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Cross-Cultural Communication

Cultural Awareness

Remember a time when you went abroad and made some faux pas that caused amusement or dismay among local listeners? Knowing what exactly went wrong in this situation could help you understand cultural awareness. InterNations tells you more about cultural awareness and why it is so important for expatriates.

While living abroad, quite a few people inadvertently miss some social cues among their new colleagues, neighbors, or friends. They behave in what they think is a normal manner – and oops! Suddenly, other people seem amused, irritated, or simply confused.

You may not be able to explain what went wrong or, to ask an even more difficult question, why a certain type of behavior would be considered wrong in your host country. You did, however, notice that “normal” interaction and “common sense” failed you. Perhaps you even ended up upsetting other people.

First Steps

Now go a step further in your quest for cultural awareness: Start reading a brief “how to” guide or “dos and don’ts” list for tourists, expats, or immigrants coming to your country. You may be surprised or entertained by the descriptions of your own culture and its basic etiquette.

If you talk to foreign visitors and expatriates whom you know already well, they may share their thoughts on living in your country: the stereotypes they had before coming here; their first impressions; which differences confuse them; what they find great; what they don’t like at all, etc. Again, the answers might astound you and won’t fail to increase your sense of cultural awareness.

Of course, clichés, personal impressions, and random bits of advice will only get you so far. Now’s the point when you might want to dive a little deeper into the theoretical background of cultural awareness, intercultural competence, and intercultural communication. These two articles explain these theories in greater depth, so you might want to read them first before continuing here.

Culture – a Basic Definition

First of all, in the context of cultural awareness, we have to understand what culture refers to. For this purpose, let’s simply define culture as all the (often unspoken) standards and (mostly unwritten) rules that guide a certain group’s behavior. Such a group can be a sub-set of the general population (a sub-culture) or an entire nation – the culture of Hong Kong or Italian culture.

Culture, in this specific sense, is often compared to an onion with several layers. The outermost layer of the “onion”, i.e. of a foreign culture, is what you can see, hear, and touch: its artifacts, products, and rituals. The next layer of a culture consists of its systems and institutions. Systems and institutions, in turn, are based on certain beliefs, norms, and attitudes. These beliefs then stem from the core of the “onion”, the most basic values of any culture.

Getting to the Core of Culture

It’s that core of different attitudes and values that is both the hardest to get at and the most influential element of all. And yet it’s to understand this core that cultural awareness is all about. It’s very common to classify this core according to several dimensions, e.g. the prevailing social attitudes towards hierarchy and authority (called “power distance”).

Cultural differences – which begin at the core of the onion and spread upwards and outwards through the various layers – mean that the hidden rules of everyday behavior might change as soon as you set foot on a distant country’s soil. In seminars on cultural awareness, coaches like illustrating the emotional effect of such a drastic change with the so-called Barnga simulation.    

Playing the Game

The Barnga simulation is often used in intercultural competence training. The participants sit down at several tables in several small groups and start playing a simple card game with a certain set of rules. Once they have learned the rules at their table, they mustn’t speak anymore. As soon as they know their rules and have played a few rounds, two people from each table move over to a different one.

What they don’t know, though, is the fact that the rules at every table are slightly different. So when they start playing elsewhere, it will soon cause confusion and irritation, even frustration and helplessness among the players. This is what immersing oneself in a different culture may feel like – the disorientation of culture shock. Being exposed to these feelings in such a context may help participants to appreciate the importance of cultural awareness and competence.