Communication Strategies: Recognize Differences

Intercultural communication is facilitated when we recognize differences simply as differences, not as inferior ways of doing things or as out-dated, but simply as different. Among the differences to recognize are: (1) differences between yourself and people from other cultures, (2) differences within the other cultural group, and (3) differences in meaning.
Differences between Yourself and the Culturally Different
A common barrier to intercultural communication occurs when you assume that similarities exist and that differences do not. This is especially true of values, attitudes, and beliefs. You might easily accept different hairstyles, clothing, and foods. In basic values and beliefs, however, you may assume that deep down all people are really alike. They aren’t. When you assume similarities and ignore differences, you’ll fail to notice important distinctions and when communicating will convey to others that your ways are the right ways and that their ways are not important to you. Consider this example. An American invites a Filipino coworker to dinner. The Filipino politely refuses. The American is hurt and feels that the Filipino does not want to be friendly. The Filipino is hurt and concludes that the invitation was not extended sincerely. Here, it seems, both the American and the Filipino assume that their customs for inviting people to dinner are the same when, in fact, they aren’t. A Filipino expects to be invited several times before accepting a dinner invitation. When an invitation is given only once it’s viewed as insincere.
Here’s another example. An American college student hears the news that her favorite uncle has died. She bites her lip, pulls herself up, and politely excuses herself from the group of foreign students with whom she is having dinner. The Russian thinks: “How unfriendly.” The Italian thinks: “How insincere.” The Brazilian thinks: “How unconcerned.” To many Americans, it’s a sign of bravery to endure pain (physical or emotional) in silence and without any outward show of emotion. To members of other groups, such silence may be interpreted negatively to mean that the individual does not consider them friends who can share such sorrow. In other cultures, people are expected to reveal to friends how they feel.
Differences within the Culturally Different Group
Within every cultural group there are vast and important differences. As all Americans are not alike, neither are all Indonesians, Greeks, Mexicans, and so on. When you ignore these differences—when you assume that all persons covered by the same label (in this case a national or racial label) are the same—you’re guilty of stereotyping. A good example of this is seen in the use of the term “African American.” The term stresses the unity of Africa and of those who are of African descent and is analogous to “Asian American” or “European American.” At the same time, it ignores the great diversity within the African continent when, for example, it’s used as analogous to “German American” or “Japanese American.” More analogous terms would be “Nigerian American” or “Ethiopian American.” Within each culture there are smaller cultures that differ greatly from each other and from the larger culture.
Differences in Meaning
Meaning exists not in words but in people. You can’t really tell what a person means simply from the dictionary definitions of the words used. Consider, for example, the differences in meaning that exist for words such as religion to a born-again Christian and an atheist and lunch to an Indonesian rice farmer and a Madison Avenue advertising executive. Even though the same word is used, its meanings will vary greatly depending on the listeners’ cultural definitions.
Nonverbal differences in meaning also exist. For example, a left-handed American who eats with the left hand may be seen by a Muslim as inappropriate. To the Muslim, the left hand isn’t used for eating or for shaking hands but to clean oneself after excretory functions. So using the left hand to eat or to shake hands is considered impolite. Similarly, a child who avoids eye contact with an adult may be seen in one culture as deference (the child is showing respect for the older person) and in another as disrespect or even defiance (the child is indicating a lack of concern for what the older person is saying).


Communication Strategies: Educate Yourself for Intercultural Communication

There’s no better preparation for intercultural communication than learning about the other culture and about how you think and feel about communicating with members of cultures very different from your own.
Fortunately, there are numerous sources to draw on in learning about another culture. View a documentary or movie that presents a realistic view of the culture. Read material about the culture by persons from that culture as well as by “outsiders”. Scan magazines and websites from the culture. Talk with members of the culture. Chat in international chat rooms. Read materials addressed to people who need to communicate with those from other cultures. Your online or brink-and-mortar bookstores abound with such books.
Become mindful of your own feelings, particularly your possible fears of engaging in intercultural communication. For example, you may become anxious about your ability to control the intercultural situation, or you may worry about your own level of discomfort. You may fear saying something that will be considered politically incorrect or culturally insensitive and thereby lose face.
A somewhat different type of fear is the fear that you’ll be taken advantage of by a member of another culture. Depending on your own stereotypes, you may fear being lied to, financially duped, or made fun of. You may fear that members of this other group will react to you negatively. You may fear, for example, that they will not like you or may disapprove of your attitudes or beliefs or perhaps even reject you as a person. Conversely, you may fear negative reactions from members of your own group. They might, for example, disapprove of your socializing with the culturally different.
Some fears, of course, are reasonable. In many cases, however, such concerns are groundless. Either way, they need to be assessed logically and their consequences weighed carefully. And, together with your greater understanding and knowledge of the culture, you’ll then be able to make more informed choices about your interactions with members of different cultures.


