Analysis of the uncomfortable feelings and cultural judgments that can arise when being surrounded by people who wear other types of clothes.
Part A: Critical Incident
I was 16 years old and was traveling with my mother from Sri Lanka to Switzerland, coming back from summer holidays.The flight enclosed a stop in Kuwait city; in the outward flight, we only stopped for a short time, without getting off the plane as we had only to wait for new passengers to come onboard. On the return flight, instead, we were asked to get off the plane to take a new one.It was very late in the night but, as we had some minutes left, I decided to turn round the airport, leaving my mother and most part the other passengers in the waiting room. On the outward flight, I spoke with a Kuwait man and he talked about Kuwait as a very modern city, where religion was important but where young ladies used to wear modern clothes, too. For that reason, I went to the airport peacefully and carefree.
As the temperature was very high when we left Colombo city in Sri Lanka, I was wearing very“reduced clothes”. I was going to the airport and like in every international airport, all was very ordinary. In fact, airport often seems to be aseptic, with little marks local culture/atmosphere.I was in a shop when I noticed three women totally covered with veils: they were wearing black burkas, a sort of tissue grid hidden their faces. I was a little shocked and afraid because it was the first time I saw women so totally covered. I tried to look at them, searching for their eyes, for a kind of face expression allowing me to get in touch with them, also trying to get some kind of comfort through a kind of nonverbal communication. Unfortunately, it was impossible because they were totally covered and also because, being totally unfamiliar with their culture, I could not understand their nonverbal communication codes. Nevertheless, I was feeling that they were observing me.
I suddenly felt terribly alone as I realized that I was the only one foreigner in this area of the airport. In few seconds I become conscious that, even if it was in an international place, I was in a Muslim country and my clothes were absolutely unsuitable for these women. I was so confused that I don’t remember if there were other people around. The only thing I remember was a bad atmosphere and I was the source of the problem.
2. Cultural dynamics
This critical incident what only a question of sensation, something that you can feel in the air but that is not explicit, as no words were spent. However, it was sufficient to understand that I was experiencing a sort of culture collision.Airports are often viewed as international areas without a true local culture. For that reason, foreigners often do not conform themselves to the tradition of the locals. In this case, it was evident that my clothes were not adapted, and also if it is a modern country, these women do not agree on this kind of garments.Maybe it was just a hazard that I met these women so traditionally dressed. Maybe I could have met other Kuwaiti girls dressed like me. I do not know how much I was out of place in comparison to the other Kuwaitis girls. What I know is that my clothes were unsuitable forthese women dressed with the burka and that it could have been perceived as a lack of respect for their customs.
3. How to get a deeper understanding of the situation
I think that these kinds of critical incidents often happen in international areas. These incidents are maybe not explicit/spoken but they are very dangerous. In fact, they can have deep implications on people intercultural relationships and on the creation and growing of prejudices and stereotypes.I do not know the level of education of these women if they were used to travel outsideArabic countries and consequently how much they knew about European values. I only felt the negative atmosphere and, trying to empathize their thoughts and feelings, I imagine that they might have thought that I was unrespectful.
4. What still bothers me in this incident
This event continues to bother me because it does not fit my habitual way of behaving foreigners countries. I like to travel and I use to get information on local rules and costumes, trying to always behave in a very respectful towards local cultures. I deeply not agree with withsome tourists who do not demonstrate the due respect to other cultures/religions customs. I totally agree with authors who put in evidence the necessity to adapt ourselves to other cultures and sometimes change the way we act.What bothers me also is that nobody on the plane or in the airport told us the pay attention. Iknow that it is implicit when you travel in others countries, especially in Arabic countries.However, I believe that also the staff had to say something to avoid this kind of critical incidents. Of course, it is important for travelers to pay attention to the local culture but it is not sufficient to only count on people common sense.
Sometimes it would certainly be better to make “explicit” in some way the “correct” conduct to adopt in certain countries.What bothers me still is that this episode could have had repercussion on the image these women would have on Europeans girls; as I explained before I hope that this incident does not cause too much negative implication on the creation and growing of prejudices and stereotypes.
