As cross-cultural communicators, leaders or students, we tend to focus a lot of our time on bridging cultural barriers and overcoming challenges to create an environment where we feel unified. However, as important as it is to find common ground, it is also vital to embrace the way in which different cultures move and evolve in their own way and to take the time to be curious about those differences.
The modern human is one who can not only adjust to change but is also one who can stand strong within their core while allowing various adaptations of cultures to move smoothly around them.
So what culturally relative areas of communication must we embrace? To be frank, the answer is just about everything. There are, however, a few areas that stand to be more prominent than the rest.
Cultures differ with respect to what is defined as silence and when it is deemed appropriate. It has been well established that Western countries hold themselves on rhetoric being an intrinsic part of self-expression. Americans, as a general example, think of communication as essentially a verbal activity and are subsequently uncomfortable with long periods of silence. It is often seen as a moment of awkwardness and uneasiness.
However, in a country like Japan, silence has become institutionalised to become a recognised social behaviour. In Japan, it is very important to care about (kiwo tsukau) and to understand (sassuru) others. The study of body language, including the use of the hands, body posture, gesture, facial expressions and silence are all treated as an undivided whole.
Where these two cultures interact in social situations, a clash occurs, where one wants to get to know the other by talking, and the other feels it is inappropriate to talk until they are familiar with the other. This leads to cross-cultural stereotyping, where those who are verbal see the silent culture as uncooperative or unskilled, and the silent stereotypes the talkative as garrulous and ill-mannered.
What to say
Once you do decide when to talk, what do you say? Do you ask questions? We take it for granted that questions are basic to the educational setting. How would one learn anything if one does not ask why, or how? Often hierarchy in cultures dictates who can ask the questions, but questions are also regarded as too powerful to throw around because they force a response.
When questions are avoided, stories are often used. To think historically, many tribes and prehistoric cultures used stories to explain why certain things occurred and taught important lessons. Take India, a country of over 415 different languages, has existed for ages with all these hyphenated identities but without any major catastrophe. Stories played a vital part in the process of consolidation and cementing cultures together. It is the ethos that was woven all through the cultures. It is so important to continue embracing story, and educating and communicating through story, especially in such a quickly evolving, the technology-based society we have today. Cross-cultural communication is effectively possible if one attempts to bring in stories of the cultural other into one’s own cultural realm.
Another level of difference is intonation. Intonation varies from language to language and from culture to culture with different cultures that use the same language often being able to draw different meanings using the same words where the only modification is in the intonation. The understanding of intonations across different cultures is of paramount importance for communication to be effective in an intercultural setting. This is because the underlying basis of any communication process is to create understanding and this understanding can only be derived by the use of the language understood by the audience.
Tiny differences in intonation can throw an interaction completely off without the speaker knowing that something they said caused the problem. Intonation is made up of differences in pitch, loudness, and rhythm – features of talk, we use both to show how we mean what we say, and to express special meanings.
Cross-cultural communication is like trying to follow a route on which someone has turned the signposts around. All the familiar signposts are there, but when you follow them, they don’t lead you in the right direction. That is the constant conflict that cross-cultural communicators have almost every day. By going through only a few of the elements of cross-cultural communication, we are reminded that this is only the natural progression of having people from different cultural backgrounds communicate with one another. If we all remind ourselves that others may not have understood what we said, it may go a long way to make all foreign language learners and communicators a little saner!