Interpersonal Communication in an Intercultural Environment
Cultural growth in the twenty-first century has heightened the emphasis on interpersonal communication in an intercultural setting. As our world grows, expands, and becomes increasingly more interconnected by various technological advances, the need for effective interpersonal communication among differing cultures has become quite clear. Due to the advancement of technology in today's world, a world in which some businesspeople are involved in transactions with other businesspeople in faraway countries, the call for knowledge of intercultural communication within this setting has become a reality. Interpersonal communication is a form of communication that involves a small number of people who can interact exclusively with one another and who therefore have the ability to both adapt their messages specifically for those
others and to obtain immediate interpretations from them (Lustig et al, 1993). Although interpersonal communication is usually thought of as being performed in small, centralized groups, a need to broaden these groups and bring about a general feeling of cultural awareness has become apparent. To a certain degree, all communication
could be called interpersonal, as it occurs between two or more people.
However, it is useful and practical to restrict the definition to distinguish those relationships that involve a relatively small group of people, such as couples, families, friends, workgroups, and even classroom groups from those involving much larger numbers of people, as would occur in public rallies or among massive television audiences. Unlike other forms of communication, interpersonal communication involves person-to-person interactions. Additionally, the perception that a social bond has developed between the interactions, however tenuous and temporary it may seem is also much more likely. Intercultural communication is a symbolic, interpretive, transactional, contextual processing tool with which people from different cultures create shared meanings (Berko et al, 1998).
When we speak to someone with whom we share little or no cultural bond, it is referred to as intercultural communication. Our need to communicate across culture can be very beneficial personally and professionally. Within an intercultural setting, nonverbal and verbal communications are both prevalent in emphasizing the differences in cultures. The way we act and the things we say determine whether or not we belong in a certain culture. Nonverbal communication systems provide information about the meaning associated with the use of space, time, touch, and gestures. They help to define the boundaries between the members and nonmembers of a culture (Koester at al, 1993). In order to fully enjoy and benefit from interpersonal communication in an intercultural setting, one must first gain a full, comprehensive knowledge of the determining factors of culture.
There are several ways of defining culture. Webster's dictionary defines culture as “a particular civilization at a particular stage" or” all the knowledge and values shared by a society.” A second approach emphasizes the social heredity of a group of people, suggesting that the new members of a culture must be taught its fundamental ideas, practices, and experiences. The social heredity approach therefore asserts that culture is symbolically transmitted, often "handed down" through ensuing generations, from parents or other adults to
children, who in turn grow up and teach their own children the culture's customs and expectations. This approach is important because it emphasizes that one does not become a member of a culture by birth, but rather through a process of learning. The word ^culture' is often considered in terms of nationality or one's country of origin. Other more specific distinguishing characteristics of culture are region, orientation, socioeconomic status, gender, sexual orientation and preference, age, marital and parental status. Another approach to understanding the concept of culture involves the beliefs, values, and norms that exist to guide an individual's behaviors in solving common problems. This approach, often called the perceptual or subjective culture approach, suggests that people behave as they do because of the perceptions they have about the world and their expectations about how they should behave in that world.
Harry Triandis defines subjective culture as "a cultural group's characteristic way of perceiving the man-made part of its environment. The perception of rules and the group's norms, roles and values are aspects of subjective culture.” This approach emphasizes that culture is a shared set of ideas and practices that exist in people's minds. This shared set of perceptions then governs people's behaviors. The consequences of one's subjective culture, then, can be seen in the repetitive patterns and regularities of people's behaviors. It is a proven fact that interpersonal communication, whether it occurs intercultural or among people that share a common culture, is effective at combating loneliness, shaping self-concepts, confirming experiences, renewing personal and aiding us in understanding who we are and how we relate to others. (Berko et al, 1998). Another aspect of the benefits of effective interpersonal communication is the manner in which it effects our intrapersonal growth. Intrapersonal communication refers to our internal communication with us as opposed to others. The healthiness of our intrapersonal communication can directly affect our levels of self-esteem, general inner growth as a human being and the way in which we view ourselves in relation to others. Edward T. Hall, a prominent scholar in the field of Communication, developed and presented two major ways in which one's culture is conveyed. The two patterns are drastically different, and express the culture of a given group quite effectively. Hall developed high and low context patterns to indicate what perceptions to notice in the communication process and how to interpret them. According to Hall, high-context cultures use high-context messages, in which most of the meaning is either implied by the physical setting or is presumed to be part of the individual's internalized beliefs, values and norms. Examples of high context cultures include Chinese, African, and Latino cultures.