Part B: Competence Reading
5. Connections between the central ideas of the readings
This section consists of several paragraphs that enclose the central ideas developed in the reading package. The goal of this section is to revisit these ideas from the authors’ different point of view, trying to focus on the most important aspects they highlighted.
5.1 Definition of culture
Most studies in the academic field of intercultural communication begin with an effort to give a precise definition of the term “culture”.As illustrated by Dahl (2003), analyzing the historical origin of the term “culture” which derives from the Latin word “colere”, it comes out that “culture usually referred to something that is derived from, or created by intervention of humans”.Culture can be considered as a sum of different elements, shared by a group of people.These elements not only form the group culture but also influence individual behaviors.Culture has been scrutinized by several researchers trying to highlight its components, identifying various levels: “iceberg model” of culture, Hofstede (1991) set of layers of culture in which culture is viewed as an onion, Trompenaars, and Hampden-Turner (1997)similar onion-like model of culture…Spencer-Oatey (2000) defines culture on a completely way, with respect to other researchers, saying that: “Culture is a fuzzy set of attitudes, beliefs, behavioural norms, and basic assumptions and values that are shared by a group of people, and that influence each member's behaviour and his/her interpretations of the "meaning" of other people's behaviour.”. Here we can notice an interpretation of what is a culture and that it has an implication on individuals/groups, too.Though most of the texts analyzed, it is possible to observe a great effort of researchers when trying to inspect cultures differences highlighting several dimensions and/or components, for example: contextual influences, time orientation, power distance, individualism/collectivism, uncertainty avoidance, neutral/emotional, human-nature relationship… These theorizations put in evidence the influence of determined elements people behaviour.
Nevertheless, it comes out that culture is not the only factor that influences human behavior. As we can see in Hofstede and Geert model (Image 1), culture stands between two levels. On the bottom, there is Human Nature, which is universally inherited, on the top, there is Personality, which is specific to individuals and inherited and learned. Culture, which stands in the middle, is specific to group or category and it is something you learn, like personality. Being on the top, personality bases itself on culture, and culture bases itself on Human Nature.
Image 1: Lähde: Hofstede and Geert model (Salo-Lee, Liisa. 16-28.04.2004. InterculturalCommunication in Theory and Practice: Current Trends. Università della SvizzeraItaliana)
This model is quite simple but very interesting if you consider the position of culture and its implications.It is possible to connect this model to the idea of Spencer-Oatey on the influences of culture on people behaviors. It yet brings in a new and important notion that is personality. In fact, personality is something unique that people belonging to whatever culture have inside themselves. The implication of this unique characteristic in an individual must be always considered when interacting with people of your own culture as well as people coming from other cultures. Then you do not only need to consider
the cultural differences as well the differences of personalities inside a group of people coming from the same or a different culture.
5.2 Communication competence
Having defined what we intend for culture and having emphasized the influence it has on people behavior, it is clear that it has a crucial influence on communication, too.When analyzing communication, we can not ignore the linguistic component of communication. It is shared that the linguistic awareness of cultures is central. Whatcom out several times in these articles is that: when you have to interact with people of another culture you do not need to know only the verbal codes and rules, that is the linguistic knowledge of language (vocabulary, syntax…), but also a set of nonverbal/implicit codes and rules (placement of pauses in the discourse, kinesic patterns…).
Holden emphasizes that “it is recognized that “narrow” linguistic competence must be supplemented by communicative competence”. For Holden, the active use of language is crucial as it is linked to communication competence, but it is not sufficient to achieve communicative competence.For Kim “communication competence is conceived to be always interactional and thus a necessary but not sufficient condition for a successful performance or its outcomes”. In fact, it is demonstrated that performance and its outcome is not only linked to the individual capacity to communicate but that there are other factors that can intervene(for ex. the nature of the relationship between the interactants, the other interactant’s communication competence…).
About this topic, Holden introduces an alternative notion to the shared notion of communicative competence: participative competence. “Whereas communicative competence focuses on interaction with “the others”, participative competence focuses on “the others” ”. This concept is quite similar to the one of communicative competence but it highlights an important point: communication does not only take place between two parties but it multipolar and dyadic. It means that several people or groups are involved in the communication act.Participative competence, as well as communication competence, is not pre-set but it is gradually acquired and it grows through learning.
