The author points out the different cultural values and meaning that can be attributed to the same dance across countries.
Analysis of a Failed Intercultural Communication
Personal Experience of a Failed Intercultural Communication
Turkey has always fascinated me. This fascination was born when I first heard a Turkish song in a kebab place in Zurich and still lasts in one way or the other. I emerged into oriental dance and visited the country (however only the western part) several times. At one stage, I also happened to have a boyfriend from Turkey. He lived in Patara, a gorgeous, a small but also touristy village in the South West of the country which I discovered thanks to Sarah, a friend of mine from England who married a Turkish guy and moved to exactly this village after their wedding.
When I went there to visit them, I fell in love with Sarah‟s husband‟s cousin Süha. The village is very small, people knew immediately about me. So very soon, I knew all his cousins, uncles, aunts, brothers and even grandparents. Whenever I visited him, all his relatives were very friendly and welcoming towards me, and I soon felt comfortable when eating, laughing and talking with them. His parents, however, were quite reluctant to meet me and from the start, I was convinced that it had something to do with me being a „western girl‟. When I asked Süha whether this might be the reason for their reservation, he would sometimes deny it resolutely and sometimes explain that it was normal in his village that boys marry Turkish girls since Western girls do not have a good reputation in Patara.
He added, however, that he did not care about these rules. All the same, I felt that Süha was very proud of being Turkish, and I knew that the Turkish culture and thus the social rules connected with it would in the end always win over external influences. It was though an indication of his own internal conflict: he was basically torn between two cultures – the one lived by the tourists and perceived by the inhabitants of Patara as being a collective Western culture and the Turkish.
Shortly before I first went to Patara, I started to take lessons in oriental dance which is more commonly known as belly dance (this expression, however, is believed to have been coined by early Western colonialists who misperceived the dance as being merely a dance of the belly and were shocked at the erotic aspect of the dance when they first saw it in Egypt. The term, therefore, has a slightly pejorative connotation and is inadequate) and found great pleasure in it. Current Turkey and Egypt are the two birthplaces of the dance, and when I first went to Turkey again after having started taking lessons, I was all the more excited to also get to know Turkey‟s dance scene.
Then, the day came, and I was invited to Süha‟s parents‟ house. I was very excited and scared at the same time. When we arrived, his father and his little brother welcomed me in English (they run a small hotel during the summer and are therefore often in touch with tourists). We sat down and talked about their greenhouses, the hotel and the newest song of Emre Attung while his mother, who could not understand any English, was preparing the food. They were very surprised that I knew this Turkish singer who had not have his breakthrough in Europe, so I explained to them that I came to love traditional as well as modern Turkish music since I was practising oriental dance.
Without having to have any formal knowledge of failed intercultural communication, I could sense that this utterance was utterly unwelcome. The problem was though that I could not make any sense of their reaction. His father had this very despising expression in his face, his little brother started to giggle while Süha gave me a startled look. Then they would turn silent and abruptly change the subject. It was a very uncomfortable situation, above all since I did not know what I had said wrong, so I was unable to act appropriately. Therefore, I decided to remain silent.
Clearly, there was something about this dance that I had not yet grasped, and Süha would afterwards explain it to me: this dance was attributed to prostitutes and was not at all regarded as being a form of artistic expression and skill. “But when watching belly dancers in shows or on TV, everybody is overly intrigued by the dance” I insisted. This did not make sense to me at all. It seemed that oriental dancers in Turkey were admired and despised at the same time.
I first had to get used to the fact that something as innocent as a dance could provoke such anger and contempt. However, when I thought of table dance and striptease, I could of course – at least to a certain extent – understand where they might be coming from, however, I literally could not see the connection, since the only part of the body which showed bare skin, for instance, was the belly and – at least to me – every dance has its erotic elements. In hindsight, things are much clearer; among other things, due to the pursuit of a principle my former history teacher drew my attention to and now showed one more time its everyday life applicability:
„In order to understand the present and to shape and foresee the future, you have to understand the past.“
So I plunged into the study of the dance‟s history.
