The author describes two different critical incidents where cultural difference and politeness play a role.
1. Describe a critical incident that really happened to you
Description of incident n°1
In January 2000, I spent two weeks in China with my family. We had been travelling from Moscow to Beijing with the Trans-Siberian Railway and we were looking forward to embracing a new culture and quite open to explore new territories. Together with the Swiss group we were travelling with, we made it to Beijing where we spent a couple of very well organised days: the tight schedule included visits to various historical sites, popular areas as well as the city centre. On the third day, the group was scheduled to fly back to Switzerland but we decided to stay on and embark on a journey to Shanghai the following day and then along a river to a magic place called Guilin.
Once there, we found ourselves on our own and experienced more directly the problem of communicating with the locals: one evening we decided to have a nice dinner at the hotel's restaurant where, we assumed, communication would be easier, being in an international environment. We decided to order wine with our food and I decided to take care of the order: we wanted a particular brand we had tried in another restaurant in the city, early that day.
Expecting a well-rehearsed reply from the waiter, we were left rather disappointed when the latter started to nod confused, clearly oblivious of what it was that we wanted. Since there were no bottles around to point at and our bodily gestures weren't having the desired effect, I produced a drawing of a wine bottle: also this time my efforts weren't rewarded so I indulged in my drawing activity ending up with a fairly realistic wine grape. By this time the waiter had already plunged into an impenetrable silence that made us realise there was no way we could get our message across.
This made us very frustrated and, although they probably didn't have any type of wine, after all, the failed attempt at communicating with the waiter had given us a sense of alienation, which led us to perceive that reality from a very distant point of view. In other words, we felt far removed, almost isolated from the reality of that place and its culture in that instance.
Description of incident n°2
In January I attended a course on racism that bore the title "Fighting against racism in Switzerland" supported by the Swiss Government. The class presented a quite heterogeneous crowd, both ethnically and professionally. During the lunch break, which we spent in a nearby restaurant, I was sitting near a young man from Chad who had been living in Switzerland for several years already. When it was time to pay for our meals, this person paid for my beverage. Quite spontaneously, I reached for my wallet with the intention to pay him back but he declined to dismiss me with a brisk gesture that betrayed some kind of indignation from his part. Even if it was just a bottle of mineral water, it didn't feel right to let him pay for me.
This state of affairs made me feel awkward and strengthened my determination to pay him back; so during the coffee break I offered him a cappuccino but it was obvious by then that he was a little bit upset if not offended: I started to talk about this misunderstanding openly, in a very care-free manner, in order to shed some light on this communicative cul-de-sac. He told me that Europeans are a bit too cold and detached and shouldn't be so formal. I explained to him that I couldn't avoid feeling bad and the desire to pay him back stemmed from a natural social reflex, that translates into an exigency to be polite.
The fact that he was an immigrant certainly didn't help; this led me to question his financial situation: him paying for me had produced some kind of guilt in me at the time. Also my social background, or better my personal approach to situations in general, had produced a sense of awkwardness in me because we hadn't spoken that much prior to the incident and whereas I would normally accept this gesture from a friend or from a close acquaintance, I couldn't do the same with a perfect stranger. In describing this situation I am possibly understanding it better: the young man just wanted to show his sympathy and his gesture was just part of his desire to start a new friendship. I reacted following my social code and ended up misunderstanding the young man's intention.
2. First analysis
I would like to keep both examples of intercultural misunderstandings because they made me think about the general problem in a deeper sense.
First analysis of incident n°1
In the case of China, we were visiting a foreign country. Even though we had an attitude of openness, curiosity and willingness to get to know different cultures, we were still in a foreign and therefore alien environment. In other words, the language barrier prevented us from understanding the subtleties that would have enriched our stay in China. In a way we expected the people of that culture to make an effort to understand us; but when our expectations were ultimately shattered by the incident with the waiter we found ourselves in a state of detached disillusionment that prevented us from being objective and making the best of the whole experience as we initially set out to do.
First analysis of incident n°2
For what the incident with the boy from Chad is concerned, I didn't question one bit the fact that I was the person who had to make the effort to better understand the other person and attempt some sort of reconciliation, ultimately seeking an explanation. Since this happened in my country of origin, I felt at ease in the environment: this helped me to maintain enough objectivity to sympathize with the young man's status as a foreigner: he already had to cope with different idiosyncrasies of Switzerland and my reaction probably contributed to further distance him from an understanding of my culture; at the same time this situation made him probably miss his country of origin where he would have been understood. It is only now, after having analysed the incident in China, that I fully understand how it feels like when you're not understood when you find yourself away from home and ultimately far removed from your own cultural environment.
