Today, we live in a culturally diverse society due to globalization. As our world grows, expands and become increasingly more interconnected, the need for effective interpersonal communication among differing cultures has become apparent. When people from different cultures interact with one another there is intercultural communication because different cultures create different interpretation and expectations about what is seen as competent behaviors that will enable the construction of shared meanings.
There are numerous definitions of culture but I will use the definition of the interpretive approach and Clifford Geertz’s, which defines culture as a meaning system which members use to interpret the world around them. Culture basically affects and influences our way of communicating with one another because culture and communication are interdependent. The way we act and the things we say determine the culture we belong to and on the other hand culture determines how we act and communicate.
As Geertz puts it; every specific act, every utterance, every thought must be understood within a much larger, much broader context. Cultural awareness is therefore apparent. An understanding of effective intercultural communication is relevant since many cultural groups around the world have different patterns of behavior, belief, values and norms which can create communication barriers (Inger Askehave). More than ever before we need to acquire the necessary knowledge to understand, communicate, and cooperate with people who are different in order to benefit from a diverse society.
In this essay I will discuss the barriers to intercultural communication for interaction with the ‘Other’ and how to overcome these barriers. There are issues surrounding the problem of intercultural communication and I have chosen to include culture, ethnocentrism, categorization, stereotyping, prejudice and the representation of the ” Other” in my analysis. Interpersonal communication barriers occurs because we have our own fixed ideas, pre-understandings and judgment about others which are often hard to get rid of once it is acquired (Martin and Nakayama).
To some degree, ethnocentrism exists among every culture and individuals which means that there is a tendency to assume that our own norms, rules and values are more right than others and we perceive that our own customs are valid everywhere else in the world (Ting Toomey). This means that ethnocentrism do not allow us to meet people on their own terms and prevents us from trying to understand people that are different from us.
However, if we want to communicate effectively we have to be aware that the way we communicate and the message we want go get across is made up of symbols which mean different things to different people (Inger Askehave). Our message is therefore interpreted differently that what we intend to. If we do not understand the behavior of people from other cultures, it can be due to the fact that we are unfamiliar with their web of significance which constitutes their horizon of interpretation.
We do not know the framework which adds meaning and sense to their signs as our horizon is knowledge tied with attitudes, values, perspectives or world views (Clifford Geertz). In many ways, intercultural communication is difficult because we have greater access to our own culture and we therefore draw upon the resources that are available from our own culture. For that reason we lack knowledge about other cultures that are different from our own and our limited norms and rules to guide our communication process, often makes us use stereotypes of other people’s groups to support our predictions of their actions.
A stereotype is a broad generalization about an entire group based on little knowledge of some aspects of some members of the group. These are not valid facts, but are predefined ideas about the ‘Other’ namely culture or groups (Inger Askehave, Malene Gram & Birgitte Norlyk). The cognitive context describes the concept of stereotyping as a normal cognitive process as people typically categorizes persons and things so that information overload is minimized (Ting Toomey). However, many of the group-based stereotypes are incorrect and generalizing and it promotes further misunderstandings and prejudice.
Prejudice is having a false attitude toward an out-group in comparison to one’s in-group. Prejudiced individuals are prejudging without knowing any information about the “Others” (Rogers and Steinfatt). According to Allport, the process of categorization is the basis to develop prejudice and stereotypes. People think in categories and the mind forms groups and classes to guide our daily actions. Dahl also verifies that the predictions we make about “Others” is based on stereotypes and that this is necessary and it is a process that we cannot avoid.
If categorization is a natural cognitive process and all categorization leads to generalization, then stereotype is also a natural cognitive process. Categories are necessary to give meaning to our reality and to create structure, however they are flexible and they change. On the other hand stereotypes seem to give us a feeling of order and security but they are inflexible and try to reinforce one particular image over others. Stereotypes still persist even when we know better because they help to create a positive self-image and they are to a large degree attached to ideologies (Christoffanini).
Furthermore, we represent Others by using language or images, which allow us to portray Others in ways that can be generalized or individualized, prejudiced or inflexible. These representations can also be viewed as ideologies. Umberto Eco (1977), a semiotician, presents an idea of ideology which is characterized as a biased and isolated image of the world and this form of ideology do not consider the complex nature of belief systems and reasoning across cultural groups.
This is perhaps due to the tendency people have to oversee information that would contradict their beliefs about others and instead search for information that would confirm what they already believe (Christoffanini). The reality is then, that our perceptions of Others are extremely selective. According to the principle of negativity, individuals tend to regard negative information about strangers or members of out-groups than regard them with positive facts.
Out-group based interactions makes us feel anxious and there is a lot of uncertainty related to it. For that reason we often take use of negative stereotypes when we deal with interaction with out-group members (Ting-Toomey). People who belong to different groups are prone to be suspicious of out-groups. William Graham’s presented the concept of in-group and out-group orientation where an in-group is a collectivity with which an individual identifies and an out-group is a collectivity with which an individual does not identify.
