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The Intercultural Communication

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Culture can be defined as a particular group of persons’ collective system of meaning ranging from its values, language patterns, customs and ways of thinking, as well as their attitudes. A people’s culture will dictate their habits and their inclination to act in particular ways, rather than the actions themselves. Intercultural communication can, thus, be defined as the two way transfer of information between distinct persons or groups that have significantly varying cultures. That is two people or groups of people from very different backgrounds and cultures exchanging information directly between them. Therefore, it can be said that intercultural information is in essence the two-way transfer of cultural information between two people or groups of people each having a distinct cultural mindset. The communicating parties should be embedded in the same environment.

For a long time, it was believed that intercultural communication only entailed the one on one type of communication. However, this notion has been expanded to include even mediated communication. With globalization now a reality in the whole world, intercultural communication has taken on more importance than before. This simply means that it is important for everyone, and especially business people like me, master the art of communicating with people from diverse backgrounds and cultures.

As a businessman for more than a decade, and currently working in the real estate industry, I have had experiences with many people from different backgrounds. I can draw on this valuable experience to outline some of the best practices involving intercultural communication. In this paper, I discuss how the culture-based assumptions affect communicative behaviors, perceptions and attitudes between the two parties, the historical global views and the evolution of communication, how cultural filters impact communication, how systems of privilege are manifested through communication. Finally, I will look at the intercultural communication in terms of the power relationships.

Sources of Learning

William Gudykunst and Mody Bella are one of the foremost researchers in intercultural communication practices. Their book, Handbook of International and Intercultural Communication, published in 2002 analyzes this type of communication expertly. More importantly, the book discusses in depth some of the commonest theories advanced in this field. In this paper, I discuss the aforementioned topics using some of the theories that have been explained in this book. However, it should not be forgotten that intercultural communication is a relatively new field in the studies. Moreover, this field is constantly changing, due to the dynamic nature of the global communication tools. For instance, the advance of the internet has made it possible for persons to learn well in advance the cultural beliefs, some behaviors of other people, from almost every part of the world. As a result, the theories are constantly being constructed and reconstructed in line with the changing demographics. Therefore, this paper will discuss the theories as per their current definitions, assumptions and axioms. The most important part of this paper is not the theories themselves; rather it is my own personal experience with regards to intercultural communication.

My own personal experience with different clients from diverse cultures has enabled me to learn some valuable lessons when communicating with them. I worked for almost a decade for a mobile crane hydraulic crane manufacturer as a test technician. This entailed communicating efficiently to the Director, a practice that would come in handy when I started my own lumber company, and had to deal with my employees. I held one on one conversation with my employees, which gave me an insight on how best they can be communicated with. As the business grew, more and more employees were added to the company. In this instance, I had to address and interact with many people, with different beliefs and cultures. This was enhanced further when I had to take on executive roles, such as acquisition negotiations, administration and sales and marketing. My business lasted for 15 years.

My communication skills have lately been enhanced by my experiences as a real estate broker. At first, I had to learn to effectively market myself among the potential clients, regardless of their cultural beliefs. I also had to attend seminars where I interacted with many more people from different backgrounds. The real estate industry has given me the opportunity to build networks with other brokers, some of them having a lot more experience in the sector. This has given me valuable lessons on intercultural communication strategies. Finally, as the Chair of Sacramento district and director of Northern California CCIM Chapter, I have had to deal with members from diverse cultures. This has helped me hone my intercultural communication skills.

Using the Handbook for international and intercultural communication, coupled with personal experience, I can ably say that I can now relate to a person from a different culture from mine very effectively. This is because relations are built right from the first word. Mastering intercultural communication is a big challenge. However, when you know the right buttons to press, the right words to say, the right facial expressions to use, it is inevitable that you will get numerous clients, from very many backgrounds. Luckily for me, I have dealt with different people for a long time, such that I have the mastery of communicating efficiently to people having and believing in different cultures. In the next section, I incorporate the theories of intercultural communication with personal experiences as I discuss the competences.

Discussion of Competences

How Culturally Based Assumptions Affect Communicative Behaviors

It is not uncommon to find people categorically claiming that all Arabs are terrorists; that all Latinos are romantic and sexually charged; that all blacks should probably be in energy intensive sports or rappers. Such assumptions will dictate a great deal of how you will approach and communicate with these people. For instance, when a person is meeting an Arab for the first time, he/she may have the feeling of dealing with a very dangerous person and can be killed at any time. This fear and uneasiness will no doubt be reflected in their initial communication process. This communication will most probably be hurried and less efficient. At the end of it all, very little would have been communicated between the two persons, if these assumptions are not overcome. The culturally based assumptions work to derail the communication process. This is because not all Arabs are terrorists. In fact, very few of them are actually terrorists; a negligible percentage when you consider the whole Arab population. Additionally, terrorism is not limited to Arabs only. There are black and white terrorists too. Therefore, it is not advisable to categorize a person just by his/her background. Stereotyping is detrimental to the intercultural communication process. Imahori and Cupach analyzed how stereotyping affects the intercultural communication process.

