9. Communicating Across Cultures
My few postings of the past 10 days have earned me a few comments and some more friends, an encouraging sign, given the insignificance of my stories as compared to the burning issues that are challenging our everyday life. Nonetheless, I believe that if each of us do our duty, and by our small action, help to reduce the sufferings of the World, then we would have contributed to make a better world.
To address the questions that were sent to me from my new-found friends, on what are the foundations of my Buddhist beliefs, and another one on the importance of intercultural communications, I would like to quote a short answer I wrote spontaneously on a forum on the Transformative Power of Intercultural Experiences as below:
“Sharing on my personal intercultural experience: As a Vietnamese growing up in war torn South Vietnam, I benefit from both French and American cultures in my younger years. After the fall of Saigon (or the “liberation” of South Vietnam), I was among the 800 successful candidates among the 43’000 who sat for entrance examinations to various universities of the newly unified Vietnam. Upon graduation, I worked as a professional translator and interpreter in 5 languages, among which Russian and German. Later on, I also acquired Swiss German and Norwegian in my set of languages as translator. With this background, I had experienced a lot of scenario where cross-cultural communication plays a very important role, even within the same ethnic group, sharing the same beliefs, speaking the same language. In my studies of Buddhism, I learned that we are shaped by the perceptions that we have of the world through inputs we receive from our immediate entourage and senses, and the way to consciously neutralize negative thoughts and build up positive thought, through the process of meditation. I am still working on this and find that it helps a lot to develop compassion to understand the “other” while you are communicating with them. From my readings on Vietnam war stories, I also noticed that a lot of destruction and losses of life could have been spared if both sides had been given the opportunities to understand the opponent’s position. For me, understanding others’ culture start with an open mind to accept that there can be many solutions to problem-solving, and nobody can be holding the absolute truth. If we learn how to listen actively, we may find a solution of resolving a conflict without having to use coercitive methods to impose our own thinking.” (May 2011)
At that stage of my life by mid-2011, I was still optimistic about the prospects of a just and fair world and that conflicts could be solved through negotiations and mutual consensus . Since then, having been more actively connected through the internet and learning more on the actual state of the World, I think that understanding other people’s culture alone is not enough, but in addition, we should learn to understand how the world interests function and how to address the issues “in context”.
I realize that it is not only at my level, within my small sphere, but at all levels, no matter how big or small your job is, the challenges facing intercultural communication are overwhelming.
Before we understand what “inter-cultural” means, we need to define what is culture.
Professor Raymond Williams, in his book “Keywords, a vocabulary of culture and society” said that
“Culture is one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language […] mainly because it has now come to be used for important concepts in several distinct intellectual disciplines and in several distinct and incompatible systems of thought.”
In pages 87 to 93 of this book, after a short description of the evolution of this word in English literature, he also compared this evolution in the context of German and French, to conclude that nowadays, we can understand ‘culture’ by its widespread use as “music, literature, painting and sculpture, theater and film“.
He also cited, Kroeber and Kluckhohn, who in their study “Culture: a Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions” had mentioned the “difficulty in selecting one ‘true’ or ‘proper’ or ‘scientific’ sense of and dismissing other senses as loose or confused, and that within a discipline, conceptual usage had to be clarified. Thus in archaeology and in cultural anthropology the reference to culture or a culture is primarily to material production, while in history and cultural studies the reference is primarily to signifying or symbolic systems“.
He then added on that “the use of the word ‘culture’ in languages other than English, where there is considerable variation. For example, in the German, Scandinavian and Slavonic language groups, the anthropological use is common, whereas in Italian and French, the interpretation is more distinctly subordinate to the senses of art and learning. For him, between languages as within the language, the range and complexity of sense and reference indicate both difference of intellectual position and some blurring or overlapping. These variations […] involve alternative views of the activities, relationships and processes which this complex word indicates. The complexity, that is to say, is not finally in the word but in the problems which its variations of use significantly indicate.”
In short, he explained the “hostility in the usage of the word ‘culture’ in English due to its connection with uses involving claims to superior knowledge, refinement, and distinctions between ‘high’ art (culture) and popular art and entertainment.” […], and added that, “the steadily extending social and anthropological use of culture and cultural and such formations as ‘sub-culture’ has, either bypassed or effectively diminished the hostility and its associated unease and embarrassment.”
He concluded that the “recent use of ‘culturalism’, to indicate a methodological contrast with ‘structuralism’ in social analysis, retains many of the earlier difficulties, and does not always bypass the hostility.“
Sure, it sounds very ‘academic’ and difficult to understand, even for me, who have spent 2/3 of my leisure time for the past 30 years or so, deciphering dictionaries and lexikons. Luckily, modern theoricians and promoters on intercultural communication make life much easier for us students, with their pragmatic and down-to-earth language.
Iris Varner and Linda Beamer, for example, in the 5th edition of their textbook “Intercultural Communication in the Global Workplace” (Mc Grawhill Irwin, 2011) mentioned about the necessity of Intercultural Business Communication Competence and Growing Domestic Diversity, and proposed a series practical lessons covering the ‘Cultural and Communication‘ aspect, with the role of language and non-verbal language in intercultural business communication, and the importance of intercultural negotiation skills. The book also covers legal and governmental consideration in this discipline, the influence of business structures and corporate culture as well as the intercultural dynamics in the International Company.
As a multilingual interpreter, dealing mainly with cross-cultural communication and intercultural negotiation, I am often confronted with being in situations, where mastering the required languages and the economic context alone, does not suffice. A continuous update on the macro-economic environment, as well as a critical analysis of the geopolitical development of world events are sometimes needed in this highly demanding job. By the way, this is also the main motivation for me to lecture as this activity helps me to keep connected to the real concerns of students in this field.
The challenges are even greater when negotiations often occur by distance, either by skype or teleconference, where both parties are sometimes handicapped by their own limitations in English and their lack of understanding of the counterparts culture and the pressure of short notice in most cases.
Personally, I love new challenges, and love meeting new people, so I don’t mind those long hours of hard work.
Thank you for your attention, and till next time,
You can read my other postings under http://sbitrainingsolutions.blogspot.ch/p/blog-on-linkedin-back-to-square-one-new.html