Group dynamics determine our mindsets and we find security, protection and self-esteem in groups that are similar to us. Social identity theory explains that people act upon in-group favoritism and out-group differentiation with the intent to boost their social and personal identities. The-in-group favoritism principle may also explain why people behave ethnocentrically. When we behave ethnocentrically, we are essentially defending our group membership boundaries and our usual ways of thinking, feeling, and responding.
According to Hofstede China values collectivism and the Chinese people are very much group oriented. In school they have to wear uniform to belong in a cohesive group and unity. This is a very good example of the in-group orientation, as the Chinese people establish their identity and self-esteem by being a part of a cohesive group and they try to avoid differing from the group. As our horizon is very much a cultural and social phenomenon it may explain why people who have the same backgrounds find it easier to communicate and fuse horizons.
People from similar backgrounds are able to communicate in a meaningful way. Our in-groups are also our discourse or knowledge communities that facilitate a particular identity by creating a sense of belonging, shared world view and creating norms and rules for how to conceptualize and talk about things (Discourse communities). Meaning is also tied to identity in the sense that the limitations made by the culture in which we belong to allow us to distinguish who are ‘within’ and those who are ‘outside’ (Christoffanini).
The main problem with communication between people of different cultures is the representation of the ‘Others’ as different from us. When we speak of others different from us we are in general referring to all who are different from a racial, sexual, social, national, or ethnic perspective. Representation is narrowly tied to meaning. Our beliefs and attitudes towards ‘Others’ reflects on the images we emphasize and the words that we use when referring to them (Pablo R.
Christoffanini). The representations of the Other are subjective and we believe that they reflect the reality of the Other. For example Westerners have an instrumental view on intercultural communication where they focus on ultra-simplifications based on the cultural values of researchers coming from the Northern European culture (Pablo R. Christoffanini and Maribel Blasco). They have a functionalistic approach to culture that focuses on national patterns of thinking and behavior.
This approach would be very useful in trying to predict the behavior of others and therefore minimize communication problems. Examples of the functionalists approach are Hoftede’s five dimensions for measuring culture, Hall’s high & low context (polychromic vs. monochromic) and Gesteland’s relationship vs. deal-oriented characteristics. According to Hofstede Filipinos, Japanese and Chinese are for example represented as people who are distanced in relation to power, who have a great tendency to avoid uncertainty and are collectivist.
Furthermore, these societies are characterized by respect for tradition and long-term commitments. In China there is a notion that hard work here and now is expected to result in long-term rewards. However, there is evidence that the younger generation in China is changing towards a lower power distance culture. We are now seeing a tendency that the Chinese want to get rid of the feeling of rank and they no longer want to be addressed by their title.
The hierarchy between the Chinese people is perhaps becoming more casual. Nowadays the younger generation in China tends to change jobs, apartments and partners frequently. Young employees are becoming increasingly unpredictable, so long-term commitment is no longer seen as an important value. The Chinese also shows a tendency to be of high degree uncertainty avoidance because they are extremely specified, well planned, and well structured and there are written as well as unwritten rules to regulate people’s behavior.
The problem with Hoftede’s ultra-simplification of cultural differences is that the characteristics of certain groups are shown as the true nature of the nation’s citizens and as seen with the situation in China, there is evidence that some of Hoftede’s notions of intercultural differences are outdated and may no longer apply to the younger generation. Thus, Hoftede’s approach which is inspired by the classic perspective assumes that it is possible to discover the basic culture patterns as something that exist objectively and something that is easily identified (Anne-Marie Soderberg).
Instead culture controls the creation and exchange of meaning and that is why members of one culture have a tendency to see the world in the same way (Christoffanini) but it does not mean that a culture is unitary and not all people share all aspects of a culture (Maribel Blasco). So far we have established that communication between culturally dissimilar people can be difficult because people are in many ways restricted by their horizon which is a set of beliefs and values.
We are also affected by cultural filters such as categorization, stereotyping and the representation of others as different from us. The cognitive view tells us that these types of cultural filters that reside within us are natural. In dealing with intercultural communication we must therefore be aware that these cultural filters exist in us and we need to make an effort to re-adjust or even let go of our pre-understandings which may be wrong so that we are able to understand new situations. We have to assume that the stereotypes we use are not definitive answers (mindful stereotyping).
There will always be mistakes when dealing with intercultural communication strategies or approaching cultural differences because people are complex and our knowledge of the ‘Other’ is a fragmented version of that person’s history. In reality we can perhaps only grasp a culture fully when we ourselves think and act within this world (Alfred Schuetz). Nevertheless we can use our lack of knowledge to make an effort and to use our own experience, not to completely rely on generalizations like what the functionalistic approach offers, to better understand intercultural communication.
The aim is to meet and try to understand people on their own terms and to obtain valid information about whom they are and why they act as they do (ethno relativism). People who enter into intercultural settings bring their own cultural resources and expectations but the goal is to try to align different web of significance, search for commonalities and create shared meanings.