Choice of Topic and Preliminary Thoughts
I have chosen to take an example in which the differences between two specific national cultures, i.e. Switzerland and Turkey, in terms of perceiving a regional and national heritage (oriental dance) of one of them (Turkey) are on the basis of a failed intercultural communication. So, in this context, culture can be understood in its prevalent sense: the behavioural differences due to different attitudes between people of different nations. However, I‟d like to add that what I understand by the term „culture‟ goes much further and does also have implications for the example at hand. Geert
Hofstede‟s definition of the term reflects exactly my perception of the concept:
„Culture is the collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one category (be it a nation, a region, an ethnic group, women or men (gender culture), old or young (age group and generation culture), a social class, a profession or occupation (occupational / business / organisational culture), or even a family,) of people from another.“
So there are also other factors – or in Geert Hofstede's words ‚categories‟ – influencing the illustrated example. Knowing that there are manifold types of cultures and social frameworks (age, religious and social affiliation, family etc.) which shape an individual complicates the matter even further since one of the main difficulties in intercultural communication is to discern whether a certain characteristic of a person (programming of the mind) can be attributed to him or her as an individual or to the person as part of a culture, i.e. whether a certain character trait is individual or has a cultural origin.
I believe that in order to avoid constructing wrong stereotypes, it is particularly important to be aware of these multiple cultural influences and types of social frameworks which contribute to the construction of a person‟s character and thus behaviour. However, certain stereotypes can also be helpful when one is confronted with a person from a specific cultural background since they can give us an indication as to what to expect, they should not be regarded as universal truth though but rather as a possible tendency. Since this is quite a challenging task, it is one of my aims for this Master to be able to relate to Geert Hofstede‟s following distinction:
„an insight into cultural differences will prevent us from attributing to an individual’s personality forms of behaviour which are normal in his or her country, and from trying to apply supposedly universal success formulas to people who are not universal.“
There are two fundamental influences on someone‟s personality: the environmental (on the one hand individual: how the person was brought up, where he or she lived, whom he or she met, what he or she had to go through due to what etc. and on the other collective as part of a culture) and the genetic (i.e. a person‟s DNA which also shapes someone‟s behaviour towards these external influences). This is evident from the fact that no individual is the same as another. Hence, there is often a need for explanations between individuals in order to avoid misunderstandings, since communication is always about decoding signs of a message by the receiver who interprets the sender‟s words depending on his or her specific personality (Friedemann Schulz von Thun 1998) – independent of culture.
Ferdinand de Saussure‟s thesis that even when transferring one‟s intention, feelings, opinion or basically one‟s thoughts into a verbal expression, a translation takes place (1931) supports the assumption that there is a conflict potential inherent to communication in general, since it can, by no means, be guaranteed that the sender‟s message is received according to his or her wish. Therefore, I claim that the individual is the smallest cultural unit rather than the family. This view obviously puts intercultural communication into another perspective. So even if it is likely that two people‟s main values from two widely different cultures (be it national, gender, regional etc.) do not correspond, it might as well be that they do not differ or only differ slightly due to the influence of personal experiences and/or genetic influence and thus individual character traits.
So having an intercultural communication does not mean per se that there is no common basis between the parties but rather that the common basis is not obvious at first sight. Contrary to what one might expect, it is likely that the parties have a common social framework or share certain values (even if the implications may differ), i.e. believe in the same God, express their emotions openly and – for sure – know the same feelings even if every person expresses them differently. So in order to make an intercultural communication successful, one has to find these similarities while at the same time staying aware of the differences.
Analysis of the Communicative Situation
The communicative situation and the cultural context in which the above dialogue took place were rather complex, since there were intercultural as well as universal psychological factors interacting.
Universal Psychological Factors
A potential daughter in law is talking to her possible father in law: I dare to claim that it is a universal ambition when meeting your boyfriend‟s parents to want to make a good impression. At the same time, it is also quite common that the boyfriend‟s parents have high expectations of their son‟s girlfriend. This is per se a situation in which certain behaviours prevail – again, independent of culture. From the outset, a certain hierarchy installs itself: the judgement of the parents, or in this case the father, is in a sense vital to the girlfriend in question, and this unequal relationship bares conflict potential.
Also the fact that this encounter took place at the parents‟ home (and in their country), where they feel comfortable since it is the environment they are used to has an influence on the communicative situation. This can be compared to a home game in football when the local players feel much more confident than the players from abroad and are therefore more likely to win the match.
Factors which can be attributed to Cultural Differences
My intention as a sender of the message was mainly to make a good impression on the receiver of the message, i.e. my boyfriend‟s father, and to show him that his assumed preconceptions of western girls were not true. I wanted to let him know that I am emerging into and thus respecting his culture by learning the country‟s „national dance‟.
However, my message was received quite differently, since the decodification of the signs was influenced by various distorting factors: his preconceptions about western girls, e.g. that they were generally impure and not honourable, were proven true and his respect towards me was equivalent to zero. This reaction can be attributed to the Turkish culture of perceiving this specific form of their national dance as being a disgrace and merely connecting it with prostitution. This perception can mainly be ascribed to their country‟s history and their national religion, the Islam. Given the fact that in the eyes of Islam or rather the religious traditions built up in this specific Muslim country around this religion does not allow too much tolerance towards a woman‟s behaviour and her clothing in public.