3. Second analysis (after having read the documents)
In both incidents, the misunderstandings had probably to do with different dimensions as the psychological, the religious or the social dimension. Not really knowing either the Chinese nor the Chadese culture, my analyses were more of a psychological or emotional nature but I can imagine that both incidents had a lot to do with different interpretations of certain values: for example the different behavioural patterns that exist between women and men and between elderly and younger people. The Chinese waiter, for example, might have preferred my father or my mother to ask for wine and not me, as a young woman. The young man from Chad was maybe hurt because I, being a woman, offered him a coffee, even if it was a sign of gratitude.
I would also like to recall Prof. Liisa Salo-Lee’s lesson of the 27th of April 2004, when we talked about the CPS style of Susan Scollon, a direct communication style that makes a person more assertive. I think that this assertive style can be the source of typical incidents. This style of communication supposes you to say straight on what you want to say but for some cultures this attitude can be seen as rude and could lead to misunderstandings, therefore building obstacles for an effective intercultural communication.
Despite this, I also think that if there are empathy, sympathy and the will of understanding each other, also misunderstandings can be well solved and explained and a dialogue can begin. For this matter I’d like to quote Liisa Salo- Lee’s Vietnamese interviewee: “if the relationship is good, big misunderstandings can be repaired, if the relationship is not good, even small errors can ruin it.”
4. Competence readings: analysis of the documents
Collectivism and individualism:
It is very interesting to know that culture is more collectivistic than another and for that reason its society behaves in a certain way and its country has different laws and policies; this can also help to communicate better with that culture and to understand it better. But in reality it is difficult to see so to say “pure” individualistic or “pure” collectivistic cultures; often cultures include something of both attitudes for different dimensions, for example, the family relationships can be very collectivistic and the way people work very individualistic. Another very interesting thing would be to know why some cultures are more collectivistic or more individualistic.
During my Erasmus exchange at the Freie Universität in Berlin1, Regina Knapp, the social anthropology teacher, explained that the Umeda, one of the tribes that live in Papua New Guinee, has a very laid- back way of seeing time because of what they use to eat2. This tribe eats sago (a palm tree that grows in all seasons): not having to watch the change of seasons and climates they always have their sago available and their attitude towards time is therefore affected by that.
My anthropology teacher had to study this tribe and live with them, she explained that they use to say “me less” whenever they don’t feel to do a thing straight away because they think that you have time to do it whenever you feel like doing it, in other words, time is not an issue for Umedas. Once she made an appointment with some people of the tribe to interview them and they came three days later! This is a way to explain why some cultures have different concepts of things. I would be very interested to know for example why North-American people are considered individualistic; does it come from the religion and to what extent? How can we explain that English, as a language, avoids uncertainty but English people are supposed to be quite individualistic?
Learning intercultural competence:
Not only should we be formed to go abroad but the intercultural competence can be very useful in our own country of origin, for example when dealing with immigrants or tourists. Intercultural competence learning could also be extremely useful if introduced already in the early stages of education in order to build good foundations for intercultural dialogues. Actually, people that are really aware of cultural differences and idiosyncrasies and are not judging or feeling superior, tend to believe less in stereotypes and in generalisations. As with education, a very important role in the formation of intercultural communication has to be played by mass media.
The latter, in a public service optic, could teach respect, understanding and how to avoid stereotypes in general; for example by showing documentaries and films that avoid the use of stereotypes and that present situation in a realistic and objective fashion. I really appreciated the work of the Canadian Foreign Service Institute to describe a profile of the Interculturally Effective Person and I think that this notion could be extremely important for people that stay in their country as well as for people that go abroad. The goal of being effective, in my opinion, should be to start a real dialogue, like when both partners find themselves on the same level and the ideas exposed are both valued and orally explored.
Ultimately, the two persons should try to find solutions to problems or accorded strategies. If a very utilitarian person follows the advice of the IEP profile he could for example show himself as very humble but in fact, he could just act to better reach his goal. In my opinion, the attention should be given therefore to common values between cultures, to the real practice of listening and respect, thus enriching both partners.
