Cross-cultural communication refers to the exchange of information between people of different cultural backgrounds. It is a well-studied field of research in several disciplines, including psychology, speech and communication, sociology, anthropology, and business.
Cross-cultural communication is highly related to a similar term, intercultural communication. In actuality, there is no difference between these terms in the context of communication. However, there is an important and notable difference between cross-cultural and intercultural research. The former refers to the comparison of two or more cultures on some variable of interest (e.g., differences between cultures A and B in the expression of emotions). The latter refers to the study of the interaction between people of two cultures (e.g., differences in how people of cultures A and B express emotions when they are with people of cultures B and A, respectively). There is yet a third term, iritracultural communication, which refers to communication among people within a culture. The bulk of information in cross-cultural communication comes from cross-cultural research, but has considerable application to our understanding of intercultural and intracultural communication processes.
Cultural Influences on the Communication Process
These influences are at work via both verbal and nonverbal communication.
Verbal language is a system of symbols that denote how a culture structures its world. As such, by examining language, it is possible to see how a culture relates to its world. For example, some languages have words that do not exist in other cultures. The Eskimo language, for instance, has multiple words for snow while the English language has only one (Whorf, 1956). The German word Schadenfreude (joy in another person’s misfortunes) and the Japanese word “amae” (sweet dependence), which do not exist in English, are other examples.
That the words do not exist in other languages does not mean that the concepts are nonexistent. In American culture, for example, it is very common to see people derive joy from others’ misfortunes! Rather, such words reflect the fact that the concept is important enough to the culture for its language to have a separate linguistic symbol for it. In this way, verbal language is a manifestation of the larger culture within which it exists.
Another example of this manifestation is the case of self and other referents. In American English, for example, we typically refer to ourselves as “I,” and to someone else as “you.” There are many other languages of the world, however, that do not use such simplistic terms for self and others. The Japanese language, for instance, includes an extensive choice of terms referring to oneself and others, all dependent upon the relationship between the people interacting (Suzuki, 1978). In Japanese, you refer to your teacher as “teacher” or your boss at work as “section chief” when in English the word “you” would normally be used. In Japanese, terms denoting status are also used within the family. There are even different terms for “I”, depending on the nature of status relationships. The degree of politeness and fluency in the language and culture is dependent on the ability to use this system properly.
When people speak the language of their culture, they reinforce their concepts of culture. If you engage fluently in the Japanese use of the elaborate system of self and other referents, for example, you will reinforce your own understanding of the Japanese culture’s emphasis on status relationships and interdependence. If you engage fluently in American English’s “I” and “you,” you will reinforce your view of the American individuality and uniqueness. Culture and language share a highly interrelated, reciprocal relationship.
That language helps to structure thought, and vice versa, is a concept that is known as the Supir-Whorf hypothesis. It suggests that people of different cultures think differently, just by the very nature, structure, and function of their language. Since the early 1960s, some research has indicated that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis may not be true with regard to the influence of lexical and semantic aspects of language (e.g., see the experiments on color names reported in Rosch & Lloyd, 1978). But, many other studies have confirmed that Sapir-Whorf is very valid with regard to the grammar and syntax of language. Also, there is a small but growing amount of evidence in research with bilinguals that supports the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Collectively, Sapir-Whorf suggests that people who speak different languages may interpret the same event differently because the differences in their language are associated with different thinking styles (e.g., see Matsumoto, 1996, for a review of this line of research).
While cultural differences in language are very apparent, there are major differences between cultures in nonverbal communication as well. In fact, ample studies have shown that the bulk of message exchange in communication occurs nonverbally; depending on the study, estimates of the contribution of nonverbal behaviors to overall communication range as high as 90%!
There are five categories of nonverbal behaviors: speech illustrators, conversation regulators, self-adaptors, emblematic gestures, and emotion signals (Ekman & Friesen, Serniotica, 1968, 19, 49-98). All carry some kind of communicative value and are influenced by culture. One of the most well-studied areas of nonverbal behavior is gesture, and many cultural similarities and differences have been documented (Morris, Collet, Marsh, & O’Shaunessy, 1980).
