Nr. 18 Juni 2011 TRANS: Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften
On some Issues of Intercultural Training
Tatiana Kara-Kazaryan (Pyatigorsk State Linguistic University, Russia) [BIO]
Although intercultural communication is a relatively new academic subject, intercultural communication per se is not new. As long as people from different cultures have been encountering one another there has been intercultural communication. So why should we study something which has been there for thousands of years and happening anyway?
In order to understand the vital necessity of intercultural training you only have to answer several simple, down-to-earth questions. When working with overseas colleagues have you ever been frustrated by the fact that
- they do things that are fundamentally different to your own?
- their priorities in the workplace are different from yours?
- they seem to be sending you mixed messages – and that their body language is often confusing?
- their reaction to your message was different from what you had expected?
If you have answered “yes” to any of these questions you understand the importance of intercultural studies and believe that not everybody should learn the hard way being thrown in at the deep end. Despite the fact that the basic rules of intercultural communication could be learned through real face-to-face interaction, it takes too much of our valuable time and may lead to misunderstanding and failure at the crucial moment.
The challenge is that even with all the good will in the world, miscommunication is likely to happen, especially when there are significant cultural differences between communicators. Miscommunication may lead to conflict, or aggravate the conflict that already exists. We create and perceive – consciously or subconsciously – quite different meanings of the world, our positions in it, and our relations with others.
Cross-cultural communication is outlined and demonstrated by examples of ideas, values, assumptions, attitudes that are instilled early on in life and are expressed in the way we behave and interact. Among the significant variables four seem to be of utmost importance: time and space, fate and personal responsibility, face and face saving, nonverbal communication .
When students are shown that in their daily communication representatives of different cultures have different starting points, their cultural awareness grows and thus we cultivate their cultural fluency and their ability to comprehend and respond effectively to these differences.
Time and Space
Time is one of the central categories that separate cultures. In the West time is regarded as something quantitative, measured in units and too valuable to waste. Time is divided into past, present and future, which are separate from each other. Novinger calls the USA a „chronocracy,“ in which there is such profound respect for efficiency and success of economic endeavors that the expression „time is money“ became a very popular one . This approach to time is called monochronic – it is an approach that favours linear structure and focuses on one event or interaction at a time.
In the East, on the contrary, time is perceived as an endless continuity. People may be involved in several things happening at once and this approach to time is called polychronous. This may mean many conversations in a moment (such as a meeting in which people speak simultaneously, „talking over“ each other as they discuss their subjects).
A polychronic perspective is often associated with a communitarian approach. The stress on the collective, stretching forward and rooted in the past, determines the polychronic view of time. In more monochronic settings, an individualist way of life is easier attained. If time is a straight line moving steadily forward, then fate or destiny may be less constraining.
Russia, being situated on the crossroads of Europe and Asia, tends to combine the monochromic and polychromous approaches. Being aware of the principle “time is money” Russians have a propensity to putting things off till “tomorrow”, show no reverence of deadlines and do not consider being late a terrible sin.
Fate and Personal Responsibility
Another important variable defining communication between cultures is fate and personal responsibility. This refers to the degree to which we feel ourselves in command of our lives, versus the degree to which we see ourselves as subject to things outside our control. In other words, it is about how much we consider ourselves able to change things and to choose the course of our lives.
This variable is important to understanding cultural conflict. If someone invested in free will crosses paths with someone more fatalistic in orientation, miscommunication is likely. The first person may expect action and accountability. Failing to see it, they may conclude that the other is lazy, obstructionist, or dishonest. The second person will expect respect for the natural order of things. Failing to see it, they may conclude that the first is coercive or irreverent, inflated in his ideas of what can be accomplished or changed.
Russians often live according to the principle “come what may”. They do not believe that it is possible to change the system, and prefer to rely on the famous Russian “avos” – “perhaps, or maybe, with a slightly imperative meaning”.
Face and Face-Saving
Another important cultural variable relates to face and face-saving. The concept of face, or self-representation, is important across cultures, yet the outward aspect of face and face-saving is manifested differently. Face is defined in many different ways in the cross-cultural communication literature. Novinger says it is „the value or standing a person has in the eyes of others… and that it relates to pride or self-respect“. Others have defined it as „the negotiated public image, mutually granted each other by participants in [communication]“. In this broader definition, face includes ideas of status, power, politeness, insider and outsider relations, humor, and respect. In many cultures, maintaining face is of great importance, though ideas of how to do this are different.
The starting points of individualism and communitarianism are closely related to face. If I see myself as a self-determining individual, then face has to do with preserving my image with others and myself. I can and should exert control in situations to achieve this goal. I may do this by taking a competitive position in negotiations or challenging someone whom I believe to have done me injustice. I may be comfortable in an interaction where the other party and I meet face to face and openly discuss our controversies.
If in the first place I see myself as a group member, then considerations about face involve my group. Direct confrontation or problem-solving with others may reflect poorly on my group, or disturb overall community harmony. I may prefer to avoid criticism of others, even when the disappointment I have concealed may come out in other, more damaging ways later. When there is conflict that cannot be avoided, I may prefer a third party who acts as a shuttle between me and the other people involved in the conflict. Since no direct confrontation takes place, face is preserved and potential damage to the relationships or networks of relationships is minimized.
