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Intercultural communication principles guide the process of exchanging meaningful and unambiguous information across cultural boundaries, in a way that preserves mutual respect and minimises antagonism. For these purposes, culture is a shared system of symbols, beliefs, attitudes, values, expectations, and norms of behaviour. It refers to coherent groups of people whether resident wholly or partly within state territories, or existing without residence in any particular territory. Hence, these principles may have equal relevance when a tourist seeks help, where two well-established independent corporations attempt to merge their operations, and where politicians attempt to negotiate world peace. Two factors have raised the importance of this topic:
- improvements in communication and transportation technology have made it possible for previously stable cultures to meet in unstructured situations, e.g. the internet opens lines of communication without mediation, while budget airlines transplant ordinary citizens into unfamilar milieux. Experience proves that merely crossing cultural boundaries can be considered theatening, while positive attempts to interact may provoke defensive responses. Misunderstanding may be compounded by either an exaggerated sensitivity to possible slights, or an exaggerated and over-protective fear of giving offence;
- some groups believe that the phenomenon of globalisation has reduced cultural diversity and so reduced the opportunity for misunderstandings, but characterising people as a homogeneous market is simplistic. One product or brand only appeals to the material aspirations of one self-selecting group of buyers, and its sales performance will not affect the vast multiplicity of factors that may separate the cultures.
Research methods for communication and culture
The Semiotics of Communication analyses the verbal and non-verbal codes used to transfer information between people. Should these people have different cultural backgrounds, they may interpret verbal and non-verbal signals differently. Empirical methods for researching such differences propose that culture is learned by listening to, and observing the behaviour of, other members within the group. Direct and indirect interactions ensure that culture is passed from person to person and from generation to generation. The research methods are predominantly objective and quantitative, observing behaviour without considering the reasons behind it, and cataloguing the types of behavior identified as common within each culture. Data collection by observation is the primary method because intervention by the observer to ask for an explanation of the behaviour may produce unreliable subjective data and skew future behaviour when individuals are aware that they are being observed. But if researchers hypothesise that culture is coherent within the group because they share basic values (the assumption is that people think before they do), they must try to identify these basic values by inference or induction. A soft systems approach would explore multi-causal explanations of behaviour. Complexity would be assumed given age, gender, ethnicity, religion, class, personality, reaction to authority, the setting, the other party's behavior, and the presence or absence of an audience. This approach allows for more nuanced explanations but it may produce detailed explanations that are more difficult to use as a predictive tool.
What can go wrong?
People from different cultures encode and decode messages differently, increasing the chances of misunderstanding, so the safety-first consequence of recognising cultural differences should be to assume that everyone’s thoughts and actions are not just like ours. The main types of misunderstanding are:
Even when two people think they can speak each other's language, the chance of error is high. Usages and contextual inferences may be completely different between cultures. So even though one speaker may have learned the vocabulary of the other's language, selecting the most appropriate words, with the correct intonation, spoken with appropriate eye contact while standing a proper distance from the other are all critical even before one considers the propriety of the topic to be discussed.
Rights, values, and needs
Some cultural characteristics will be easy to identify, e.g. whether people are conscious of status or make displays of material wealth. But many rights are assumed, values are implied, and needs are unspoken, (e.g. for safety, security, love, a sense of belonging to a group, self-esteem, and the ability to attain one's goals).
For example, issues of personal security, dignity, and control will be very different as between an abled and a disabled person. Similarly, there may be problems of respect when a person from a rigidly class-based culture meets a meritocrat, or where there is racism, sexism or religious intolerance in play. In such situations, identity is fundamental when disputing the proper role or "place" of the other, about who is in control of their lives, and how they present themselves to the outside world. But the reality is more deeply rooted in power relationships: about who is on top of the social, economic, and/or political hierarchy. Family members or long term rivals may be obsessed with their mutual competition. The relationships between racial or ethnic groups may be affected by economic jealousy. Nations may assert that their political systems are superior. Such conflicts are difficult to resolve because no-one wants to be the loser, and few are willing to share the winnings. Stereotyping can aggravate these problems and prevent people from realising that there is another way to interpret a situation, or that other groups may define their rights in a different way. Hence, what may appear just or fair to one group can often seem unjust to an opposing group.
People may misinterpret each other's motives. For example, one group may assume that they are simply exchanging information about what they believe, but the other believes that they are negotiating a change in behavior. This is most likely to arise when the parties are not completely honest with each other from the outset. Individuals may wish to protect their privacy, corporations may be concerned about industrial espionage, and politicians may be bound by requirements of secrecy in the national interest. Nevertheless, clarifying the purpose of the interaction is essential to eliminating confusion, particularly if vested interests are involved.
If time is not a factor and those interacting approach their meetings with good will and patience, effective communication is more likely. But, if the parties are under pressure (whether generated by external circumstances or internal needs), emotions may colour the exchange. Prejudice is a short-cut decision-making tool. In a crisis, fear and anger may trigger more aggressive tactics, particularly if the meeting is being staged under the gaze of the news media.
Improving Intercultural Communication
It is essential that people research the cultures and communication conventions of those whom they propose to meet. This will mininise the risk of making the elementary mistakes. It is also prudent to set a clear agenda so that everyone understands the nature and purpose of the interaction. When language skills are unequal, clarifying one’s meaning in four ways will improve communication:
- avoid using slang and idioms, choosing words that will convey only the most specific denotative meaning;
- listen carefully and, if in doubt, ask for confirmation of understanding (particularly important if local accents and pronunciation are a problem);
- recognise that accenting and intonation can cause meaning to vary significantly; and
- respect the local communication formalities and styles, and watch for any changes in body language.
If it is not possible to learn the other's language, it is expedient to show some respect by learning a few words. In all important exchanges, a translator can convey the message.
When writing, the choice of words represent the relationship between the reader and the writer so more thought and care should be invested in the text since it may well be thoroughly analysed by the recipient.
Bovee, C.L, Business Communication Today, 7th Edition, (2003) Pearson Education
- A Dozen Rules of Thumb for Avoiding Intercultural Misunderstandings by Elmar Holenstein
- Intercultural Research: The Current State of Knowledge by Stephan Dahl
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