Identity management theory: This theory was developed in 1993 by the aforementioned two persons. These two claim that identity can be viewed as giving the illustrative frame for experience. They add that identity not only motivates a person’s behavior, but it also acts as a basis for the expectation of their behavior. Imahori and Cupach acknowledge that individuals may have a wide variety of (read, multiple) identities. However, cultural identity, as well as relational identity, plays the most important role during the identity management process. Communicating individuals will always use facial expressions to display how they feel about the other party. This is apparent in intercultural communication as well. In most cases, the communicating persons may know very little about the culture of the other parties. As a result, they will manage their faces and identities using the stereotypes that they have come to know of that person’s culture. However, this strategy is very much flawed. Imahori and Cupach propose that for intercultural communication to be at its best, the parties must manage the three main aspects of face; fellowship, autonomy and competence faces.

Intercultural communication process goes through three phases; trial and error, enmeshment of identities and the renegotiation of identities. The first phase involves finding a common ground. That is, identities that are shared between the two parties. The second phase simply calls for the enmeshment of the identities into a relational identity that will be acceptable to both parties. This should happen, if the communication process is to be effective, regardless of the glaring cultural differences. After this has been done, the two parties have to renegotiate their respective identities. The second phase forms the basis for this renegotiation. The two argue that the identity management is cyclical, and all intercultural communicators must go through them, if they are to be effective. 

The above theory clearly demonstrates why having culturally based assumptions is detrimental to the communication behavior, perceptions and attitudes. Therefore, the communicating parties have to manage their identity well and follow the three outlined phases if the intercultural communication process is to be efficient. Stereotyping should be frowned upon. First and foremost, the two parties have to acknowledge their cultural differences and strive to find a common ground, acceptable for both of them. Thereafter, they have to reconstruct their individually-based identities into a more relational identity. The last step simply means that the two parties are comfortable with each other and are ready to communicate effectively.

Historically Based Worldviews and the Evolution of Communication

Many people from different parts of the world would have their own worldviews about a certain country. However, what many of them don’t realize is that most of the worldviews tend to be pervasive in a particular society, and its culture. People who fall prey to these notions are the immigrants. For instance, some of the most common views of the United States in the country are those purporting that Americans focus more on the future, nature is actually controllable, people would always want to do what is right, individualism is very much allowed, and that the accomplishments of an individual are more important than his/her conduct (Ingram). Therefore, almost all Americans have these views at the tip of their hands: although they are probably flawed. Different countries have different views of their own. This simply means that an average immigrant coming into America has his/her own set of worldviews, in which they operate from. It must not be forgotten that their worldviews may be very different from the America’s. However, the two worldviews do not necessarily make sense during the intercultural interactions.

Paying special attention to the American case, the views mentioned may seem very odd to the immigrants. These views may form the basis for decision making and help identify the American culture. On the other hand, the immigrants may operate from different worldviews which may lead to confusion on their part. They may also start to suspect the values of American people. This simply underlines the challenges that immigrants face, when they come to the country, as they have to operate between two, probably very different, worldviews. Their integration into the American culture will be very slow, if they are not helped by the hosts. Their acculturation process is greatly hampered.

When immigrants arrive into the country, they are probably coming into a different worldviews. This culture shock may make them very suspect of the American people. As a result, they would be reluctant to communicate to the hosts. The intercultural communication at this time will be very limited. However, their conduct at this stage will greatly determine how they will be treated by the hosts. For instance, if they are open to learn the American culture, the hosts may be warm to them. The intercultural communication will be effective. Such immigrants will have their acculturation process facilitated. If, on the other hand, their naivety takes the better of them, they will be treated as thus. The intercultural communication in this case will be very limited. Their acculturation will be very slow. This scenario was explained very well by McGuirre and McDermott.

The Communication in Deviance, Assimilation and Alienation States Theory (proposed by McGuirre and McDermott): This theory arises from the fact that immigrants will have different perceptions about the hosts’ culture. This would thus affect the communication between the two. For instance, when the immigrants are very friendly to the hosts and are willing to learn the hosts’ language, there would be an assimilative communication. However, when the immigrants are deviant to the hosts and their (hosts’) culture, the hosts will thus respond by not communicating to them, or engage in low level of communication. Sometimes, the hosts may use negative tactics when communicating with the immigrants. As a result, the immigrants may feel socially isolated which would greatly affect the intercultural communication. The immigrants will feel alienated which may lead to limited communication with their hosts. This simply means that for proper and meaningful intercultural communication between the immigrants and their hosts, it is upon the immigrants to initiate the process by being friendly and receptive to the new culture (200).