Russians still have some rudiments of the Soviet mind-set. After decades of “being taken care of” – free education, free health care, state-provided accommodation – Russians still believe that they are entitled to a lot of things, and that somebody else should move in and settle all their problems. This quality may be described as “passionate patience”. Russians may be extremely dissatisfied with the current state of things, but they are ready to wait for a very long time for this very last “straw” which will eventually “break their back” and drive them to the point of rebellion. Americans, on the other hand, are known to be self-reliant and take an active position in problem-solving.
Generations of Russians who grew up in the Soviet era used to be and many still are very group-oriented, many others are included in their self-defining paradigm. Russians are ready to discuss problems of others, which are not part of their own lives, and very often they take these problems very much to their heart. The young generation, on the other hand, tends to be more individualistic and pro-Western in this respect.
Nonverbal communication is hugely important in any interaction with others; its importance is multiplied across cultures. This is because we tend to look for nonverbal cues when verbal messages are unclear or ambiguous, as they are more likely to be across cultures (especially when different languages are being used). Since nonverbal behavior arises from our cultural common sense – our ideas about what is appropriate, normal, and effective as communication means – we use different systems of understanding gestures, posture, silence, spatial relations, emotional expression, touch, physical appearance, and other nonverbal cues. Cultures also attribute different degrees of importance to verbal and nonverbal behavior.
Low-context cultures like the United States and Canada tend to give relatively less emphasis to nonverbal communication. This does not mean that nonverbal communication does not happen, or that it is unimportant, but that people in these settings tend to place less importance on it than on the literal meanings of words themselves. In high-context settings such as Japan, understanding the nonverbal components of communication is relatively more important to receiving the intended meaning of the communication as a whole.
Some elements of nonverbal communication are consistent across cultures. For example, research has shown that the emotions of enjoyment, anger, fear, sadness, disgust, and surprise are expressed in similar ways by people around the world . Differences surface with respect to which emotions are acceptable to display in various cultural settings, and by whom. For instance, it may be more socially acceptable in some settings in the United States for women to show fear, but not anger, and for men to display anger, but not fear . At the same time, interpretation of facial expressions across cultures is difficult. In China and Japan, for example, a facial expression that would be recognized around the world as conveying happiness may actually express anger or mask sadness, both of which are unacceptable to show overtly .
These differences of interpretation may lead to conflict, or escalate existing conflict. Even though some facial expressions may be similar across cultures, their interpretations remain culture-specific. It is important to understand something about cultural starting-points and values in order to interpret emotions expressed in cross-cultural interactions.
Another variable across cultures has to do with proxemics, or ways of relating to space. Crossing cultures, we encounter very different ideas about polite space for conversations and negotiations. North Americans tend to prefer a large amount of space, perhaps because they are surrounded by it in their homes and countryside. Europeans tend to stand more closely with each other when talking, and are accustomed to smaller personal spaces. In a comparison of North American and French children on a beach, a researcher noticed that the French children tended to stay in a relatively small space near their parents, while US children ranged up and down a large area of the beach .
The difficulty with space preferences is not that they exist, but the judgments that get attached to them. If someone is accustomed to standing or sitting very close when they are talking with another, they may see the other’s attempt to create more space as evidence of coldness, condescension, or a lack of interest. Those who are accustomed to more personal space may view attempts to get closer as pushy, disrespectful, or aggressive. Neither is correct – they are simply different .
Finally, line-waiting behavior and behavior in group settings like grocery stores or government offices is culturally-influenced. Novinger reports that the English and US Americans are serious about standing in lines, in accordance with their beliefs in democracy and the principle of „first come, first served“ . Russians and the French, on the other hand, have a practice of resquillage, or line jumping, which irritates many British and US citizens.
These examples of differences related to nonverbal communication are only the tip of the iceberg. Careful observation, ongoing study from a variety of sources, and cultivating relationships across cultures will all help develop the cultural fluency to work effectively with nonverbal communication differences.
These cultural influences are so deep that we act upon them instinctively—in everything we do, from the way we stand and talk, to the way we deal with superiors, conflict and decision-making. Since these differences are so deep and intuitive, they can lead to substantial misunderstanding and miscommunication. Nowhere can this be more detrimental than in an international workplace, where misunderstandings based on culture can make or break lucrative business deals, international mergers and any other type of cross-cultural working.
History is rich in such examples. When the first Russian embassy was sent to Japan to establish diplomatic relations it brought a lot of gifts to the Emperor of the country of the Rising Sun, which were quite valuable in Russians’ opinion. They were mostly textiles, porcelain and furs. After half a year of the Russians’ waiting and extreme politeness from the Japanese, the embassy was asked to leave the country. Some say the unwillingness of the emperor to communicate with the Russians can be explained by the wrong choice of presents: the quality of the textiles and porcelain was much inferior to the famous Japanese silks and china, as for the furs – mostly silver fox – they sent a totally unexpected message. Hardly had those Russians known that in Japan the fox – kitsune – is the symbol of evil spirit.
