show them respect in my greetings, etc. That may have made it harder when I moved to South Asia and observed that kids would call someone their parents’ age auntie or uncle if that person was similar social status. If they were a cook or cleaner or guard, they became elder brother/sister even if they were older than their parents. In general I find it easy to give respect to anyone I’m supposed to give it to, but I don’t like to ‘lower’ the way I speak and behave toward someone because of their social or economic status. In situations where I can get away with it, I treat them with respect that’s outside of cultural norms, but how I believe Jesus wants me to treat them.

    • Karen Hedinger

      Thank you for your encouraging words, Michele. I would do the same as you when interacting with people of lower social/economic status. I would show respect in other ways. There’s no end to learning language and culture, is there? To me, it displays how truly creative and vast our God is. Blessings on you and the Lord’s ministry that He has entrusted to you.


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