Intercultural communication principles
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Inter-cultural 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 unfamiliar milieux. Experience proves that merely crossing cultural boundaries can be considered threatening, 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.
What can go wrong?
People from different cultures encode and decode messages differently, increasing the chances of misunderstanding, so the safety-first consequence of recognizing cultural differences should be to assume that everyone's thoughts and actions are not just like ours. Such assumptions stem from potentially devastating ignorance and can lead to much frustration for members of both cultures. Entering a culture with this type of ethnocentrism, the assumption your own culture is correct, is another byproduct of ignorance and cultural misunderstanding.
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 able-bodied 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.
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 minimise 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 five 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.
- Investigate their culture's perception of your culture by reading literature about your culture through their eyes before entering into communication with them. This will allow you to prepare yourself for projected views of your culture you will be bearing as a visitor in their culture.
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.
- Cross-cultural communication
- Culture shock
- Intercultural communication
- Intercultural competence
- Grounding in communication
- A Dozen Rules of Thumb for Avoiding Intercultural Misunderstandings by Elmar Holenstein
- Intercultural Research: The Current State of Knowledge by Stephan Dahl
- Intercultural Communication an interactive tool based on Hofstede's principles
- Do You Make this Mistake When Listening? by Sherwood Fleming