The use of high context messages is especially prominent within the African American culture, i.e. their interpretation of chronemics, the study of how people structure and use their time. Among high context cultures, time is more informal and “open-ended and less structured. In contrast, a low context culture views time in a highly technical way, in part because of the additional energy required to understand the messages of others. Low context cultures prefer to use low-context messages in which a majority of the information is vested in the explicit code. For example, human interaction with computers and other highly scientific machines can be considered a low context message because in order for computers to interpret and "understand" a message, every statement must be very precise and clearly relayed (Lustig et al, 1993). Within the American culture, low context patterns are deeply rooted in the Bill of Rights. The First Amendment has provided Americans with a strong reliance on overt and explicit codes. The American culture is not one that operates under presumptions or implicit messages. Ideas and feelings are clearly expressed and are usually designed in such a way that misunderstanding is almost impossible. Germany, Sweden, and English societies are some examples of low context cultures. A prominent aspect of interpersonal communication is a study known as proxemics.
The word proxemics,' which is a derivative of the word proximity,' refers to how different groups of people use and perceive their social and personal space. Every person is surrounded by a psychological “bubble” of space. This bubble contracts and expands depending on the person's cultural background, emotional state and the activity in which he or she is participating There are four distinct levels of personal space. Intimate distance covers a space varying from direct physical contact with another person to a distance of eighteen inches. This space is used for our most private activities- sharing intimate ideas and emotions, kissing and lovemaking. The next level of personal space is known as personal distance. Personal distance is also commonly known as the "comfort bubble," which covers a space of eighteen inches to four feet. This space is usually reserved for the conversation of close friends. Social distance covers a four to twelve foot zone that is commonly used during business transactions and casual social exchanges that take place between acquaintances. The largest amount of personal space is known as public distance, dictating a separation of as little as twelve feet, but usually more than twenty-five. It is used by teachers in lecture halls and by public speakers at public gatherings who wish to place a barrier between themselves and their audiences. In modern times, this level of personal space has been implemented into the universal idea of polite etiquette at the ATM machine. Northern Europeans -English, Scandinavians and Germans- tend to have a larger zone of personal space and often avoid touching and close contact unless absolutely necessary. They require more room around them and structure their lifestyles to meet this need for more room. Thus, the English are stereotyped as being distant and impersonal, not showing great emotion through kissing, hugging or other forms of intimate touching. This stereotype derives from the respect they exhibit for each other's territory.
In contrast, Italians, Russians, Spaniards, Latin Americans, Middle Easterners, and the French generally tend to like and condone close personal contact. Many marriage counselors in the United States utilize the study of proxemics in deducing the cause for marital conflict between some couples. Consider, for example the conflict that can take place between a couple in which the woman comes from a family of English heritage and a man with an Italian background. The woman is not accustomed to a large amount of close personal physical contact, and naturally avoids it to a certain extent. The man, on the other hand, coming from a family where physical contact is the norm, and grandiose displays of affection through kissing, hugging and touching are commonplace, expects his wife to soothe him after a hard day, sit close to him and show outward emotion. She does not understand the "exaggerated" emotions of his family. He cannot understand the aura of distance surrounding the manner in which her family relates to one another. Thus, a conflict can result from the large differences in these two partners' proxemics patterns and expectations. Imagine, also, an American businessperson meeting with a Spanish colleague when attempting to close an important business deal.
The American may feel a strong aversion to the Spaniard's perfectly friendly, normal physical actions such as extended handshaking, seating himself very close to his colleague and invading the American's closely guarded bubble of personal space. Such a situation could result in the ruination of the business transaction, all due to a misunderstanding on the part of the two executives, both viewing one another as rude and distant/pushy. Depending upon what an individual's culture has taught him/her, a businessperson may construct his/her office so that his/her personal space cannot possibly be invaded. This can be done by arranging the furniture in such a way that there is always a certain level of personal space enforced. For example, some businesspeople may place their desk and guest chairs so that any visitor must sit on one side of the desk. All parties involved in the conversation tend to be more comfortable this way. In contrast, many interviewers have reported a completely different atmosphere when talking to job applicants if the two chairs are placed facing each other about three to four feet apart instead of on opposite sides of the desk. This nurtures a more intimate atmosphere, fostering a sense of honesty and open communication between employer and interviewee. Much of what is known about this field is based on anthropological research.
