We have borders and walls because intercultural communication can be difficult based on a variety of factors. Listen to this podcast to hear about the different reasons, theories, and examples of how communication can get complicated, especially when you step outside of your comfort zone.
Hey, this is Hannah Onder on for MCO-4318 Intercultural Communication’s fall 2019 class podcast.
Let’s get to talking.
We all define ourselves in different ways, whether that’s by our culture, race, religion, profession, nationality, family, gender, whom we love, or something else. We all have our own identities and ways we see the world. This builds a wall around a person in which some people can penetrate better than others.
Because of that wall, communication between people can be difficult. It can be especially difficult for people to communicate effectively if they’re strongly different in their identities. We see this with the borders we build around each other on maps. We’re all human beings, but we’ve grown up with different beliefs and experiences based on where we’re born and whom we’re born to and when we’re born. We all have our own origin stories about how we got to this point.
In intercultural communications, we dive into the different reasons and theories of why we have these barriers and how they can affect communication, particularly communication among people in different cultures.
The first piece we’re going to go into is unconscious biases. These are thoughts and opinions people have that they don’t even realize sometimes are influencing their actions. There are many unconscious biases out there, but a major one we discussed is white privilege. As a white person, I didn’t even realize what this term really meant and the effect it had on people until my college minority groups class. White privilege is this almost automatic trust people have in white people that leads them to give them better treatment and more opportunities compared to people of color. An example of this is how African Americans are more likely to be wrongly convicted for committing a crime than a white person, according to research done at Michigan State University.
Another critical piece to communication is the context of the conversation and the perceptions of the speakers. In intercultural communications, it’s essential to be able to express and listen to messages correctly while staying culturally appropriate and understanding how others’ perceptions and values affect their communication. These are things that can hinder communication between different cultures. Some skills that can help lessen the gap are not showing anxiety about communication, having excellent verbal and nonverbal communication skills, being able to adapt to different communication environments, understanding the others’ social customs and systems to understand their thinking and behavior. An example of this being an issue is when a person from a culture like Japan that uses silence in conversations to signal they are listening is communicating with an American who views silence as the person has no comment. Or another example would be humor because some people find one joke funny while another person could find it offensive. An example of context would be how they wording of a complaint about work to a boss changes when talking to a friend.
Another piece of communication that can divide people is nonverbal communication like symbols. A big one that divides people is what the swastika symbol means. In Hinduism culture, the symbol means peace, even though many people associate it as a negative symbol that stands for the Nazis. Symbols that don’t have a universal meaning have different meanings to different people can create mixed messages in communication between culture. Universal symbols like a white flag have a universal meaning of surrender because that’s an essential message in wartimes.
The next point that adds barriers to communication is language. Different cultures speak different languages that have to be translated over. Have you ever heard that phrase ‘lost in translation’? The most significant issues with different languages usually come from the translations because languages develop words based on their specific culture and lifestyle, so there can be situations where there aren’t a good translation from one culture to another. The five big issues are vocabulary equivalence, which is trying to match words; idiom equivalence, which is where phrases don’t mean their literal translation like ‘it’s raining cats and dogs’; grammatical-syntactical equivalence, like with the Hopi’s lack of verb tense; experiential equivalence, which would be a lack of experience to something like an iPhone in a primitive culture; and conceptual equivalence, which is where there isn’t an agreed among meaning of a word in a language.
Another thing that separates people is their different values, which can be influenced by the culture they grew up in. The Geert Hofstede theory creates a six-dimensional model of countries based on six ways a society or culture organizes itself. The six values measured are individualism, which is the extent to which people feel independent or dependent; power distance, which is the extent people accept power is distributed unequally; masculinity, which is how much force is used in society; uncertainty avoidance, which is a tolerance for uncertainty; long-term orientation, which is how a society deals with change; and indulgence, which is the extent a society restrains itself from desires. These factors create different cultural values, which are important to consider in communication because they can influence behavior and opinions.
Some other cultural values that affect people’s communication are human-being orientation, activity orientation, time orientation, and relational orientation. Human-being orientation is how people view themselves in relation to the natural world. An example would be how people can value human life above the environment. Activity orientation is how people view their work or activity. Some people view their work as an important part of their identities, like people who introduce themselves as doctors, teachers, or some other profession. Time orientation is how society views time, like how Americans view it as something not to be wasted. Relational orientation is how people view their relationships or roles to each other, like how some people consider themselves a member of family or organization while others are independents. People’s cultural beliefs affect their decisions and how they talk about something.
Religion is another element that separates people. Religion can create a variety of customs and celebrations that wouldn’t necessarily be understood by non-practicers. For example, I’ve recently learned about a variety of winter holidays besides Christmas, like Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. I’m familiar with Christmas traditions like decorating a tree, caroling, feasting and giving presents. I’d heard bits of pieces about Hanukkah growing up with lighting the menorah and spinning a dreidel though I still don’t understand it well. Kwanzaa isn’t something I’d really figured out until college, and as far as I understand it, it’s about celebrating a harvest festival by lighting a kinara and decorating homes with fruits and vegetables. This is an example of how there are barriers between people due to their different beliefs and customs and people’s lack of understanding of them.
Gender is something else that can separate people because some cultures have more than others. Some cultures don’t have a cohesive agreement on their opinions on genders like Americans. In America, female and male are the dominant gender types, but that doesn’t mean the other genders aren’t important to know about because you never know what kind of relationship you may have with someone who identifies outside of the dominant genders. Though because of that inequality it can be harder for people isolated from a particular gender type to interact because they don’t have experience with it. An example we went over was a Christian woman who ended up having a husband that become transgender. She didn’t grow up with the idea, so it took time and learning to make the relationship keep working.
Another thing that can influence people is immigration because that can force people to have stronger barriers against outside cultures. This is because they may not get an excellent first impression, and that may cause them to create a negative bias. Although immigration can also work in the other direction because exposure to a culture can help break its stereotypes and create a more favorable impression. An example of negative immigration is America’s attention on the Mexican-American border and Trump’s desire to built a wall. The crackdown on immigration has raised negative sigmas on Hispanic people and created raised cultural tensions.
One final big concept that divides people in the worst of ways is othering. Othering is the process of where people use treatment, processes, and structures to marginalize or treat people unequally because of their identity or subculture. Othering creates an us-versus-them mentality among in-groups and out-groups. Basically, any kind of discrimination based on differences like race, religion, gender, etc. is an example of othering. An example of othering is when people refuse to elect women as leaders because they don’t feel like they have the ability to lead.
There’s a lot of different factors that create differences among cultures that build the walls and borders around us. However, just because people are different, it doesn’t mean it isn’t worth making an effort to bridge the cultures and built relationships with them.
Well, this concludes our podcast for today. Thank you for listening and see you next fall.