Communication Strategies: Reduce Your Ethnocentrism

Ethnocentrism is the tendency to evaluate the values, beliefs, and behaviors of your own culture as being more positive, logical, and natural than those of other cultures. Although normally thought of negatively, ethnocentrism has its positive aspects. For example, if a group is under attack, ethnocentrism will help create cohesiveness. It has also been argued that it forms the basis of patriotism and a willingness to sacrifice for the benefit of the group.
But ethnocentrism also can create obstacles to communication with those who are culturally different from you. It can also lead to hostility toward outside groups and may blind you to seeing other perspectives, other values, other ways of doing things.
Ethnocentrism exists on a continuum. People aren’t either ethnocentric or not ethnocentric; rather, most of us are somewhere between these polar opposites. Of course, your degree of ethnocentrism varies, depending on the group on which you focus. For example, if you’re Greek American, you may have a low degree of ethnocentrism when dealing with Italian Americans but a high degree when dealing with Turkish Americans or Japanese Americans. Most important to recognize is that your degree of ethnocentrism (and we are all ethnocentric to at least some degree) will influence your communication interactions.
There is no easy way or quick formula to reduce your ethnocentrism. Yet, a few suggestions may be in order:
• Learn about the other culture. The more you know about other cultures, the more likely you are to see value in other ways of doing things and in other beliefs. And, at the same time, the less likely you’ll be to think only of your own culture.
• Become mindful of your thinking whenever it concerns intercultural issues. Ask yourself if you’re being ethnocentric.
• Interact with members of other cultures while withholding evaluations.
• Talk with members of other cultures about their culture—simply as a way of understanding each other.


Communication Strategies: Confront Your Stereotypes

Originally, the word stereotype was a printing term that referred to the plate that printed the same image over and over. A sociological or psychological stereotype is a fixed impression of a group of people. Everyone has stereotypes—images of national groups, religious groups, or racial groups or perhaps of criminals, teachers, or plumbers. Consider, for example, if you have any stereotypes of, say, bodybuilders, the opposite sex, a racial group different from your own, members of a religion very different from your own, or college professors. Very likely, you do. Stereotypes may be negative (“They’re lazy, dirty, and only interested in getting high”) or positive (“They’re smart, hardworking, and extremely loyal”).
If you have these fixed impressions, you may, on meeting a member of a particular group, see that person primarily as a member of that group. Initially this may provide you with some helpful orientation. However, it creates problems when you apply to that person all the characteristics you assign to members of that group without examining the unique individual. If you meet a politician, for example, you may have a host of characteristics for politicians that you can readily apply to this person. To complicate matters further, you may see in the person’s behavior the manifestation of various characteristics that you would not see if you did not know that the person was a politician. In online communication, because there are few visual and auditory cues, it’s not surprising to find that people form impressions of online communication partners with a heavy reliance on stereotypes.
Consider, however, another kind of stereotype: You’re driving along a dark road and are stopped at a stop sign. A car pulls up beside you and three teenagers jump out and rap on your window. There may be a variety of possible explanations. Perhaps they need help or they want to ask directions. Or they may be about to engage in carjacking. Your self-protective stereotype may help you decide on “carjacking” and may lead you to pull away and into the safety of a busy service station. In doing that, of course, you may have escaped being carjacked—or you may have failed to help people who needed assistance.
Stereotyping can lead to two major barriers. First, the tendency to respond to a person primarily as a member of a (national, racial, religious) class can lead you to perceive that person as possessing qualities (usually negative) that you believe characterize the group to which he or she belongs. Second, stereotyping can lead you to ignore the unique characteristics of an individual; you therefore may fail to benefit from the special contributions each person can bring to an encounter.
You’re not going to lose your stereotypes. But, you can become mindful of them and, when appropriate, ask yourself if your perceptions of another person are being unduly influenced by your stereotypes.