5.3 Intercultural communication vs. Cross-cultural communication
Having defined with more precision what culture means, how culture is composed and how it influences our behaviours, the researchers focus on communication competence in the interaction between people coming from different cultural backgrounds. In the reading package, two main approaches are emphasized: cross-cultural communication vs.intercultural communication.What comes out in this field is that cross-cultural communication approach, being a comparative approach, allows to show up the differences in the field of communication(deal-focus vs. relationship focus; informal vs. formal behaviour, rigid time vs. fluid time;expressive vs. reserved behaviour …) but does not consent to understand what to do effectively to communicate with different cultures.In the Intercultural Communication approach, as highlighted by Chen and Starosta(1998), “successful intercultural interaction centers on communication processes among people from different cultures”. What is important here, instead of showing the differences in the interaction between two people coming from different cultures, is theability to establish interpersonal relationships by understanding our counterparts throughthe effective exchange of verbal and non verbal behaviours (Hall, 1959, 1966, 1976).
Some blocks in intercultural communication competence have been identified; one ofthem is particularly important in the elucidation of the distinction between cross-culturaland intercultural communication: the obstacle represented by ethnocentrism.In fact, we are all ethnocentric. The real danger is not to be ethnocentric but to forget it.When you compare culture trying to emphasize their characteristics, you act in anethnocentric way, as you are comparing the other culture to yours. If you want to build arelationship with the other, you do not need to know the differences between both cultures (as in the cross-cultural approach); you only need to make an effort tounderstand your counterpart, trying to avoid judging every single word or behaviour inrespect with your own way of communicating. This idea is also linked with the concept ofempathy that will be presented further (see 5.4).
5.4 Intercultural communication competence
Regarding this topic, Kim introduces two main dimensions of culture:- the “culture-specific” dimension “entails a set of abilities to encode and decodelinguistic and non linguistic codes and practices specific to a given cultural or subculturalcommunity”. This can be linked to the notion of communication competenceexplain before (see point 5.3).
- the “culture-general” or “intercultural” communication competence “involves theability to communicate in all types of encounters regardless of specific culturalcontexts”.
This “culture-general” or “intercultural” competence is analysed in more details in thestudy done by the Center for Intercultural Learning “A profile of the interculturallyeffective person” which represents an effort to theorize though three different levels(major competencies, core competencies and behavioural indicators) a series of pointsthat highlight what a person needs to be an effective intercultural communicator.In Salo-Lee’s text (2003), instead of “catalogue” of competences and behaviouralindicators, broad domains of intercultural competence have been identified (Irwin 1996):
- Behavioural flexibility
- Communication and cultural sensitivity.
Other-orientation can be linked to the concept of empathy presented by the Center forIntercultural Learning, by Chen and Starosta and by Salo-Lee. In Salo-Lee’s text thisconcept is linked to the notion of intercultural dialogue. In fact one of the central themesof intercultural dialogue, as presented in Salo-Lee is empathy, which is recognized asessential to efficacy in interpersonal communication.Another central theme is atmosphere, also presented in “Cross-Cultural Management”(Holden 2002) and defined as follow: “sum of feelings, intentions, will and interest”(Hallén ans Sandström, 1989) that parties bring to interaction”. Atmosphere is veryimportant as it is shown as a key element in the feedback process of knowledge transfer.What is important to emphasize is that dialogue is not only conversation between two ormore interactant but it goes beyond words. That is why, it is also necessary to own the
ability of listening to the others, and to understand them.
Understanding can be linked to the notion of Cultural awareness presented by Chen andStarosta:”cultural awareness refers to understanding of conventions of the host culturethat affect how people think and behave”.Another domain of intercultural competence called behavioural flexibility and mentioned
by Irwin is also pointed out by Chen and Starosta as the “ability to select an appropriatebehaviour in different contexts and situations” (Bochner & Kelly, 1974). On a certainpoint of view, this ability can be linked to the problem of the cultural shock. If you areflexible and you are able to adapt yourself to new situations, you will experience thecultural shock only as a temporary phenomenon.
