Communication Across Cultures in PracticeFotolia
Although no national culture is homogenous, every society shares some core values.
So far for the theory of intercultural communication. What about the practice?
In practice, you have already taken the first, essential, step towards cross-cultural competency once you know that cultures are multi-layered and that various differences exist between cultures. Moreover, it’s also of supreme importance to be aware of one’s own cultural “programming”.
Your own culture is like the color of your eyes. You don’t notice it yourself, but when you are interacting with others (in this scenario: people from another culture), it’s plain for them to see. To find out what your eyes look like, you have to gaze into a mirror, which will show you your reflection. To become aware of your cultural bias, you have to reflect on what your own culture is like.
In a second step, you can gather knowledge about the new culture you’re going to immerse yourself in. A lot of the things you will learn about touch the outer layers of the onion:
- Food, cuisine, and shopping
- Festivals and rituals
- Dress codes
- Forms of address and greetings
- Local language
- Gestures and body language
- Traffic laws
- Attitudes towards smoking, alcohol and drugs
- Gift-giving and neighborliness
- Daily schedules
- Political system and organization
However, you will quickly notice that many unspoken attitudes and norms, which local people would simply consider “common sense”, touch upon the inner layer of the onion. A culture’s specific beliefs about various aspects of life, and its innermost core of the five dimensions that shape these beliefs influence many unwritten rules in any culture, e.g:
- Relationship to time
- Personal space and eye contact
- Gender roles and family life
- Social classes and ethnic groups
- Attitudes towards rules, authority, and seniority
- Work ethic and behavior in the workplace
Understanding the core of the onion, i.e. the five innermost dimensions of a culture according to the above-mentioned model, might also help you understand more about customs you can easily observe and imitate. For example, the dimension of hierarchy explains fairly obviously why elaborate greeting rituals in formal contexts are more important in certain cultures.
In the end, you should be able to develop intercultural skills. You should be able to interact with the locals from your new culture without automatically falling back on your own cultural assumptions – even if this means adopting a cultural outlook that you may not necessarily share.
And still remain prepared to be surprised by your host country. No matter how much you learn about intercultural communication, never assume that you can actually reduce a culture to the models, tips and guidelines meant to support strangers.
It’s Always More Complicated
Of course, a national culture is not necessarily homogeneous. It is not uniform throughout, and culture may not be the same everywhere in the country. There might be sub-cultures differing due to very strong regional or religious influences or due to immigrant populations mixing the two cultures they navigate daily.
Moreover, this model is – albeit influential – only a model. Inventor Geert Hofsteede’s index, which profiles many cultures according to these dimensions, can give you useful pointers about a culture’s fundamental values. But even cultural core values can change, although they tend to do so very slowly. Moreover, an individual’s personal traits are not all wholly determined by their culture. The dimensions of cultural values describe general tendencies rather than absolute and eternal truths.