The e-newsletter of the COPS Office | Volume 2 | Issue 1 | January 2009

Taking Cultural Competency into Account when Approaching the Asian American Community

Asian American is the fastest growing ethnic group in the United States. It comprises many diverse populations with respect to educational and socioeconomic backgrounds, cultural and linguistic characteristics, and the unique conditions of our countries of origin. The different cultures represented have different styles and patterns of communication for giving and receiving information. This diversity makes it difficult for law enforcement and health care professionals to provide standardized substance-prevention and health information. Often, the public health messages that work well for the mainstream audience may be confusing or even miss the point when directed toward Asian Americans.

The differences—In some cultures, such as those of Americans or Germans, communication occurs predominantly through explicit statements embedded in text and in verbal conversations, and can be characterized as "Low-Context" cultures. In cultures such as the Japanese and Chinese, messages may be characterized as “High-Context” and include other communicative cues such as body language, the understanding of unspoken rules, and even silence. The High-Context communication style includes context that is not obvious during discussion. Situation, behavior, and paraverbal cues are integral parts of the communicated message. High-context cultures are also characterized by “slow information processing.” Slow information processing refers to the speed at which one understands a message that is sent to them, with a delayed response often existing due to an ‘extra’ step of the person recollecting contextual cues. Slow information processing does not refer to one’s intellectual or physical abilities.

Meth-use-prevention campaign—These differences in communication styles across cultures can also pose challenges to the ways in which health promotional messages are designed and communicated. With the support of the COPS Office, Asian Media Access has designed and implemented a national public education campaign focusing on methamphetamine for the diverse Asian American community. The underlying premise of customizing a public health message to appeal to a different culture is not enough merely to translate the text. The overall communication strategy and design should be appropriate to the audience, as well. The following five examples of strategies that represent cultural competence designs for the Asian American community can help law enforcement better understand how to use such messages in their outreach efforts.

1 - Use group pictures and symbols more often: The imagery chosen for High-Context culture communication tools should reflect family and group values, and emphasize relationships and the preservation of harmony within the group.

Postcard designed for Asian Americans
Postcard designed for Asian Americans

In Asian cultures, “family” is the foundation of society and the focal point of one’s life. Group photos illustrate a sense of belonging and the recognition that drug abuse is not the problem of one person but of the whole community. High-Context use of pictures gives the audience a connection to the ideology (rather than the issue for its own sake), displaying some relationship expressive of collectivistic values and resonating with cultural meanings.

Postcard Designed for a Mainstream Community
Postcard Designed for a Mainstream Community. Photo courtesy of

The backside of one person sends a clear message of individuals, and personal meaning. It is very different from the design in the first photo, where collectivism tends to show a network of people sharing the concerns.

2 - Use indirect, often ambiguous but positive messages to preserve harmony in the group. High-context cultures, such as Asian Americans, which use slow information processing, permit messages to be indirect and touch the overall and positive feeling without a specific "get-to-the-point" approach. The message has neither a clear opening nor a clear ending, but leaves room for interpretation. Use positive messages and pictures to support a tough subject that otherwise could disturb the harmony of a group. Often, Asian American communities may resist messages that communicate a disturbing topic in an aggressive manner.

Postcard Designed for Asian Americans
Postcard Designed for Asian Americans.

High-Context cultures view one person's problem as the problem of the entire community. Messages, therefore, should use harmonious tones, not be “scary” or blaming, and should be ambiguous to foster continued harmony and the well-being of the community. They should be communicated with an understanding of cultural factors such as the concepts of “respect,” and “saving face.”

Postcard Designed for a Mainstream Community
Postcard Designed for a Mainstream Community. Photo courtesy of the Montana Meth Project.

Scare tactics such as that presented in this photo are very straightforward and visual, but can be overly aggressive to an Asian American. To appeal to Asian Americans, communication should be indirect and promote positive images.

Postcard Designed for a Mainstream Community
Photo courtesy of the Montana Meth Project.

