It is part of human nature to form stereotypes and encounter foreigners with prejudice. A large part of the images about other cultures that prevail in many people’s minds has been acquired through the media or through reports by others. When we meet a person from a particular culture, they first become the bearer of all the characteristics we assign to that culture. In doing so, we use our own culture as a yardstick. Despite our best efforts, we will never be able to go through life completely free of prejudice. It is precisely this fact that everyone should always be aware of and actively try to push aside the stubbornly existing images in our minds.
Dimensions That Facilitate Communication Between Different Cultures
Following Gerhard Maletzke’s scientific publication “Intercultural Communication”, eight culture dimensions are described below that can be used to characterize national cultures. They can help us understand which things we should pay special attention to in an intercultural encounter. It is not a matter of learning certain rules of conduct for a communication between different cultures but merely of training one’s awareness of possible cutural differences.
People perceive only a narrow section of reality, which is subject to their interpretation. Perception can therefore vary significantly from culture to culture – but also from person to person. The Inuit and Yupik, for example, know hundreds of different words for snow because they distinguish various textures and shades of colour. On the other hand, the inhabitants of Micronesia can recognise minimal changes in the water’s surface, so they can find their way among 5,000 islands without navigational aids.
Different cultures have different concepts of time. For example, there are cultural groups in which the past plays a unique role, which is expressed, for instance, through ancestor veneration.
The most obvious distinction is between monochronistic and polychronistic cultures. In monochronism, time is linear and is divided into equal segments. People do one thing at a time, and the clock mainly determines their daily routine. In polychronism, on the other hand, time is seen as circular. Here the focus is on the person, who often does several things at once and subordinates time to their activity. Belief in rebirth, for example, is based on the understanding that time and life form a cycle. Everything returns.
How people perceive space is also a culturally specific characteristic. The best example is the perception of social distance. If two people are standing opposite each other, they perceive the distance differently depending on their habits.
While in Germany, an arm’s length is usually perceived as pleasant, this distance is much smaller in South America or in the Arab world. If, for example, the Brazilian interlocutor gets closer and closer to the German, the latter can very quickly feel uncomfortable.
The ability to orientate oneself in a big city is also a fascinating matter. In the West, the digital principle dominates, i.e. one dissolves the environment into one-dimensionality. Space is divided into street names and house numbers, which are represented by lines on a city map.
In Japan, for example, a city is divided into various subspaces. There are districts, sub-districts and many other small spatial units. The houses within the smallest spatial unit are numbered in the order in which they were built. As an address, you only get a combination of district numbers. A well-functioning system in which, however, western foreigners find it difficult to find their way around.
Misunderstandings in communication do not only occur between people with different native languages, as Schulz von Thun explained to us in his communication science classic “The Art Of Misunderstanding”. Unfortunately, what is meant and what is understood do not coincide despite speaking the same language. This is because the recipient decodes a message according to their own standards.
In an intercultural encounter, the situation is further complicated because many of the terms or symbols used in conversation are not defined identically by both sides. One example is the word “shadow”. In Germany, this has a negative connotation. Germans speak of “overshadowed events”, “the shadowy sides of life”, “the dark side of life” or simply a “dark shadow”. In hot tropical countries like Indonesia, however, a shadow is something wonderful and beneficial. Therefore, the word is also used in language with positive symbolic content. This makes communication between different cultures even trickier.
Gestures, facial expressions, and eye contact can have opposite meanings as well depending on the cultural setting. For example, while Europeans and Americans equate direct eye contact with openness and sympathy, it would be seen as an affront in many Asian countries.
Gestures do not have universal validity either. For example, if you form a circle with your thumb and index finger, in Germany it means “super, everything’s OK”, in Japan it means “money”, and in Australia, this sign is tantamount to a very gross insult. So be careful!
The paralinguistic aspects also belong to the field of non-verbal communication. Intonation, expressivity and volume are different in every language. Consequently, what resonates in a conversation can always be interpreted differently.
The same applies to the linguistic style. In the Western world, a clear, relatively rational style of speech is used, whereas, in many Asian or Arabic countries, an indirect, often flowery style of speech prevails. The mutual detachment of speakers in a dialogue can also vary greatly. While in Southern Europe, it is normal to interrupt one’s interlocutor and still talk in parallel for a while. In cultures with a more reserved mentality, even small pauses for politeness are taken before the next person starts talking.
Through socialisation in their cultural environment, people adopt a certain set of values. Each culture considers other things particularly desirable and thus determines which value system is adhered to or which role status differences play. Rules and regulations, for example, can be interpreted freely or very pragmatically. Depending on the cultural perspective, a very correct and strict superior can appear as hard-working and robust in leadership or as overzealous and heartless.
Culture-specific behaviour patterns include customs, norms, traditions and roles that need to be considered in their respective contexts. Misunderstandings arise when people try to impose their behavioural patterns in a foreign environment. Even though one may be surprised by the local population’s typical behavioural pattern, one is likely to appear at least as strange in the eyes of others.
In many countries, social hierarchies are of unavoidable importance. This also has an impact on the organisation of business relationships. For example, while Germans or Americans tend to be more goal-oriented in business negotiations, i.e. they want to “get down to business” after a short small talk, in some Asian countries, you have to take a lot of time to develop the right atmosphere first. This is because here, a personal, friendly relationship is first built up with the new business partner before getting down to business.
High- And Low-Context Cultures
With regard to communication patterns and the importance of social relations, the intercultural researcher E.T. Hall distinguishes between high- and low-context cultures.
In high-context cultures, all communication channels are open, as indirect communic
ation also contributes significantly to the flow of information. In terms of business life, shared contacts and a similar social status also play an important role.
In low-context cultures, direct communication through clear words dominates. All information must be spoken. The matter is always in the foreground; consequently, one can do business with anyone, even with strangers.
France, Japan and China, for example, have a high context density. Germany, on the other hand, is a typical low-context culture. However, it is not only communication difficulties between the two extremes on the low- or high-context culture scale. Even countries that are comparatively close to each other already show considerable differences in business dealings. For example, Professor Marlene Djursaa from the Copenhagen School of Business, has found that Danes are quicker to get down to business than the British but slower than the Germans. This means that the masters of indirect communication, the Chinese, Danes and Britons, can have difficulties with the direct style of Germans.
Even though the world is moving ever closer together, each culture, fortunately, retains its characteristic features. The ability not to reject what is different and to treat everyone with respect and tolerance is what is key to communication between different cultures. As long as we keep in mind that we are influenced in our thinking and perception by our cultural imprint, we can also accept that others see and interpret the world or a specific situation in their way. This may seem strange at first, but in the end, it is not better or worse. It is simply different.
- A large part of the images about other cultures that prevail in many people’s minds has been acquired through the media or through reports by others.
- Cultural dimensions can help us understand which things we should pay special attention to in an intercultural encounter.
- It is not a matter of learning certain rules of conduct for a communication between different cultures but merely of training one’s awareness of possible cutural differences.