Do you ever have trouble communicating to people of another culture?
Any of us may travel or meet travelers. We may work with members of other cultural groups. We may converse with them from time to time. And even, we may learn a foreign language. To be aware of issues in cross-cultural communication is becoming increasingly important. Thus, such situations inevitably bring us into contact with other ways of speaking, other modes of behavior and other views of life.
Communication across cultures or cross-cultural communication looks at how people from differing cultural backgrounds communicate, in similar and different ways among themselves, and how they endeavor to communicate across cultures. With these, communication across cultures can be affected by participants’ interpretations, assumptions and expectations which largely derive from their own cultural background. Cross-cultural communication also functions at the various levels of words, grammar, and pronunciation and at the less obvious levels of discourse patterns, sociolinguistics uses of language and levels involving cultural presuppositions. Hence, cross-cultural communication often involves difficulties but fundamentally it should be viewed as an opportunity for learning and development.
As stated by Dr. Orlando Taylor (1990), in culturally diverse communities, like educative communities, differences may be expected to exist in the communication styles of students, teachers, parents, administrators and non-instructional staff. Perhaps the most important reason for educators to understand cross cultural communication is to improve their relations with the diverse groups of students and parents they will encounter. If left ignored, communication differences will inevitably lead to various types of miscommunication which may lead, in turn, to conflicts which erode school climate and cause certain groups of to feel unwelcome.
According to Dr. Marin Cortazzi (1996), in situations of cross-cultural communication, it is not only what happens or what is said that is important; it is how participants interpret the interaction which ultimately counts. It is this interpretation which guides our perception of meaning and our memory of other people. Most of us draw conclusions about others from what they say, or rather from what we think they mean. The gap between what we think other mean and what they intend to say can occur in any communication. This gap is often wider in cross-cultural contexts or situations. This is evident when there is lack of knowledge of the common language of communication, say English, which be a second or foreign language to one or both sides. Less obviously, the gap is often wider because in intercultural communication, participants may not realize that they are using language in different ways which go beyond purely linguistic competence. Our consideration of cross-cultural communication needs to include: discourse competence in which conversations or texts may be structured using different principles; sociolinguistic competence in which language users may draw on differing ideas about who may speak to whom, on what sorts of topics, on what kinds of occasion, in what manner and for what purposes; cultural competence in which cultural norms and beliefs are used to interpret actions and language behavior and to attribute values and interpretations to interaction. The problem is that our own perception of these aspects of language use is influenced by our own cultural background. It is all too easy to be unconsciously ethnocentric about such matters and to assume that our way is normal, logical or better than those ways used by speakers who come from other cultural backgrounds.
In many instances of cross-cultural communication it is important to understand the cultural presuppositions which lie behind speakers’ words and their expectations and interpretations. For instance, a Chinese student (C) asks a British person (B) for help.
C: Can you help me?
B: I would like to help you….but I’m afraid I can’t because….
When C heard the first words, she was very happy, believing she would get help; when she heard the second phrase, she was very disappointed. She thought, ‘Why did you raise my hopes and then let me down?’ She concluded that B was hypocritical. It would help if she understood the cultural presuppositions that B is using: first, to show good will and kindness by saying he would like to help, then moving to the main point that he cannot help before explaining why not. A Chinese speaker would probably give the reasons for not helping first before concluding that it was impossible: this would prepare the hearer for the bad news.
Many Chinese and Latin Americans respond to personal invitations by accepting to come, but when the day arrives they may not turn up. This has left many British and North American hosts puzzled, thinking: why did they promise to come, and then break their promises? Can they be trusted? But this interpretation misses the Chinese or Latin American cultural presupposition behind their reply: it is better to show good will, by accepting and perhaps not go, than to refuse and bring immediate disappointment to the potential host. This shows regard for the hosts face, and for that of the person invited, who does not have to provide an excuse for refusing the invitation. Thus, the Chinese and Latin Americans in this situation base their reply on social values, while the British and North Americans put truth values first. If this is understood, the situation becomes easier on both sides, although there will still be further variation depending on whether the invitation is by telephone, letter, or face to face, on whether it is a group invitation and how well the people know each other.
The abovementioned situations merely involved lack of cultural competence. Fundamentally, relevant cultural presuppositions relate to how members of a culture view the world, how they think about human nature, time, space and society. Also crucial are the balance between individual and social identity, the role of language in social relations and getting things done, and how concepts of politeness and face are realized in interaction. Probably all of these are important in all cultures, but the nature and emphasis of each may vary.
Cortazzi, M. (1996). Cross cultural communication a foreign language perspective. The Fountain. Retrieved August 12, 2010, from http://www.fountainmagazine.com/article.php?ARTICLEID=353
Taylor, O. L. (1990). Using cross cultural communication to improve relationships. Cross-Cultural Communication: An Essential Dimension of Effective Education Revised Edition. Retrieved August 12, 2010, from http://www.maec.org/cross/5.html