Another important aspect of interpersonal communication in an intercultural setting is the study of chronemics. Chronemics is the study of the way people handle and structure their use of time in a communication setting. Only within certain societies is precise time of great importance or significance. Some cultures relate to time as a circular phenomenon in which there is no pressure or anxiety about the future. In circular time, there is no pressing need to achieve or create newness or to produce more than absolutely needed to survive. Additionally, there is no fear of death. Such societies have successfully integrated the past and future into a peaceful sense of the present. Many Native American cultures have been raised with this cultural attitude toward the passing of time. Obviously, if one made an appointment with an individual raised in this culture, he/she should be prepared for a possibly long wait. Circular time is the most casual of all concepts of time. North Americans, Asians, and those raised in Western American societies operate on linear time, which focuses on the factual and technical information needed to fulfill impending demands. In this culture, punctuality is considered a large part of good manners and civility.
When one says, they will arrive at eight o'clock in this culture that is precisely what they mean. These cultures view tardiness as a signal of hostility, procrastination and a relaxed attitude toward responsibility. In Britain or North America one may be five minutes late for a business appointment, but certainly not fifteen or thirty minutes late. In Latin America, one is expected to arrive late for an appointment, and is considered rude if he/she arrives early or punctually. This same tardiness for Germans or North Americans is unacceptable and frowned upon. Another way of viewing time is understand its technical, formal, and informal uses. Technical time is precise time, as in the way scientists measure things in milliseconds. Few of us continually come into contact with this particular usage. On the other hand, formal time is the way in which a culture defines its time, and it plays a daily role in most of our lives. Formal time refers to centuries, years, months, weeks, days, hours, and minutes. Informal time refers to a rather flexible use of time such as "soon" or "right away.” These terms often cause communicative difficulty because they are somewhat arbitrary and mean different things to different people. One concept of time known as “C.P. Time,” or “Colored People's Time,” interprets chronemics in a way that differs from formal time. Unlike formal time, C.P. Time supports a much more relaxed idea of deadlines and arrival times.
When an individual in this culture indicates that he/she is on C.P. Time, insiders within this culture would automatically know that this individual does not plan to be on time. Time is critical in the American workplace. Deadlines must be met and meetings are held from one specific time to another. Euro-Americans, North Americans and western Europeans are “clock-bound,” whereas African, Latin American and some Asian-Pacific cultures are distinctly not. Time is based on personal systems and universal understandings within a specific culture. Americans traveling abroad often become irritated by the seeming lack of concern for time commitment among residents of some countries. Businesspeople may become confused over what “on time” means as they meet those from other cultures. For example, in Mexico and Central America, tours may be late, and guides may fail to indicate the correct arrival and departure times. Yet, in other places, such as Switzerland, one can set his/her watch by the arrival time of a train.
Time, as a communication tool is often greatly misunderstood. It is always best to perform a basic study of the time concept of a particular locale before spending time there. Knowledge of the norms and patterns of different cultures is important because it reduces feelings of awkwardness and confusion. Another significant dimension of interpersonal communication is known as haptics. Haptics is the study of how touch is used to communicate with others, whether it is in an intercultural setting or among individuals that share a common bond culturally. Touch can communicate many different things, such as affection, playfulness, hostility, and urgency, to name just a few. There are four universally recognized aspects of haptics, all of which communicate varying emotions and intentions
. The first is the professional touch, used, for example, by businesspeople, between a professor and his/her students and two people meeting for the first time.
The second is the social/polite touch, used by acquaintances who wish to convey friendly but slightly detached appreciation and affection.
The third is the friendly touch, which could be used by close friends or close businesspeople and colleagues congratulating one another on an accomplishment.
The fourth and most intense touch is known as intimate touch, which is usually reserved for couples expressing love and affection through kissing, hugging, caressing, or lovemaking. As mentioned earlier in the discussion concerning proxemics, different cultures vary in the amount of touching that is considered customary and polite among casual acquaintances, friends, and even family members.
Individuals from an English, German, or Swedish culture tend to use touch less as a rule, and rely upon the physical setting to set the tone of a given situation. However, those with Asian, African American, Italian, or Latino heritage incorporate a much larger amount of touch into their personal exchanges, using elaborate, extended handshakes, embraces, or even kiss to convey their affection and gratitude. Many misunderstandings and much discomfort can arise from a situation that places two people from drastically different cultures together. It is always best to attempt to adapt oneself as comfortably as possible to a situation to decrease the possibility of personal insult and awkwardness.