Impact of Cultural Filters on Intercultural Communication

Cultural filters are all factors that influence an individual’s perceptions, their actions and how they react to other people’s actions. Cultural filters are brought about by the society, family backgrounds, religion, level of income, personal experiences, geographical backgrounds and many other personal attributes. Take, for example, the case of someone from a small country such as Bahamas. His/her experience is limited to the few episodes that happen within the country. The country may have relatively smaller companies, smaller population, a different social class and the number of different ethnic groups may be very limited. Such a person may be culturally handicapped, when compared to a person from the United States. It can be said that this person has so many filters. Additionally, due to the relatively few ethnicities in the country, this individual may have limited intercultural interactions.

Now, let us assume that this person (well, a person who has so many filters) has to communicate to another person from a totally different cultural background. First of all, this person’s scope is limited to his/her very few experiences. Most probably, they may have no or limited interaction with persons from different cultures. In most cases, such persons may resort to the already discussed stereotyping, which, as I have already discussed, is very much flawed. If this is not the case, they may display their naivety in the process. Such persons may expect the other communicating party to act the same as them (those with many filters). The other communicating party, who comes from a different culture, may not necessarily act as expected. This would lead to confusion between the two of them. For instance, in some cultures, it is very fine to shout at someone. However, this is not the case in other cultures. Many people will feel offended when they are shouted at, especially those coming from cultures that frown upon the shouting. Such confusion will lead to a fundamental misunderstanding between the two. The communication between these two culturally different persons will be very inefficient. To overcome cultural filters for proper intercultural communication, Ting Toomey proposed the Identity Negotiation theory.

Identity Negotiation Theory: Toomey proposed eight self image identities that are crucial, when it comes to intercultural communication. These are cultural, gender, personal, ethnic, role, face-work, relational and symbolic interactional. These identities are reflect an individual’s self image, and will be communicated when they relate to others. Toomey proposes that all individuals, regardless of their cultural background, will be inclined to look for identity security, trust, inclusion, connection and stability as personal and group identity levels. Identity negotiation is described as a transactional interactive process, in which persons in an intercultural environment will try to assert, modify, challenge, as well as either support or disprove his or her self-identities and those of others (Lennard, 33).

Toomey makes some propositions. These include propositions, such as individuals who are more secure about their self-identities will be more open to intercultural communication and interaction, those who feel vulnerable, will have more anxiety during these interactions, the vulnerability is brought about due to the need for security, the individuals that seek for more inclusion value much more in-group and other relational boundaries. She also proposes that an individual’s motivation and composure to speak with a stranger will dictate their hunger for the communication process. Individuals are more cognitive, affective and behavioral, and more competent in the identity negotiation. This theory chronicles the intercultural communication behaviors of persons when they first interact with a new culture. These individuals have their own identities and needs to be assured of the security of these identities. Once this is the case, they will more likely want to communicate and interact with people from different cultures. Their negotiation capabilities will facilitate their intercultural communication process (194).

How Systems of Privilege are Manifested through Communication

Marilyn Frye wondered,  she is not the first one, why when a child is born the first question that people ask is not “Are both the mother and child in good physical health?” In essence, this should be the first ideal question for a new mother. However, this is hardly the case. The case is that people will first ask what the gender of the child is; “Is the child a boy or a girl?” But why is this case? Simply put, the world is so much gendered. Humans simply don’t know how they will relate to the child without the prior knowledge of its gender. Most discussions are ‘effective’ if the parties are well aware of the genders involved (Wildman, 9). World over, gender of persons will greatly affect how they are treated, and communicated to. Needless to say, the gender system of privilege favors the males. In many organizations, the males will dominate the leadership positions. The males are expected to take control in the running of almost everything; in the houses, family and relationships, leadership, schools and institutions. Most languages purport men to be the standard. Just take a glance at English (mankind, firemen, policemen, hey you guys, manpower, men at work) to realize this, if you had never realized before.

The system of privilege does not favor males exclusively. When it comes to race, a person who is white has numerous advantages over a person of color just because, he/she is white, while the other is not. The whites will not go to a certain place, meeting, hotel or school and feel out of place. They are more likely to get services tailored for them. That took centuries for America to have a president from a different race tells only half the story.

