EAVESDROPPING ON THE CULTURAL CONVERSATION by Ned Danison

Introduction: Encountering culture in people, language and media

part 1 of 4
site map
previous page
next page
contents

    1.1 Encountering culture: Learning to communicate effectively with people from other cultures.

    "Culture consists of patterns, explicit and implicit, of and for behavior acquired and transmitted by symbols."
    - A.L. Kroeber & Clyde Kluckhohn, Culture: A critical review of concepts and definitions,1952.

    No two human beings are exactly alike, and so you are unique. Yet from the moment you were born, the people who raised you
    and the people around you have been training you to fit in to prescribed roles and to meet certain expectations. The roles you
    have been trained to play are, for example, boy/girl, daughter/son, student, friend, man/woman, citizen, and many others. In
    each of these roles your have learned what is expected of you in terms of thought, speech and behavior. You may have a
    unique personality, but even that has been shaped to some degree by the people around you. In short, the influence of the
    group of people into which you were born -- your culture -- is all-pervasive. Humans share a common nature, but they are
    nonetheless nurtured by their culture. You are a product of your culture, and so am I a product of my culture.

    Culture is the total way of life of a group of people. This total consists of countless ideas and practices organized in predictable
    ways. One people group's way of life differs from another, and so we have cultural differences. What is predictable in one
    culture may be quite unexpected in another.

    1.1.1. Background and communication

    No communication takes place apart from some kind of shared background. Most animals, including humans, can
    communicate certain messages such as "I am afraid" or "I will bite you" because they share a background on the most basic
    level -- they are animals. Humans can communicate many emotions, such as happiness, anger or fear to each other simply by
    making facial expressions and body movements.

    The more background people share, the more precisely they can communicate. Twins, for example, are likely to communicate
    very well because they share a nearly identical background. An old Alaskan man and a young Zimbabwean woman, being
    products of different cultures, ages and genders, will find their very different backgrounds make communication difficult.
    Moreover, It would be much easier for you and me to communicate if we were raised speaking the same language and sharing
    a culture. Because of our different backgrounds, we must rely on a very capable translator.

    Human communication encompasses every situation in which messages, in the form of symbols, are sent and received. This
    includes conversations, movies, books, songs, TV shows, newspapers, e-mail, post-it note shopping lists, graffiti, billboards,
    junior high love letters, and on and on. Because we are cultural creatures, all of this communication is only properly understood
    when we take into account its cultural background.

    1.1.2. Awareness and communication

    The troublesome thing about cultural background is that, even though it is all-pervasive, it is also largely out of awareness,
    much like the beating of your heart is out of awareness right now. Were you thinking of your heartbeat before I mentioned it?
    Probably not. Another example: There are sounds (probably from traffic, machines, or people doing things) which you can only
    hear right now if you stop everything and listen carefully. These sounds were there when you were not listening, but they were
    out of awareness. Likewise, most of our cultural knowledge is out of awareness.

    The patterns of culture are like grammar rules of language, an implicit system of rules we use so we can speak to each other
    correctly, so that we can understand each other more precisely. If you speak your native language, you almost never think about
    grammar rules -- they are out of awareness. You learned them as a child without knowing you were learning them (I have heard
    more than one Chinese student naïvely comment, "Chinese doesn't have grammar").  But when you learn a foreign language,
    grammar rules cannot be ignored. Before you can communicate well in the new language, grammar rules must be brought into
    awareness.

    This book aims to help you develop awareness of the hidden rules of culture, which we might well call "cultural grammar."
    Culture is like language: There is a part that is easy to see and hear, and a part that is a hidden system of rules people use to
    think and behave "correctly," and to understand each other.

    1.1.3. Communication is more than just spoken language

    Millions of language students who, after years of study, have an opportunity to go abroad and practice their language with native
    speakers, are surprised and disappointed to find that the language they struggled to learn at home hardly resembles what they
    hear spoken in its native land! This is not only because people speak fast and use a lot of idioms, but because there is much
    more involved in communication than the spoken language. There is probably nothing in life more nuanced and subtle than
    face to face communication. Words -- together with tone of voice, facial expressions, silences -- are heavy with attitudes, values
    and beliefs which can only be discerned in their cultural context.

    Words and the way they are spoken are only one of the modes through which messages are sent. People communicate
    using...
    - gesture, movement and posture (often called body language, including facial expressions)
    - personal space (how close or far apart people sit or stand)
    - time (for example, calling someone at an appropriate time, or making someone wait)
    - touch (who may touch whom when and on what part of the body)
    - implicit understanding (understandings people share that don't need explanation)...
    and all of these modes of communication are shaped by culture.

    Take, for example, the way people use personal space as a way of communicating. When you are walking on the street, and
    you stop to talk to someone, how close to that person will you stand? If you know the person, will you stand at the same
    distance as if you don't know the person? If the person is of your gender, or appears poorer or richer than you, will that affect
    how close or far apart you will stand? Chances are good that you have never really thought about this before, and it is out of
    awareness. But studies show that there are definite rules to the distances people keep between themselves, and these rules
    are different from culture to culture. In Arab cultures, for instance, the appropriate distance apart for men to stand while they are
    talking is close enough so they can smell each other's breath. If you, as a Taiwanese, found yourself talking to a man from an
    Arab culture, you might feel uncomfortable and not know exactly why. Or perhaps the Arab man would feel uncomfortable with
    you because you require too much personal space!

    As another example of unwritten rules (also called norms) that are out of awareness, consider what you do when you are riding
    your motorcycle on the right side of the road, and a motorcycle comes toward you (riding on the right, going the opposite
    direction). I am sure this has happened to most Taiwan motorcyclists, and at the moment it is time to pass the oncoming
    motorcycle, you will choose a side to pass that seems "right." Fortunately, both motorcyclists usually have the same idea of
    which side they should pass on -- otherwise there would be more accidents.

    In sum, people are cultural animals, and the roots of culture are very complex and deep in each of us. A cross-cultural
    encounter brings with it possibilities for conflicts and misunderstandings -- many of which are unanticipated, or out of
    awareness. Effective cross-cultural communication requires a developed cultural awareness.

    Here is a useful way to look at cross-cultural communication: From earliest times, human societies have developed ways to
    get along with each other, to respect one another, and to decide who may do what with whom, when and where, etc. In short,
    societies have developed rules for interaction, and each society has developed a somewhat different set of rules. These rules
    are like dance steps: Members of a culture implicitly know the steps, so they won't step on each other's feet. But when people
    get together from different cultures, with different dance steps, inevitably there will be some sore toes! Studying culture -- other
    cultures as well as your own -- will help you in your cross-cultural dance.
Please offer your comments, critiques, and suggestions.
Your name and e-mail address are optional.