Every cultural form bears meanings, values, attitudes, and connotations which have to be communicated. It depends on the knowledge and understanding of the meanings of these expressions if and how far one is able to understand and possibly participate in this process of sharing meaning between and within two or more cultures.
Ideally one should know the complete set of communication means, communication structures and processes, i.e. the ethnocommunication of the different cultural groups in order to be able to encode and decode the messages in such a way that they are understood, the way they are supposed to be understood. This, however, is a dynamic process in the way any living culture is a dynamic happening and the dynamics of culture are to quite an extent the dynamics of the communication processes within these cultures.
The way people shake hands and how often they do this is different in Western cultures. Greetings in Japan where people bow to each other are quite different from those in Latin America where the abrazo, the close embrace, is the common approach. If I do not know the tabu-sign in Paoua New Guinea tribes I can not understand and interpret them in such a way that they become meaningful and enable me to participate in a communication with such culture.
We live in a world that is shrinking, getting smaller day by day. Our own personal contacts with other cultures and people from other countries are many times greater than it was for people living even 20 years ago in this country. So what is culture? Is it possible to understand a different culture? What should we teach? How does the culture affect the process of doing business, management and cross cultural communication? What is the role of verbal and non-verbal means of communication? What is intercultural and cross cultural communication? These are the questions we are supposed to give the answer when teaching foreign language.
In our understanding culture is the way in which people solve problems and reconcile dilemmas. Culture comes in layers, like an onion. To understand it you have to unpeel layer by layer. On the outer layer are the products of culture, like the soaring skyscrapers, pillars of private power, with congested public streets between them. These are expressions of deeper values and norms in a society that are not directly visible. The layers of values and norms are deeper within the “onion” and are more difficult to identify.
Language is the most technical of message systems of a culture, but there are also other means like time, space, gestures etc. Because any cultural communication takes place in a definite environment this contextual environment must always be considered: “things only have meanings in their relation to other things” . If all this refers to communication within one culture and leads to intra-cultural communication, the more it holds for inter-cultural communication. Much intercultural communication can in a very simple way be defined as “Interuction between members of different cultures” . Howell distinguishes Inter-cultural as more interpersonal communication whereas cross-cultural is more considered as a collective communication between cultural spokesmen of different groups. Cross-cultural communication is confined to mass media while person-to-person communication is desirably intercultural.
Comparing intercultural with international communications it should be clear than intercultural communication is concerned with the communication between cultures which are not necessarily nations. Quite often “cultures cut through national boundaries, where in larger countries like the United States there are different cultures within one nation.This a key to understanding cultures which are regarded as “a melting pot” or “a salad bowl”.
With any communication process there are different variables which partly overlap but which can also be singled out for the sake of analysis. Such variables include the following: 1. Attitudes, 2. social organization, 3. patterns of thought, 4. roles and role prescriptions, 5. Language, 6. use and organization of space, 7. time conceptualization, 8. non-verbal expressions.
The number of participants in a communication happening also influences the process and its outcome: a bigger number of participants increases the number of potential outcomes but also needs more time and energy for consensus. A bigger number of participants also decreases the number of possibilities for direct communication contact and might increase the number of “passiv” participants. The more direct the contact between the communication participants, the more direct will be the feedback and (the efficiency of communication. The relationship between the communication participants themselves also plays a role. If the relationship is perceived as friendly, cooperative and symmetrical, the intent will be sharing, whereas if the relationship is considered hostile, competitive and dominating the outcome will be more difficult. These factors which are the subject of pragmalinguistics and sociolinguistics should also be the focus of attention in teaching communicative behavior.
Communicative competence is supposed to be a cultural competence. A theory of communicative competence provides the means for the construction of the ideal speech situation which should be characterized by the absence of any barriers which would be the case of “if for all possible participants there is a symmetric distribution of chances to choose and to apply speech acts” . The concept of communicative competence is one of the most powerful organizing tools to emerge in the social sciences in recent years. This not only refers to means, content etc, but also to interrelation such as taking turns in a discussion. Therefore the concept of communicative competence must be embedded in the notion of cultural competence. This not only holds for linguistic behaviour but communicative behaviour as such.
All aspects of culture are relevant to communication, but those with the most direct bearing on communicative forms and processes are the social structure, the values and attitudes held about language and ways of speaking, the network of conceptual categories which results from shared experiences, and the ways knowledge and skill, including language, are transmitted from one generation to the next and to new members of the group. “Linguistic fluency” is obviously not sufficient. Intercultural communication needs “cultural fluency” and for this we must analyze a culture with a high degree of accuracy, decide what is universal and what is culture-bound, contrast it with our own, and decide also which kind of observation process we wish to go through, which type of communication we seek. Poyatos also from his own experience as a Spaniard in a Canadian environment develops the concept of a “fluency quotient”.
A person with a high fluency quotient is somebody who culturally is more aware, somebody who “can easily modify his personal standard repertoires to include behaviour forms that are characteristic of other persons and groups”. Culture presents itself on different levels. At the highest level is the culture of a national or regional society, the French or West European versus the Singaporean or Asian. The way in which attitudes are expressed within a specific organisation is described as a corporate or organisational culture. Finally we can talk about the culture of particular functions within organisations: marketing, research and development, personnel. In our English language classes we focus on all these levels and their differences in culture.
Why is that many management processes lose effectiveness when cultural borders are crossed? Culture is like gravity: you do not experience it until you jump six feet into the air. It is possible to examine the visible and invisible ways in which culture impacts on organisational culture and the culture of particular functions within organizations.
Cultural differences with respect to time, for example, greatly influence corporate activities, The European concept of time as being past, present, future is not universal. Time is conceived as “as an endless stream of time units”. Westerners allocate a pro rata value of time. One piece of time is worth the same as another piece of time. Time is chopped like a sausage and sold by the hectogram because time is money. Westerners buy and sell time but have lost the sense of time as a social value in the realm of human experience. We also distinguish clock time and event time. For the relation of time and business we give five different dimensions: appointment time, discussion time, acquaintance time, visiting time, time schedules. Thus appointment time in Latin American means usually 45 minutes, which would correspond to five minutes in Western cultures. In Latin America appointments with several people at the same time rather than individual appointments are common. Discussions and businesses are social events. Acquaintance time with a salesman in the West is a question of a few minutes.
In Central America one must see the salesman at least three times before one can discuss-the nature of the business Visiting time is quite different in India and the USA. In the States “come and see me any time” is a general sentence without any serious expectation or obligation unless time is clearly fixed. In India such an invitation is taken in the literal sense and it is left to the visitor to determine his time. Timetables, schedules and deadlines are usual in Europe and Western countries, while in Arab countries, for example, the mere mention of time seems to be uncommon. The way time is handled in different cultures can also be deeply symbolic. Time is not only money but also a symbol of status and responsibility, Cultures also have a certain time orientation. In certain cultures like American, Swedish and Dutch time is perceived as passing in a straight line, a sequence of events. Other cultures think of time more as moving in a circle, the past and present together with future possibilities. This makes considerable differences to planning, strategy, investment and should be the subject of analysing and teaching cultural differences in the English classroom.
1. Maletzke G. Intercuitural and International Communication. In: Fischer, H. D. International and Intercuitural Communication, 2-nd edition, New York, 1999.
2. Savitle-Troike M. The Enthography of Communication. An Introduction. Oxford, 1982.