In both cases, the system of privilege favors the dominant. The males are to be the leaders, and thus, have to be treated as so. Most of them are bound to behave as the dominant force. This will be reflected in their communication. When faced with a female, they will tend to communicate in such a way that will clearly state their position. The same applies to the whites. Most of them have been brought up acknowledging their superiority over the other races. This is ingrained in their system from a very tender age. The other races will feel that they have to take a lower position. For instance, when a white and a black person have to communicate, the white will most likely take the dominance in the process. He/she may make most of the decisions. The black may feel inferior to his/her counterpart and this will be manifested in the communication process. In certain societies, even just gaining courage to talk to a white person is problematic.

The communication process between two parties of different races is very unequal, due to this superiority and inferiority complex. On the contrary, the communicating parties cannot hide their races. Just by looking at someone, you can rightly know his/her race. However, this system of privilege does not mean that persons from different races cannot effectively communicate with each other. This paper is more concerned with communication between persons of different cultures. Therefore, I focus more on the interracial (assuming that races have different cultures) communication. If the two parties from different races are to communicate effectively, they have to overcome the challenge of superiority of one of the races. When these two persons communicate, there is a bound of uncertainty and anxiety at first. These have to be managed, if the intercultural communication is to be effective.

Anxiety/Uncertainty Management (AUM) theory: This theory was proposed by Gudykunst. When two persons from different cultures (in this case, races) meet for the first time, there is a bound of uncertainty and anxiety. This is derived from the fact that they don’t know what to expect from each other. Let’s take for example, a person from a dominant race (say a white) meets and has to communicate to a black person for the first time. Both of them have been constructed differently, just by virtue of their race. The black may expect the white to act as a superior. This anxiety/uncertainty will lead to a misunderstanding. For proper intercultural communication, this anxiety and uncertainty has to be managed. The theory itself has about 50 axioms, with many more assumptions. However, the core point is that both the communicating parties are mindful of their behaviors towards the other party. This moderation will greatly affect the management process. For instance, a person of privilege cannot continuously display his/her perceived superiority to the other party. This will increase the anxiety even further.  With moderation of superiority behaviors and frequent communication, the anxiety and uncertainty will be managed. The intercultural communication process will be facilitated. This would lead to a convergence of cultures of the parties involved (188).

Intercultural Communication in terms of Power Relationships

We live in a world where the power balance between people is very much uneven. Power imbalance is a fact of life, literally. It dictates the capacity of an individual to exert his/her will on the other. This power imbalance will manifest itself even in the communication process. Persons that feel that they have less power are less likely to air their opinions, ask for clarifications or simply demand for their rights. These persons always feel inferior to the more powerful party during the communication process. On the other hand, the more powerful party will set the agenda, make most of the decisions and assumptions and be less sensitive of the other party’s feelings and opinions. Power can be derived from one’s social status, position of authority or profession.

Power relationships and imbalances greatly affect the intercultural communication. For instance, persons from the perceived dominant cultures may feel more powerful than the other persons from marginalized cultures. The power imbalances can be used to initially (almost unconsciously) set the terms of debate. They can also effectively close some aspects of a discussion. The less powerful parties may feel that they are given a raw deal. This will be a stumbling block for open and accurate intercultural communication. Therefore, for any effective communication to take place, the power imbalance has to be acknowledged and overcome. The more powerful party has to calm down up to the level of the other party. This is because he/she may be holding the key for effective intercultural communication. The less powerful party has to feel that they are equals during the communication process. Although this may require more interactions, it is a necessity, if the two parties are to engage in a meaningful intercultural communication. This can be attributed to the fact that not only does communication involve the passage of communication, but it also involves the passing of beliefs between the communicating parties (HSC).

When the intercultural communication process is nurtured tenderly, taking care of the power relationship, there is bound of adaptation of cultures. The two parties may reach a common ground. The less powerful party may feel gain of the confidence and also act as a powerful person. This scenario is perfectly explained by Ellingsworth’s Intercultural adaptation theory.

Intercultural adaptation: This theory proposes that firsts and foremost, communication starts from within the two parties involved. This simply means that there is interpersonal transfer of information. However, since the parties are from different cultures (and in this case, there is a power imbalance between the two), there is also a transfer of beliefs. Therefore, as time passes by, there will be adaptation. In most cases, the less powerful communicating party will adapt to the culture of the more powerful counterpart. Simply put, the erstwhile less powerful parties will feel more powerful during and after the intercultural communication (190).

Conclusion

With more integration and globalization now a reality in today’s world, it is inevitable that people, and especially businessmen like us, take on intercultural communication. This is because globalization offers us  more opportunities, an expanded market albeit with more challenges. However, these challenges are welcome. Relating to and communicating with people from various cultures is very crucial. As a person who is constantly devising new ways to improve my business strategy, I believe that my mastery of intercultural communication will stand me in good stead in the future. I’m working on improving my skills even further, so that I can transfer this valuable technique to members of our organization. Expanding my horizon is my dream.

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