Dancing in an erotic manner and in a crop top (which – and I also did not know this then – was inspired by Hollywood and actually does not have its origin in the Orient) is inappropriate for a Muslim woman and is therefore also perceived as being impure for any woman. This is probably one of the concessions a Muslim man who grew up in a little village in Turkey which he had never left can not make in this specific intercultural communication due to his religious and traditional background: he can not accept his son‟s girlfriend practicing this dance, since his values do not allow him to look at the dance from another perspective. He might though, in another intercultural communication where it does not affect him personally – say in a talk with tourists from his hotel – absolutely be able to make this concession and maybe even pretend that he likes this dance since this is what the other party would expect.
Depending on the goal of a conversation, the importance of maintaining one‟s own identity (and thus opinion) can be more or less pronounced. Due to the fact that this particular intercultural communication also concerned my personal life, I also felt like not wanting to make too many concessions in showing my real face, since I am very much used to having my personal freedom of choice and opinion that I would never want to give up – not even for love. Was it a professional context, the wish to express honestly what preferences I have and what my opinion on a specific dance is, would not have been as strong as that since my goal would be different. I do not want the other person to get to know me. Personally, I only need a common basis for a one-off or merely professional communication.
So the concessions I can make are far bigger which increases the chances of the communication being successful.
As Süha admitted to me later – in accordance to what I had expected – his father actually does not want his son to have a Western girlfriend at all, and he only invited me because Süha had repeatedly asked him to. What I could generally sense in Patara was that the Turkish inhabitants – despite earning their money in the tourism industry – were friendly to tourists but – at the same time– looked down on them, primarily because of the way they were dressed (primarily in women) but also because of the way they behaved on holidays: most of them consumed excessive amounts of alcohol, had one-night stands and would expect the Turks to speak their language rather than learning at least some basic Turkish expressions.
However, young Turks started – sometimes with obvious pleasure – to adopt these Western ways of behaviour albeit despising it in others. Of course, the fact that they often earn their living in the tourism industry also forces them to a certain extent to live up to western expectations of a holiday atmosphere but at the same time, it also allows them to escape for a while from the tight social and religious rules. This discrepancy often made it difficult to assess the situation and find out how to gain their respect.
Dance as a Form of Communication
While for us in the West, dance is a healthy leisure activity that helps us to express our feelings, that allows us to switch off from everyday stress and enjoy music and physical activity at the same time, it used to be and actually still is much more than that. Dancing is a non-verbal form of communication and, in many countries; it still occupies a crucial place in social interactions (e.g. dancing in order to attract one‟s future husband / fertility dances etc.). Therefore, dancing also communicates cultural values and raises emotions. And this is exactly in what way dances can become a delicate topic.
In the case of oriental dance, there are numerous negative associations which are connected with this art form, and they sometimes even have a right to exist due to history. In the wake of colonialism, the dance was increasingly used by women in the Orient in order to attract western men and has thus lost its good reputation. Only later, it became a highly developed art and entertainment form again which made an effort in distinguishing itself from the dance of prostitutes. Against the background of these historical occurrences, the father‟s reaction is understandable.
In addition, it is generally not respectable for a woman in Islam to dance for the entertainment of men. Given the fact that I grew up in the German-speaking part of Switzerland where dancing is not immediately connected with customs, tradition and finally culture but rather with it being a leisure activity, I was not aware of the topic‟s possible explosiveness, i.e. there was some ignorance from my side.
Analysis of Cultural Configurations and Social Frameworks
Coming from two different national cultures as well as different social networks (village and city), my and his father‟s cultural configuration differ considerably. While in urban Switzerland rational values dominate, traditional values matter most in rural Turkey. While – only to name some – self- fulfilment and individualism count in Zurich, family and collectivism are of importance in Patara. The divergency arisen because of the discussion‟s topic (oriental dance) can also be attributed to the two countries‟ different historical experience with the dance, a factor which most obviously influences national values. It can be assumed that between two people with such different backgrounds, values, behavioural rules and their vision of the world are probably quite different.
These fundamental differences may cause problems in an intercultural communication but due to the fact that individual circumstances and the social context of a conversation also exert an influence, the gap does not necessarily have to be this big. However, in this example, there are also the different social categories of age and gender which particularly in the Turkish culture play an important role. It is a patriarchal society, and the respect of one‟s parents as well as of the elderly in general is a top priority. Furthermore, in villages, a good reputation in the community is often indispensable in order to succeed and feel comfortable in the place and Süha‟s and thus his family‟s reputation would be damaged if he is with a Western girl.