Effectiveness in communicative interaction:
“To be effective in communicative interaction we must realise that: 1) interruptions are not permitted, [..].” (Chen, Guo-Ming & Starosta, William J. 1998. “Intercultural Communication Competence”, p. 24). The authors assert that in order to have an effective communicative interaction you mustn’t interrupt the other person, and speaker’s turns should be alternate appropriately, this attitude would mean that you are “paying full attention to your counterpart” is often expressed by interrupting the other person and being too silent could be misunderstood as “not being interested” in what the other person says. Of course, also other aspects would play a role, like the voice intonation, the body language, etc.
5. General considerations
Reading these texts was very interesting and useful both for my jo3 and for my private life in general. Being aware of diversity and of a different point of views helps me to respect other people even if I don’t always understand why they are behaving in a certain way. Goethe said that to really understand the soul of a culture you should learn its language.
We often fear what is different because we don’t know it, we may be afraid to have to change something in our lives or to have to re-discuss our way of living and behaving. To Ibn Arabi 4, a great Sufi (mystic Muslim) of Andalusia, the diversity of human beings reflects the divine essence symbolized by the mirror, hence the necessity of safar (the “voyage”), recommended by Sufis as instrument of self discovery: “it is by talking to foreigners that one discovers who he is.”
In actuality, by confronting ourselves with others we can understand better our faiths, beliefs, values and behaviours because we see them from a more objective point of view, which can help us to take a certain distance from the subject-matter. Can we always be objective? Can we be able to be completely rational, right, neutral? Indeed I think that the emotional, the irrational part, always plays a role but we should be careful when we are unable to listen to a person who doesn't smell well or that is very ugly...in that case we should be aware that some irrational, emotional things that are not related to the rational discourse, for example, are directly acting upon our initial attitude, changing it, sometimes radically. Being aware of that could help us concentrate more on the content of the discussion.
Even if we are aware of how an intercultural competent person should behave we sometimes make the mistake of categorising too many certain behaviours not taking into consideration different biases. Taking into consideration more biases as possible can help the intercultural studies to become more “scientific”.
During the analysis of the documents and thinking about intercultural communication in general, I often asked myself to what extent, until what point do we act following our culture? I thought about the Chinese concept of modesty that we have discussed in class: We acknowledged that in China, if you receive a compliment as “your Chinese is very good” you should say “Pu hau, pu hau” (with a humble body movement). I was thinking that maybe, even if for your culture plans that you interlocutor follows the modesty rule if your compliment was really sincere, you might accept that the person doesn’t follow that rule.
In other words, we are sometimes influenced by our culture to think for example that some behaviours are rude but if we feel that the other person has good intentions we might accept it even if it goes against our culture's “acceptability”. In my opinion, the most important concepts we should take into consideration are respect and humility: we should be careful with ethnocentric interpretation and ask ourselves if our point of view could be questioned by someone else.
I really liked the following sentence, which sums up this concept very well:
“When someone really hears you without passing judgment on you, without trying to take responsibility for you, without trying to mould you, it feels damn good.... When I have been listened to, and when I have been heard, I am able to reperceive my world in a new way and go on. It is astonishing how elements what seem insoluble when someone listens.” (Carl W. Rogers on “impact of empathy”, in Rosenberg 2001:119)
- Salo-Lee, Liisa, Intercultural Communication in Theory and Practice: Current Trends (slides and 28 of April 2004’s class teaching).
- Salo-Lee, Liisa, Intercultural Communication Competence: Challenges for Research & Practice (slides and 29 of April 2004’s class teaching).
- A profile of the Interculturally Effective Person. 2000. Centre for Intercultural Learning. Canadian Foreign Service Institute, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, Canada.
- Chen, Guo- Ming & Starosta, William J. 1998. “Intercultural Communication Competence”. In: Ghen, G.M. & Starosta, W.J. Foundations of Intercultural Competence. Boston: Ally & Bacon, Inc., pp. 239-257.
- Holden, Nigel J. 2002. Cross- Cultural Management. A Knowledge Management Perspective. Harlow, England: Financial Times/ Prentice Hall, pp. 271-313, 315-317.
- Kim, Young Yun. 2001. Becoming Intercultural. An Integrative Theory of Communication and Cross-Cultural Adaptation. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, Inc., pp. 3-10, 98-121, 142-143.
- Salo-Lee, Liisa. 2003. “Intercultural Communication as Intercultural Dialogue: Revisiting Intercultural Competence”. In: Kistler, P. & Konivuori, S. (eds.). From International Exchanges to Intercultural Communication: Combining Theory and Practice, pp. 121-128.