The most important thing in communication is to hear what isn't being said.
Attempts to build relationships between Americans and their foreign partners frequently break down over communication difficulties. One of the most memorable examples I've seen occurred when I was an Army captain in Vietnam in the late 1960s/early 1970s.
I was invited to a reception that marked a change in command of the White Horse Division, a Korean unit that was enormously important to the allied effort to defeat the North Vietnamese. The event took place at Cam Ranh Bay, one of the world's most beautiful deepwater ports. It was a congenial gathering with wartime comrades sharing a drink even though, in many cases, we didn't share a language.
At one point, the U.S. general in charge proposed a toast to the departing Korean leader. His speech was full of compliments and thanks, ending with the hope that the commander would have "a nice flight home." At that point, the Korean slammed his drink down on the table and stalked out of the room, followed by his staff.
We Americans stood looking at each other in shock and confusion. It was several hours before we learned that every Korean military man who can still draw a breath is always sent home on a transport ship. Only the dead are flown back.
It was a communication gaffe with serious consequences. Even though the general apologized profusely, relations between the two units remained chilly for many months and ...