The subject of sexuality and virginity is a topic that is addressed in private in Asian cultures. It is inappropriate to broadcast the issue in a public scope. When targeting an Asian American community, do not use aggressive communication styles that would humiliate or blame the victim.

3 - Use indirect methods to present information more slowly. In Low-Context cultures, the sender does all the work in clarifying information and getting to the point through a straight line of content. Conversely, in High-Context cultures, it is the receiver who has to retrieve the information by pulling the information from all directions in relationship to the context. This difference in information processing poses a great challenge for Low-Context designers to develop materials for High-Context culture receivers because the design plays a major role in information fluency. The High-Context format of communication design layout follows a tendency to present everything in one place to allow viewers to make their own connection to the information.

The indirect nature of High-Context communication, the predominance of preferred slow-message speed, and the prominent use of symbolism means that images, pictures, and other non-textual forms are given high importance within High-Context communication strategies.

Postcard Designed for Asian Americans
Postcard Designed for Asian Americans.

The image is quite different and unusual. Bright colors support the visual attraction of the piece. The message exemplifies multiple crosscutting intersections and presents the topic through indirectness, ambiguity, and relational connection of various subtopics to the important issue. The message hints at the subject of meth, one’s world, and the confused state of mind. It covers more than the simple message that meth is bad for you. The slower approach allows the receivers to think and reflect by themselves, ultimately coming to their own conclusions.

Postcard Designed for a Mainstream Community
Postcard Designed for a Mainstream Community.
Photo courtesy of

This piece successfully demonstrates Low-Context culture communication styles. It is heavy in text and places importance on the thorough presentation of the message. It is presented in chronological order, guiding the audience to what they should know about marijuana: that doing weed will cause X, which leads to Y and Z. Accordingly, the public health message created for the Low-Context market is expected to be richer in text with fewer occurrences of images, to ensure that Low-Context messages are practical and direct sources of information. When Low-Context messages are sent to High-Context communicators, it is possible that the point of the message will be missed.

4 - Let the receivers decide what actions are needed and meant for them. Fast-speed cultures such as the United States usually are adept at creating quick contacts, the most effective punch lines and direct leads, but may also be perceived as over-doing by High-Context cultures. Slow-message cultures, such as in many Asian American communities, may take their time to understand the big picture, connect other context to it, and build relationships to promote harmony. The message itself needs to be vague in order to invite interpretation by receiver and avoid direct confrontation. A fast message sent to people who are geared to a slow format usually will miss the target. While the content of the wrong-speed message may be understandable, someone accustomed to or expecting a different speed will not receive it effectively

Postcard Designed for Asian Americans
Postcard Designed for Asian Americans.

Images highlight the group effort with the intention of creating positive feeling. The silhouette the visual serves as an attention grabber. The message is simple, but not so particular as if to say "who is responsible to do what," It is open for the receiver to interpret the message for his or her own actions.

5 – Use comprehensive approaches, including a broader perspective, instead of a single theme. The information making up the communication materials for an Asian American community may not be in a consistent, logical sequence, layout, or color scheme. The design would need to be diverse and touch on more information or feeling than one single subject. Low-Context cultures tend to emphasize logic and rationality with limited but relevant information, based on the belief that there is always an objective truth that can be presented through linear processes of design and that the viewers will read about it. High-Context cultures, on the other hand, believe that truth will manifest itself through nonlinear discovery processes, without having to use rationality and that the viewers will feel it.

In the meth-prevention materials targeted toward the Asian American community, the focus of the design is less on meth facts and instead focuses on creating the urgent feeling to get involved in stopping the spread of meth use. It appeals from the comprehensive and emotional levels to seek behavioral change, instead of just increasing the knowledge about meth health hazards.


As the campaign unfolds, we want to share some of our findings to better support other substance-abuse-prevention projects directed toward the Asian American community. For more information about the campaign or to obtain a Meth Prevention Campaign set, contact Asian Media Access at 612.376.7715 or

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