Facial expression of emotions is another well-studied area of nonverbal communication. Research since the 1970s has shown that a small set of facial expressions of emotion are universally expressed (see review of early research in Ekman, 1972). These emotions include anger, contempt, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise. Cultures differ, however, in the rules governing how to use these universal expressions. These rules-called cultural display rules-are learned rules of expression management that dictate the appropriateness of emotion display depending on social circumstances. Learned from infancy, we are so adept at using these rules that by the time we are adults, we do so automatically and without much conscious awareness.
There are cultural differences in other channels of nonverbal behaviors, such as in gaze and visual behavior, and in the use of interpersonal space. Each of these is important in its own right, and contributes greatly to communication. Mistaken inferences about feelings and intentions easily occur because of misattributions about gaze behavior that we are not accustomed to, and interactions are often strained because they occur at spaces that are too distant or close for comfort. Collectively, the literature suggests that culture exerts a considerable amount of influence over much of the nonverbal behaviors that occur in intercultural communication episodes.
The Process of Intercultural Communication
As noted above, we all learn culturally prescribed rules that govern our expressive behaviors and language. These rules also help us to decode and interpret the behaviors of others. As display rules are heavily influenced by culture, so are our rules of decoding.
When we interact with others, a number of normal, psychological processes occur. We naturally form categories about people to help us organize the information we take in. We selectively attend to our environment, as it is impossible to attend to all possible stimuli entering our senses at any one time. We naturally appraise the actions of others around us, and make attributions about the causes of those actions. In most cases, those appraisals and attributions are heavily dependent on what we expect to be appropriate, which is related to our own learned display rules. Finally, we select attributions, appraisals, and categories to commit to long-term memory. All of these normal psychological processes underlie our own ethnocentrism (the tendency to view the world through one’s own cultural filters) and stereotypes (generalizations about categories of people).
Interpreting the behaviors of others, however, is not an entirely cognitive process. It is, in fact, heavily laden with emotion and values, and extremely important to our sense of self. The display and decoding rules we learn and operate with, and the stereotypes that are formed from normal psychological processes described above, create expectations of behavior. These expectations are associated with value judgments of goodness, worth, and appropriateness. In intracultural communication, these expectations are often met, and values are reaffirmed. Positive emotions reinforce those values and our own sense of self, or self-construals. These, in turn, reinforce our own display and decoding rules, expectations, and stereotypes in a cyclical fashion.
During intercultural encounters, however, chances are greater that we interact with people whose behaviors do not conform to our expectations. When this occurs, we often interpret those behaviors, instinctively and naturally, as transgressions against our value system and morality. Consequently, they produce negative emotions, which are upsetting to our self-construals. The process of intercultural communication, therefore, is an exciting and interesting one because of the simultaneous blending of different culturally based rules of encoding and decoding. Unfortunately, because of these dynamics, it is also a source of conflict.
When negative emotions are aroused in intercultural encounters, these emotions tell us that there is a discrepancy between our expectations, stereotypes, value system, and reality. When this occurs, we can either assimilate our observations into our expectations (e.g., convince ourselves that our observations were a fluke and our expectations and stereotypes are correct), or we can accommodate our expectations to the reality (e.g.. entertain the hypothesis that our stereotypes may be incorrect). Intercultural communication processes, therefore, have inherent potential for either self-growth and the development of new ways of thinking, or a crystallization of old ways of thinking, depending on how the individual deals with the challenge to self and expectations incumbent to the elicitation of the negative emotions produced by the interpretations of inappropriate behavior.
Because intercultural communication processes are laden with such unknowns, there is a considerable amount of uncertainty and anxiety attendant upon such exchanges. By understanding that such uncertainty and anxiety are natural, and by developing ways of regulating one’s negative emotional reactions and channeling them toward accommodation and self-growth rather than stagnation, we can build bridges across cultures that can help to reduce intercultural conflict and produce effective communication.
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