The third domain of intercultural competence is communication and cultural sensitivityand it is clearly connected to the concept of sensitivity for the Otherness who is animportant element of dialogue, too. It is also associated with the theme of responsibility,referred to “the ethical concerns for the Others” (Salo-Lee, 2003).The notion of participative competence (see 5.2) illustrated by Holden can also be linkedto the notion of dialogue. Holden shows a new form of negotiating who is emerging in thebusiness world: negotiations have to be seen less as a cross-cultural conflict resolutionas an interactive translation, highlighting the “dialogue, and not deal making” (Speckmanand al. 2000).
This enlargement of communication competence to intercultural communicationcompetence (or participative competence) and then to intercultural dialogue is veryimportant as it shows an aspect that must not be forgotten when you interact with other:ethic. And what is surprising in a certain way is that the ethical dimension seems to beimportant also in businesses as we consider the evolvement of the way of seeingnegotiations.
6. Personal advice: ideas I agree, ideas I criticize
6.1 Ideas I agree
- The concept of personality as it is presented in the Hofstede and Geert model was veryinteresting for me. In fact, even if Human Nature and Culture are crucial, personalityis, for my point of view, one of the most amazing characteristic of human beings. Ilike the possibility to model/adapt it thanks to motivation and will and I believe that acting on our personality is a good way of improving our communication competence, as well our intercultural communication competence.
- Even if it is a simplistic model, I liked the “icebergs model of culture”. This modelexposes what I have ever thought about the knowledge of different cultures: that isthe distinction between what is easily learnable though books for example (theapparent part of the iceberg), and what require a major effort to be understood (if itis possible!), that is the hidden part of the iceberg. I think that most people aresatisfied with the only knowledge of the apparent part of the iceberg, and then try tosimplify the other part, sometimes using traditional stereotypes. To know this hiddenpart, it is necessary to feel empathy, a concept that was discussed before and that Ilike very much in the approach of intercultural and as well interpersonalcommunication.
- I appreciate the vision on Holden who concentrates less on dealing with cultural differences, putting even more important in the creation of “environment s, structures, and procedures for facilitating cross-cultural learning and knowledge sharing”. Learning and knowledge sharing are two concepts that are very motivatingfor me and that I try to highlight in my every day life.
- I appreciate the way that Holden illustrated how culture is a knowledge resource andthat this resource has to be improve ad infinitum. Even if for businesses this processhad to be theorized, on the opposite, for human being it is an automatic process ofthe mind that is inherited.
6.2 Ideas I criticize
- I have the impression that sometimes we try to theorize things that are not learnable, things that are inherited (like the ability to empathize with, to learn rapidly and perfectly a foreign language…). The profile described by Center for InterculturalLearning is an example of these theorizations. Of course it is very interesting, but atthe end it only corresponds to a “catalogue” of competencies and behaviouralindicators that nobody could possess all together, and also that nobody could learn.As it is also written: “Interculturally effective person can empathize with, not onlyunderstand intellectually, how the local see the world”. Empathy, from my point ofview is a quality/ability that you have inside yourself and that it is quiet impossible tolearn. You can learn how to understand better the others, learning their culture s, habits, rules and values but it is not sufficient to feel empathy.For that reasons, I consider the “catalogue” made by the Center for InterculturalLearning being a quiet simplistic way of learning how to be interculturally competent.
- Holden stresses the necessity for businesses to have people who are well educated ina variety of disciplines so that they would not think at the same way. The problem Ican imagine here is that, even if this is a very nice idea, because it is clear thatmultidisciplinarity is an advantage, it would also improve complexity in the communication between these people. Of course people coming from business studiesthink at the same way, they also speak the same technical language. If you introducesomeone coming from another background of studies, then it will be difficult tointeract with him and to find a common language. This uniformity of thoughts andlanguage is not always positive of course, but it allows people to communicate moreeasily and rapidly and it reduces ambiguity between concepts.Besides, I have some doubt on the existence of such a kind of person. If a person hasa background of social sciences for example, it is rare that it has also an economyknowledge, and then also a knowledge of communication technologies and so on.
