Saturday, April 9, 2011

Intercultural Communication

I'm writing the post at the request of one of my readers. If you have a topic (or several) you would like to see me cover, leave them in the comments section of this post.

I am not going to insult the intelligence of my readers by telling them that it's important not to be racist or condescending when you try to communicate with representatives of other cultures. My readers are all highly intelligent people who don't need such things being pointed out to them. I'll just make a list of some "dos" and "don'ts" that, in my opinion, might be helpful in intercultural communications.


1. Often, people like to initiate a contact with representatives of other cultures by reciting a list of every person from that culture they ever met and every fact they know about this culture. You have no idea how boring it is to hear people rattle off "vodka, borscht, hopak, beautiful women, alcoholic men, corruption, Holodomor, Schevchenko, Crimea, hospitality, the Black Sea, Kiev and Odessa" whenever I mention that I'm from Ukraine. I, for one, never know what to say in response. Just imagine yourself on the receiving end of something like this. "Oh you are from Texas? Cattle, Dallas, Bush, cowboy boots, country music, funny accents, religious folks. From New York? Sex and the City, Central Park, crime, Italian mafia, 9/11, shopping." Or, even more annoyingly, "Rhode Island? The ex-boyfriend of my neighbor's friend once traveled to Rhode Island. She says the people are very nice there." What can anybody possibly respond to that?

2. It's never a good idea to try to massage foreign cultural realities into the concepts that you operate with in your own cultural reality. An arranged marriage is not always oppressive. Often, it's just based on a completely different understanding of the concept of marriage. Hiring household help (which is a common tradition in Latin American countries, for example) is not necessarily exploitative. Getting married at 19 might not be "a bad idea" if the culture's understanding of marriage is completely different.


1. It's a good idea to ask questions but only if you are really interested. It is a lot of fun to share things about your culture but only if you feel that your interlocutor has a genuine interest in your response and isn't just asking because of a baseless belief that it's a polite thing to do. When I want to ask a question of a person from a different culture, I often precede it by, "I'm sorry to be so ignorant. . ." or "If I may ask something completely stupid. . ." It's also perfectly fine not to be interested. A sincere lack of interest is a lot better than a fake show of interest where none exists.

2. Spending a lot of time with people from other cultures is great because it allows us to discover an entirely new facet to our own personalities. It is difficult to let go of one's own culturally conditioned persona but it's worth it in terms of how much it will ultimately enrich you. "You and I are Latinas," a friend from Colombia once told me. "This is why we see certain things differently." When I reminded her that I wasn't a Latina, it took her a while to remember that I was right. "Well, you are one of us anyways," she said.

3. It is also a good idea to remember that people around the world do not have to be interested in the same things as you are. I am sick and tired of answering the question, "So what did people in Ukraine think about OJ Simpson's trial?" Whenever I respond that we had no idea that it was taking place, and had we known, we would not have cared in the least, I always get confused stares in response. The intricacies of American politics are often as unknown to the people from other cultures as the details of Ukrainian or Nigerian politics to Americans. If you have no idea who Yulia Timoshenko is, it might be unfair to expect a person from Timoshenko's country to know or care about Sarah Palin.

4. Forget about the silly stuff they tell you about other cultures on television. "How come you don't play chess?" an older academic asked me. "I saw this program on television about how everybody in your country played chess really well." What can anybody offer in response to that other than a suggestion to get rid of the TV-set?


Pagan Topologist said...

What about things that actually affect your interactions? For example, some cultures' attitudes are very different from others' with regard to punctuality. If you don't know what it means that someone is an hour late, how can you find out politely?

Clarissa said...

GOOD question. As somebody who spends a lot of time with notoriously unpunctual Spanish-speakers, I'd say you just have to learn to live with it. In grad school, we knew that if we announce that the party begins at 9, our Latin friends will saunter in after midnight.

I am obsessively punctual, so I always felt like an idiot showing up at a party at the assigned time only to discover that nobody was there.

My sister has been with her unpunctual Peruvian fiance for 10 years, and his lack of punctuality still drives her up the wall.

I don't think there is a remedy here.

Clarissa said...

Maybe I should also write a post about the things that are culturally specific to the Russian speakers. At least then people will know what to expect.

Pagan Topologist said...

My wife is from the Caribbean where lateness is expected. Many Pagans feel the same way, which may be part of the reason she is comfortable amongst Pagans and considers herself to be one. I have always tended to be punctual. When we are going somewhere together, it can be a problem when I don't like to be late and she does not like to be rushed.

I found in Poland that people there were much more concerned about being precisely on time, especially for evening events, than I was.

el said...

RE "a suggestion to get rid of the TV-set" : Today after our TV stopped working suddenly, I got the idea that TV is for the old people and will die off with them. Today you can watch many channels on Internet at the time of translation AND afterwards. Much better.

liese4 said...

Very good suggestions. We love to go to festivals that other cultures are celebrating. You can find out so much about other cultures through their food, music, art and celebrations.

Today we learned some Gaelic, watched Scottish dancers, tried some lamb stew and found out about 19 Scottish clans. All in a (festival) days work.