The main aim of intercultural training is to raise students’ cultural awareness and enable them to communicate effectively across cultures. In our university all our intercultural training courses are designed to meet the needs of our students depending on their future profession and existing skills set. An intercultural training course typically includes:
- what is cultural awareness?
- cultural values and attitudes (time, space, group dynamics, authority, tasks, relationships, family, democracy, etc.);
- communication styles (intonation, volume, body language, etc.);
- cross-cultural management skills;
- working together across cultures;
- developing cultural awareness;
- language issues (ways of expressing politeness, agreement/disagreement, etc.);
- tips and strategies for specific countries.
In the first place the course deals with basic simple things, which are nevertheless very important in routine cross-cultural communication, for example, meeting etiquette.
In Belgium a brief handshake is the common greeting among people who do not know each other. Once a relationship is developed, three kisses on the cheek may replace the handshake. This is more a kissing of the air near the person’s cheek, they start with the left cheek and then alternate. Men never kiss other men; they always shake hands.
In the UK a handshake is also a common form of greeting, but there is no kiss. There is still some protocol to follow when introducing people in a business or more formal social situation. This is often a class distinction, with the ‚upper class‘ holding on to the long-standing traditions.
In the USA greetings are casual. A handshake, a smile, and a ‚hello‘ are all that is needed. Smiling is essential. It is a sign of openness, self-confidence and readiness to communicate. Greeting kisses are not common. Partners prefer to communicate on the first-name-basis.
In Russia only men shake hands, with women men just exchange verbal greetings. Men may also kiss each other on the cheek, especially in the Caucasus.
Another important issue is egalitarianism and class distinction. Belgium is on the whole an egalitarian society. Women are not expected to change their name when they marry. There are laws governing paternity as well as maternity leaves and laws forbidding sexual harassment in the workplace.
The British class system is still very much intact although in a more subconscious way. The British still seem to pigeon-hole people according to class. Class is no longer simply about wealth or where one lives. Class can be read by demeanour, accent, manners and comportment. Commonly Women change their name when they marry are legally well protected.
The US is mostly egalitarian. Women change their name when they marry, but the feministic movement and style of thinking are quite strong.
As for Russia, today the society is divided mostly on the money basis. Women change their name when they marry, there are laws protecting them at their work place, but anti sexual harassment laws operate mostly de jure. In Russia the society tends to regard marital infidelity somewhat condescendingly. Contrary to America, where people condemned Bill Clinton for his affair with Monica Lewinsky, Russians were ready to forgive him, perceiving the whole thing as a sure sign of his red-bloodedness, energy and charisma.
It is also important that students should be aware of the difference in the general communication style across countries. Thus Belgians prefer subtlety to directness, believing that subtlety is a reflection of intelligence. Although they are more direct in their communication than many cultures, if a response is too direct it may be seen as simplistic. They prefer communication to be logical and based on reason. Belgians often engage in long, critical discussions before reaching a decision so that they can be certain that they have considered all the alternatives. They believe it is rude to be confrontational.
The British have an interesting mix of communication styles encompassing both understatement and direct communication. Many older businesspeople or those from the “upper class” rely heavily upon formal use of established protocol. Most British are masters of understatement and do not use effusive language. If anything, they have a marked tendency to use ‘qualifiers’ such as ‘perhaps’, ‘possibly’ or ‘it could be’. When communicating with people they see as equal to themselves in rank or class, the British are direct, but modest. If communicating with someone they know well, their style may be more informal, although they will still be reserved.
Americans are direct. They value logic and linear thinking and expect people to speak clearly and in a straightforward manner. To them if you don’t “tell it how it is” you simply waste time, and time is money. If you are from a culture that is more subtle in communication style, try not to be insulted by the directness. Try to get to your point more quickly and don’t be afraid to be more direct and honest than you are used to.
As Russia tends to combine many eastern and western features, there you encounter a combination of directness and subtlety depending on the speakers’ positions.
Each of the above mentioned variables are much more complex than it is possible to convey. Each of them influences the course of communications, and can be responsible for conflict or the escalation of conflict when it leads to miscommunication or misinterpretation. A culturally-fluent approach to conflict means working over time to understand these and other ways communication varies across cultures, and applying these understandings in order to enhance relationships across differences.
- LeBaron, Michelle. Bridging Cultural Conflicts. A New Approach for a Changing World. San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 2003.
- Novinger, Tracy. Intercultural Communication. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2001, P. 84.
- Novinger, Tracy. Intercultural Communication. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2001, P. 31.
- Okun, Barbara F., Fried, Jane, Okun, Marcia L. Understanding Diversity. A Learning as Practice Primer. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole Publishing, 1999, pp. 59-60.
- Okun, Barbara F., Fried, Jane, Okun, Marcia L. Understanding Diversity. A Learning as Practice Primer. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole Publishing, 1999, pp. 78.
- Novinger, Tracy. Intercultural Communication. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2001, P. 65.
- Ibid., p. 67.
- Ibid., pp. 68-69.
- Ibid., p. 68.
For quotation purposes:
Tatiana Kara-Kazaryan: On some Issues of Intercultural Training –
In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 18/2011.
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