7. Further questions: authors/colleagues/course facilitators
An author that comes into my mind and that I was surprised not to have seen the reading package is Pierre Bourdieu. Being a sociologist, Bourdieu analyses social relations in thecontext of what he called the field 1 and then presents an original notion: the habitus2 . Ithink that both notions can be interested in the field of intercultural communication.Bourdieu does not use the notion of the field as a substitute for the traditional term of culture but he analyses everyday life as consisting in a conglomeration of fields like leisure, family patterns, consumption, work, artistic practices, and others.
1 Competitive system of social relations functioning according to its own specific logic or rules. (Elizabeth LaneLawley, 1994, http://www.itcs.com/elawley/bourdieu.html)2 "system of acquired dispositions functioning on the practical level as categories of perception and assessmentor as classificatory principles as well as being the organizing principles of action." (Bourdieu, 1987/1990)The other key element in Bourdieu’s theories is that of habitus. Habitus can be consideredas a set of expectations and understandings based on experiences that an individualencounters. These experiences form the individuals’ awareness of what are the rules of thedifferent fields. In that way habitus has an influence on interactions within a field and itinfluences not only the individual but all the interactants.
I believe that both Bourdieu’s notions of field and habitus are interesting in the academicfield of communication as well in the field of intercultural communication if you considerthe fact that habitus influences our interactions and also the interactants.Also gender differences have not been treated in these documents. I found this strangeas it often empathize that there is enormous diversity in communication style andpractices within each gender group. For example, Pearson, West and Turner (1998)showed that communication intersects with culture and gender and they explained how itis possible to improve empathetic abilities and acknowledge alternative perspectives. Thiscontribution is interesting as it connects communication with culture and gender.
8. Relevance for me and my professional life
As I am graduated in communication sciences, several notions were not new for me but Iappreciate the original way they were faced. As an example, the effort done by the Centerfor Intercultural Learning to stress out the behaviours that one would exhibit to deemedinterculturally effective is remarkable. This is a great challenge but sincerely I do not findthis study very useful for my personal and professional life.Working at university I am always in contact with people coming from other countries.What I realize is that in my work it is not only important to consider the culturalbackground of people, but also their educational background.
Because at university you use to interact with people defined as “intelligent”, sometimesyou are surprised when you realize that even if they are very brilliant in their discipline,they are absolutely not able to interact with others. If communication competence wouldbe something that you can learn from theories I believe that they would easily be able tocommunicate properly.As it comes out from the readings, communication is a very complex process that requiresmore than the ability to learn from theories. For that reason I appreciate very much thefocus on the notion of empathy and the reflections involved in the notion of ethnocentrism.
When communicating with people having a different educational background it is oftenimportant to stop and try to think on the better way to communicate with them as if youhad to communicate with people coming from other cultures. This is a very fascinatingprocess which requires two key concepts: wareness of our ethnocentrism and empathy.As it is clear that that communication is not static but a continuous process of adaptationand knowledge improvement, I think that it is important to try to empathize with and soadapt each other in a way that it could be easier to communicate. This has not to be seenas a degradation of ourselves, on the contrary I consider this to be a very humble way toget in touch with the other and to put into discussion our ethnocentrism. This process iscrucial and needs to be done by every interactant as it allows improving everyone’sknowledge trough a priceless interaction.
In conclusion, I would conclude by saying that the concept of empathy, which is used byseveral researcher in the field of intercultural communication, is one of the most relevantand useful themes for my personal and professional life.
9. A revised model: things I would emphasize/things that are stilllacking
Beyond intercultural communication competence that it is clearly significant, what I wouldadd is that I think that in the economical world sometimes it is not necessary to beinterculturally competent: you just need to have power. Adaptation, empathy, dialogueand so on, are of course shared values but unfortunately they are not always supported byevery member of the communication process. This is not pleasant but I think that it is areality that we have to accept.
I am not very optimistic on this point because I know that the survival law (legge dellasopravvivenza) has deep roots in Human Nature. If we consider the Hofstede and Geertmodel it is evident that something who is based on Human Nature influences Culture andthen Personality. Maybe we can hope that Culture, who is learned and specific to group orcategory, will be strong enough to contrast Human Nature. If not, we can subsequentlycount on personality, hoping that it could be strong enough to contrast even HumanNature and Culture…?