So there is also a cultural and social pressure. A crucial similarity between his father and me though was that we could both speak English, otherwise, we would not have had the opportunity to have a discussion at all. At least, this opened up the possibility of getting to know each other. The fact that he could speak English also indicated at least a certain understanding of the Western culture even if he mainly learnt it for business reasons.
However, since he was only in touch with Western tourists mainly from Germany and England, he would only ever meet a certain type of people, and they would form the basis for his stereotype of western people. Furthermore, the people from Patara might also fear that their culture could be threatened by the influence of tourists which can also lead to a certain reluctance to accept „the other‟ within one‟s own family.
Origin of Failed Intercultural Communication
Quite frequently, communication fails because of misunderstandings – not in this case, however. The main source of the failure can be attributed to the converse crucial values which were made apparent in the discussion and brought the incompatibility of me and his father (and hence Süha‟s and mine) to light. While it lead to his father not being able to respect me and approach me without reverting too much to stereotypes – yet, respect is a precondition for a „successful communication“ (when the outcome of a communication responds to the expectations, needs and interests of all the people involved) –, I did not respect their cultural difference by wanting to get to know his parents without being sure about Süha‟s and my future. This communication, therefore, failed in every respect, since none of the participants was happy with the outcome.
My message evoked negative emotions, which means that the father‟s individual decodification of my message failed. Mutual ignorance, distrust and preconceptions about the other‟s cultural background prevailed, and the will to find a common basis was not very strong, probably due to the particular interpersonal situation. The capacity and the will of the receiver to receive the message correctly also plays an important role in communication and its outcome. Preconceptions and thus negative emotions can hinder an objective approach. In the same way, the capacity and the will of the sender to send the message correctly also has an influence.
In the above example there was a communicative filter which hindered the father of my then boyfriend to understand my cultural background, since he largely adhered to stereotypes and prejudices about western girls which seemed to be confirmed with the statement I made about oriental dance while I ignored their cultural differences despite having been aware of it to a certain degree.
I dare say that our cultural configurations as well as social affiliations kept us from accepting „the other‟. The social rules and obligations connected with it are far tighter in Patara than mine are in Zurich, but my freedom would also make it impossible for me to accept their structures, since in this context, „accept‟ would mean live them myself. This means that if I had wanted it to become a successful intercultural communication, I would have had to make major concessions. In order for him to respect and accept me, I would have had to be sure that I wanted to marry his son – since a girl usually is not with a man unless she wants to marry him – and subsequently, I would have had to convert to Islam – since if a Turk marries a non-Muslim woman, he and his family would lose the community‟s respect, and the consequences would be considerable due to the fact that it is a collectivist society.
The bottom line is that neither I nor his father was prepared to make any concessions since it would have had a too large impact on our personal lives. As mentioned before, my wrongdoing probably already consisted in wanting to meet his parents while knowing that their cultural background does not allow them to welcome me in the first place.
Possible Solution – which Concessions am I Prepared to Make
Being aware of possible cultural differences already helps to avoid conflicts from the outset. If I had known about oriental dance being a delicate topic, I would have certainly approached the situation differently, I could have lead the communication into another direction and maybe give his father the opportunity to approach me with fewer preconceptions. I probably would not have even said anything about oriental dance as I do it nowadays when I talk to Turkish people that I do not know in order not to lose their respect for me before they had the chance to get to know me.
After a while, I can then start to talk more openly about the subject and also talk explicitly about this incidence. Funnily enough, it has not happened again that such tensions arose but, to be honest, the situations have never been as delicate as that but rather noncommittal small talks. In addition, it is also crucial that one respects another culture‟s diversity. In this case, the disrespect of the cultural diversity has lead to a discussion which was doomed to fail from the outset.
In general, one can say that it is particularly important to be aware of social and cultural influences, in order to be able to recognise possible sources of misunderstandings or conflicts as early as possible and to be able to act appropriately if a delicate topic comes up. Let us assume that I had nevertheless wanted to say that I am practising oriental dance in the above situation since I would not want to abandon my personality which is also made up of my interests. It would have been far better not to turn silent but to use metacommunication (communicate about communication) and explicitly talk about this cultural difference and take away some of the awkward atmosphere and avoid automatic conclusions being drawn.
At least, this would have helped to defuse the situation to a certain extent and maybe even open up the way to a more open talk.