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).