Unit 3 Synthesis Paper: Intercultural Communication John LeMasney Fall 2008

Agenda

In this synthesis paper, I intend to connect the ideological threads regarding intercultural communication found within the literature presented in the third unit of COM 490 08FA. This will be done in two parts according to the assignment. In part one, I will summarize the five articles, four from assigned reading, one chosen from abstract assignments, and I will go on to look at the relationship between culture and communication, Eastern and Western concepts of self, and intercultural conflict and management as they appear in each article. In part two, I will discuss each article’s benefits, applications, usefulness, reasoning, and new knowledge acquired. Finally, I’ll use examples and storytelling as a way of applying the knowledge acquired. As a result, I feel I’ll be able to demonstrate my understanding and assimilation of intercultural communication skills developed this semester.

Part I: Article Summaries

Hall (2006) introduced the cultural framework differences in worldviews, norms and values. With this article, we got the basis of understanding, a new vocabulary, for dealing with the issues of intercultural communication. Norms were introduced as what people should or should not do, in one’s view and values were introduced as how things should be in one’s view. Hall introduced a variety of methods with which we can assess one’s worldviews, or assumptions about the ways in which the world works. People may identify themselves as individualistic (I mentality) or collectivistic (we mentality). They may see themselves positioned in society either by ascription or by achievement. They may see society organized as more equal and balanced (egalitarian view), or more hierarchical. They may believe people are primarily good or evil. They may believe that our relation to nature is one of mastery of or one of adaptation to. They may feel that language is primarily for social lubrication, or more for the transfer of information. Finally, Hall introduced the idea of high context (less direct information necessary) and low context (more direct information necessary) culture (2006). These ideas are explored and discussed in great detail throughout the rest of the unit’s articles.

Nisbett goes much deeper into the specific differences between individualism and collectivism, but presents those ideas under the names of independence and interdependence, respectively (2003). This is the first instance of expanding on Hall’s worldviews structure (2006), but the trend continues throughout the readings.

Ting-Toomey introduces a framework for explaining differences between cultures in three variables: individualism/collectivism, high/low context, and conflict management methods (2003). Agar uses a storytelling style to exemplify cultural differences and worldviews, and presents a metaphor of language and grammar within a circle that, for the uninformed, defines the boundaries of cultural difference (2007). Agar tells us that this circle (containing language) is just a starting point for cultural differences, and that culture itself erases and makes less important this lingual barrier (2007).

My single article I’ve chosen to include in this synthesis is Hunter’s (2008) article on the perception differences regarding racism between African Americans and British Caribbean Americans of African descent. Hunter found that despite both groups migrating in history from Africa to America, that their different experiences in the past strongly influence their perceptions of racism in America (2008).

Relationship Between Culture and Communication

Culture and communication interplay are explored throughout the third unit. Hall, for example, looks at one way in which people may define culture: either a monolithic force, in which all things are the result of universal cause and effect, and universally true, which would affect the way that people would expect to communicate, (e.g. in concrete, invariable, holistic ways) or as a reflexive force, in which people interpret and make sense of things and ideas, and in which a given situation or contingency may change that interpretation (2006). People who adopt the reflexive force construct may communicate in variable, arguable, and flexible ways, comparative to those who believe in the monolithic force construct (2006).

Nisbett informs us that there is no equivalent in Eastern thought for the Western sense of independent self. The languages in Eastern thought cultures (e.g. Japanese, Chinese) very often does not have words to express individualistic thinking, and comes closest to the idea with words that are more appropriately translated as “selfishness” (2003).

Ting-Toomey sparked an idea for me that a “Culture Continuum” might exist for assessing relative cultural stance. On this continuum (shown in Fig.1) are each of the constructs that Ting-Toomey and others associate with each cultural extreme, and I suggest that, given a intercultural interaction, that people (cultural representatives) would fall somewhere along the line in relation to each other and could be plotted as such in a particular intercultural interaction (2003).

Figure 1: A Proposed Culture Continuum

Agar goes to great lengths to show the limited role of language and grammar in defining culture, and the expanded role of immersion in the culture itself in understanding what a culture really is (2007). Hunter showed that even within the same race, and using the same language, that history can have a very strong influence (stronger even than race or language) on the perception of treatment long after the historical events have taken place (2008).

