Each of us is exposed to people from other cultures on a regular basis, in the workplace, in our social activities, at school, or even within our families. Our culture hinders us from getting our message across as well receiving the full message that others want to convey to us. This article expound on three aspects: what culture is, the main causes for cross-cultural misunderstandings, and the attitudes and skills that we need to communicate cross-culturally.
When we think about culture we first think about a country, and particularly about its food, art, customs, and patterns of behavior. These are the outward manifestations of a system of values, assumptions, and deeply rooted beliefs. Culture emerges as a group of people face and then react to the challenges of life. The responses to those challenges that are successful are taught and shared among members of the group and are passed on from the older to the younger members. Culture is then learned through experience.
You can think of culture as having three levels:
o The top level is the outward manifestations, the artifacts: visible behavior, art, clothing and so on.
o In the middle level are the values. These are invisible rules that cause the artifacts
o The most powerful dimension of culture is the implicit cultural assumptions. These assumptions lie so deep that they are never questioned, stated or defended
Culture also exists among Americans, but what are the implicit cultural assumptions of Americans? Some of the most distinctive characteristics of the American culture are: individualism, equality, competition, personal control of the environment, self-help concept, action orientation, informality, directness, practicality, materialism, and problem-solving orientation.
These American values and deeply rooted beliefs are very different from other country’s values and beliefs. The implicit cultural assumptions of Americans are often opposed to those of other cultures. When individuals from different cultures run into each other’s values and beliefs, cross-cultural misunderstandings take place.
People constantly interact with people who have similar views and who reinforce their beliefs. To be able to distinguish between the in-group and the out-group is of central importance for individuals because it allows them to find an identity as to who they are and who they are not.
In the book entitled Cross Cultural Encounters , Brislim states: “If individuals have out-groups whom they can blame for troubles, the in-group is then solidified since there is a common goal around which to rally.” Later on he says: “Individuals become accustomed to reacting in terms of in-group and out-groups. They continue to use such distinctions when interacting with people from other cultures whom they do not know.”
This in-group/out-group distinction provides us with the basis for ethnocentrism, which is the tendency to interpret and to judge all other groups, their environment, and their communication according to the categories and values of our own culture. We are guilty of ethnocentrism when we hold that our view of the world is the right one, the correct one, and the only one.
We are all familiar with stereotyping, which is one of the most serious problems in intercultural communication. Our tendency to hold beliefs about groups of individuals based on previously formed opinions, perceptions, and attitudes is often a defense mechanism, a way of reducing anxiety.
There are many other causes of cross-cultural misunderstanding: lack of trust, lack of empathy, and the misuse of power. All of us know what they are about and the turmoil that they cause. But, how can we do a better job at communicating among cultures?
The same skills that we need to communicate in general apply to cross-cultural communication. Lets look at some of those skills:
Know yourself: Identify your attitudes, your opinions, and the biases that we all carry around. Identify your likes, your dislikes, your prejudices, and your degree of personal ethnocentrism.
Take time: Listen to the other person and allow him or her to accomplish their purpose. Don’t jump to conclusions. Some times we finish the thoughts and ideas of the other person before he or she has finished talking. Some cultures non-verbal styles call for periods of silence and long pauses.
Encourage feedback: Feedback allows communicators to correct and adjust messages. Without feedback we cannot have agreement. First we must create an atmosphere where others are encouraged to give us feedback. Again, don’t be afraid of silence. It could be the appropriate feedback at times.
Develop empathy: The grater the difference between us and others, the harder it is to empathize. To develop empathy we must put ourselves in the other person’s place. By becoming more sensitive to the needs, values, and goals of the other person, we overcome our ethnocentric tendencies.
Seek the commonalities among diverse cultures: Despite our cultural differences we are all alike in many ways. We need to seek that common ground to establish a bond between ourselves and the rest of humanity.
Although our own ethnocentrism might have hindered us from getting to know people from other cultures, let us be more than ever committed to help ourselves and others overcome the barrier that culture creates. Let us endeavor to minimize the occurrences of cross-cultural misunderstandings as we develop the attitudes and the skills that are needed to communicate cross-culturally.