Another important tool used in deciphering the meanings and intentions of individuals in a communication setting is known as kinesics. Kinesics is the study of communication through body movements. We communicate through the gestures we use, the way we walk and stand, the expressions on our faces and in our eyes, and how we combine these variables to open or close channels in the communication process. Among the myriad of
different methods individuals utilize to express just as many different emotions are five more ones that are prominent: emblems, illustrators, affect displays, regulators, and adaptors.
Emblems are nonverbal acts that have a direct verbal translation or dictionary definition, usually consisting of a word or two. The sign language of the deaf, gestures used by behind-the-scenes television personnel, and the signals between two underwater swimmers are examples of the use of emblems. Of course, not all emblems are universal. For example, in Hong Kong, the culturally recognized signal for summoning a waiter in a restaurant is done by making a writing motion with both hands. In some parts of the United States, however, extending two fingers and motioning toward oneself may be accepted as the appropriate signal. This would be considered very rude in Hong Kong; it is only used to calling animals. The second method of kinesics is illustration. Illustrators are kinesic acts accompanying speech that are used to aid in the description of what is being said or trace the definitions of speech (Berko at al, 1998).
They are used to either sketch a path, point to an object, or show spiritual relationships. Many parts of North America and beyond consider the pointing of one's finger at an object or another person to be extremely rude. Affect displays are facial gestures that show emotions and feelings such as sadness or happiness. Pouting, winking and raising or lowering the eyelids and eyebrows are examples of the more obvious affect displays. Different people and cultures tend to use facial expressions in different ways. For example, North American males frequently mask and internalize their facial expressions because they have been taught that showing emotion is not a sign of “manliness,” while an Italian male feels none of these restrictions and uses facial expressions freely and frequently. The fourth important factor of kinesics is the way regulators are used. Regulators are nonverbal acts that maintain and control the back-and-forth nature of speaking and listening between two or more people. Nods of the head, eye movements, and conscious and unconscious body shifts are all regulators used to encourage or discourage conversation. Americans tend to use little or no extended eye contact while Italians, some Asian cultures and the French, to name a few, incorporate much more eye contact into their nonverbal communication. It is a proven fact that most of us cannot control the responses of our eyes, thus revealing, to a certain, degree, our inner emotions. It is for this reason that members of the Arab culture go as far as wearing dark glasses, even indoors, to conceal the responses of their eyes, especially when negotiating. Finally, adaptors are used frequently to express boredom, show internal feelings, or regulate a situation. For example, those who are bored tend to tap their fingers and glance around the room at random, paying little attention to speaker(s). All emblems, illustrators, affect displays, regulators and adaptors are not universally recognized. Each culture has its own unique set of recognized symbols and gestures that convey a variety of emotions and meaning. Care must be taken to adapt one's gestures to their environment so as not to insult or cause awkwardness when speaking with a person from a different culture.
Another aspect of communication is olfactics, the study of smells and how they affect us. Our sense of smell is extraordinarily precise. Growing evidence also suggests that we remember what we smell longer than we remember what we hear and see (Berko et al, 1998). We are attracted by the scents of certain colognes repulsed by others. Some people find certain body odors extremely offensive.
This is especially true in the United States where we have been taught through advertisement and those in the medical field to wash off natural odors and replace them with neutral, fragrance-free or substitute smells. This is definitely not the case among other cultures, causing North Americans to view people with natural body odors and smells as being dirty. The French have a particularly infamous reputation in this regard. The awareness for interpersonal communication in an intercultural environment is important. If relations and exchanges between people from drastically different cultures could be smoothed and cleared of confusion and awkwardness, cultures would not be so apprehensive about communicating with one another. Misinterpretation of the underlying dimensions of interpersonal communication can lead to conflict. Current findings have important ideas for better ways to improve and enhance interpersonal communication. One example is the usage of Culture Assimilator in different business organizations and educational institutes. This technique, which trains employees and students to be more sensitive in the face of a different culture, has been shown to be effective in some cases. The Culture Assimilator presents the trainee with a series of “critical incidents,” stories in which there is a conflict or misunderstanding between a member of a subject culture and a member of a target culture. The trainee is then asked to evaluate the target culture member's behavior (Randolph et al, 1996). Although
results show a small positive effect, future research is needed in order to explore ways to develop more effective training programs. Many different groups of people such businesspeople, families, couples, friends, coworkers, and students on high school or college campuses could benefit from increased awareness and training in the
field of interpersonal communication among varying cultures. As is true with the issue of race relations, the amount of tension, awkwardness, insult, and even physical violence could be decreased by large numbers if organizations would train their employees or students in how to communicate with those that happen to be a member of
a different cultural background.