Eastern Versus Western Concepts of Self

Hall lays the groundwork for understanding the differences between Eastern (e.g. collectivist, language as social lubricant, high context) and Western (e.g. individualist, language as information transfer tool, low context) thinking and worldviews explored more thoroughly in other articles (2006). Nisbett tells us that criticism is mostly valued in the West, whereas in the East, it is generally avoided, because it goes against the cultural norm of maintaining face and relationships (2003). Westerners exist as they are, independent of context or contingency, whereas Easterners’ existence may change with a given situation or context (Nisbett, 2003).

The continuum in Fig. 1 might be a useful visual tool for discussing, assessing, or repairing intercultural conflict, especially where the sides of the conflict are aligned with opposing cultural views that fall along the East/West axis (Ting-Toomey, 2003). Agar argues that there is a particular superior Western view (specifically associated with some North Americans) that must be overcome in order to gain the benefits of cultural exposure and beneficial influence (2007). If an American assumes, as many do, that their culture is ‘the best’ they may not be able to see past it to engage in the multicultural revolution that is essential for working effectively within the rise in global interactions (Agar, 2007).

Hunter found that despite having the same language and race, that a differing historical path can make two origin-similar groups trend towards either individualism or collectivism, in that African Americans tended towards most collectivist worldviews, and British Caribbean Americans of African descent tended towards more individualist worldviews (2008). This underlines the arguments of authors like Agar that cultural differences go far beyond the limits of the language barrier, and that differences in culture certainly exist within the same language (2007).

Intercultural Conflict and Management

Hall helps us to understand that depending on worldviews, norms, and values, two cultures may expect conflict to be observed, handled, and resolved differently (2006). Different cultures may try to resolve intercultural conflict directly or indirectly, with subtlety or aggressively, by maintaining face, or by trying to arrive at a solution. (Hall, 2006; Nisbett, 2003; Ting-Toomey, 2003). A high context cultural representative may want to use a familiar third party to quietly address the conflict, whereas a low context cultural representative may want to directly contact conflicted parties and inquire about conflict in open, direct ways (Nisbett, 2003). Each approach may appear to be incompatible with the other culture’s expectations (Nisbett, 2003). Eastern thought is mostly concerned with face, emotional awareness, and maintaining smooth running relationships (Nisbett, 2003). Westerners are most concerned with achieving tasks, content awareness, and improving upon their personal situation (Nisbett, 2003).

Ting-Toomey spends a lot of effort towards the end of the article defining ways in which the two sides of the proposed continuum in Fig. 1 can work to understand, prepare for, and work with the opposite end from their cultural point of view (2003). For instance, Westerners may be far more concerned with the substance of the conflict, whereas Easterners may be far more interested in maintaining the relationship and so Westerners may want to work to address issues more indirectly and show more concern for an Easterner’s sense of face (Ting-Toomey, 2003). By immersing ourselves in new cultures, we can help ourselves to work through intercultural conflict (Agar, 2007). Hunter reminds us that not all cultural differences lie along this continuum, and other factors, such as history and experience may be more important in defining cultural difference (2008).

Part II: Article Benefits and Applications

Hall’s article lays the important groundwork and framework for analyzing and assessing intercultural differences (2006). Nisbett goes very deep into cultural differences between Eastern thought and Western thought (2003). The most useful part of the Ting-Toomey article is in the explicit layout of techniques for communicating between cultural expectations for individualist and collectivist worldviews (2003). Agar makes an argument against the limits of language in understanding culture, and makes the point that culture is something to be experienced, rather than learned in language (2007). Hunter helps to define ways in which cultural difference can exist within the same race and language (2008).

Comparative Usefulness and Reasoning

By assessing worldviews, norms, and values for two sides of a conflict, we may begin to see clear reasons why people may be in conflict regardless of the content of the conflict, and wholly about the way in which the conflict is being dealt with (Hall, 2006). Westerners may be surprised in interactions with Easterners, and vice versa, because where Western thought values explicitness and direct interaction, Eastern thought prefers subtlety, indirect communication, and communication via contextual clues (Nisbett, 2003).

Ting-Toomey (2003) does a wonderful job of bringing together Hall’s (2006) worldviews, norms, and values more clearly into focus as variables in intercultural interactions. If we see past Agar’s (2007) constrictive circle of language to experience what culture truly is, we may see that it is something that happens to you when you encounter it, and we can begin to see culture as a way of expanding ourselves. Hunter shows us that people of the same origins of culture can develop into two or more new cultures given a significant difference of experience (2008).

New Knowledge Acquired

Hall introduces us to perhaps the most important construct, visited regularly throughout the remainder of the articles, that is the individualist/collectivist continuum. The construct is given other names by other authors, such as independence/interdependence (Nisbett, 2003) but we immediately see parallels between Hall’s individualism (2006) and Nisbett’s independence (2003) and both of their alignments with Western ideals (Ting-Toomey, 2003). Where language differences are present, the language itself can help to define and reinforce cultural differences, such as there being no Chinese word for individualism (Nisbett, 2003). I myself now look at conversational points of view in terms of plotted points along my proposed continuum in Fig. 1, which helps me to check my biases and assumptions when participating in intercultural communication. Agar teaches us that language and grammar are only the beginning of understanding cultural differences (2007). Hunter reminds us that your personal experience and treatment will cause your sense of cultural understanding to be altered (2008).

Application examples

At Rider University, there is a relatively new relationship with China’s Sanda University, because of which Rider has had a steady influx and presence of Chinese students, and subsequently, Chinese culture and influence. As a result, Rider University community members have been given an intercultural communication opportunity, and as a student of intercultural communication this semester, I feel like I’ve been given a new toolset for improving my interactions with Sanda students, as well as other cultures of all distinctions (gender, race, departments, states, backgrounds, etc).

For instance, I have several Sanda student workers working in my office. Because of my studies in intercultural communication in this and recent semesters, I know that if I encounter or recognize misunderstandings, miscommunications, missed expectations, or communication conflict with these particular students, it may be due to cultural differences in worldview, norms, or values. Sanda student workers, because of their Eastern upbringing, may expect team (rather than individual) recognizance, a strict hierarchy in work relationships, and an firmly ascribed position, rather than an achieved position, as per the cultural expectations. If I were to praise a Sanda student individually in front of peers, show democratic equality between myself and them, or give positional changes due to work effort, as I might expect to with deserving American students, there may be cultural misunderstandings, confusion, or upset due to seemingly incompatible cultural expectations (Hall, 2006; Nisbett, 2003; Ting-Toomey, 2003). Sanda students may see language as primarily a social lubricant rather than primarily for relaying information. They may reject or recoil from direct project criticism, and prefer indirect suggestions about projects. They may see work time as flexible and project timelines as fluid. From a Western point of view, a person unaware of these Eastern expectations could misinterpret the cultural norms as starting points for conflict as opposed to simply a different way of seeing things(Hall, 2006; Nisbett, 2003; Ting-Toomey, 2003).

It is useful knowing that if you encounter a new culture that there may be fundamental differences such as the Western style individualist mindset and the Eastern style collectivist mindset, and that these differences (in addition to adding an opportunity for mental expansion) can add an underlying, silent disagreement that grows in intensity throughout a conversation (Nisbett, 2003). If I assume that everyone sees the world in the same way that I do, I increase the chances for intercultural conflict (Nisbett, 2003). If I find myself in a communication based conflict, I can now more clearly assess if there are intercultural overtones to the conflict by plotting our relative positions along the Cultural Continuum in Fig. 1.

Despite my Western upbringing, American birth, and Caucasian race, I feel that my unique history and experience allow me to break somewhat with my cultural expectations of individualism, and due to education on interpersonal communication, intercultural communication, conflict management, mediation, and alternative dispute resolution, I have been given the opportunity to choose more Eastern values, more cooperative goals, and more of an empathetic and emotional understanding of the people around me. As a result, I feel like I can contextually plot myself a little bit closer to the collectivist side of the continuum in Fig. 1. However, if you note all of the ‘I’s used in this paragraph, you probably sense that there is still a very strong independent cultural influence on me, and still places me in the individualist side of the continuum.

 

Agar, M. (2007). Culture Blends. In L. Monaghan & J. Goodman (Eds.), A Cultural Approach to Interpersonal Communication (pp. 88-103). Blackwell.

Hall, B. J. (2006). Among Cultures: The Challenge of Communication (2nd ed., p. 400). Wadsworth Publishing Co Inc.

Hunter, C. D. (2008). Individualistic and collectivistic worldviews: Implications for understanding perceptions of racial discrimination in African Americans and British Caribbean Americans. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 55(3), 321-332. doi: 10.1037/0022-0167.55.3.321.

Nisbett, R. E. (2003). The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently – and Why (p. 288). Nicholas Brealey Publishing Ltd.

Ting-Toomey, S. (2003). Managing intercultural conflicts effectively. In L. A. Samovar & R. E. Porter (Eds.), Intercultural Communication: A Reader (10th ed., p. 496). Wadsworth Publishing Co Inc.

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