Note: I researched and wrote this series of pieces before the attacks in Paris and Beirut, and the various subsequent reactions. These tragedies, while they change the present context and challenges of intercultural communication, only make this issue more urgent. In the face of frightened reactions, it is of the utmost importance that we maintain the human face of the other, that we make careful distinctions between those who commit violence and those who do not, that we communicate in mindful solidarity with all nonviolent peoples across racial, ethnic, national, and religious difference. It is for this reason that I elected not to edit or rewrite these pieces following the attacks. Every attempt to understand and reach out to others in times of upheaval, dislocation, and fear is an essential expression of common humanity; such expressions can change and unite lives in difficult and uncertain times. These posts were written to aid people in thinking through that challenge; and that is still what they are about.
Last week I introduced this short series of posts I’m doing related to intercultural communications, given the world’s immense preoccupation with migrant crises in both Europe and South and Central America.
First, we must stress the urgency of sorting out intercultural communication challenges in the face of a situation such as this. As Bradford J Hall writes, “Misunderstandings all too easily leads to distrusting and hating other communities, which creates cycles of emotional, social, economic, and physical violence that injure the quality of life for us all.” The migrant crisis is already a major logistical and political challenge without adding an unnecessary layer of disputes based on confusion.
Second, when approaching the topic of cultural difference, it’s important to note that it does not correlate simply with other kinds of group membership such as race, class, ethnicity, religion, or nationality. Superficial stereotypes and assumptions about in-groups and out-groups aren’t likely to be terribly helpful. For example, the migrants flowing into Europe are a very diverse group, struggling with differences amongst themselves along their journeys, too. It’s superficial to simply think of them as all coming from the Middle East, or from a monolithic cultural background. Not only are they coming from a number of different countries, but within those countries there are wide ranging differences in cultural and class background.
It’s rather more useful to frame our thinking about culture with a broad definition such as this one: culture is a “a historically shared system of symbolic resources through which we make our world meaningful.”
There are two basic aspects to this definition that we should note. First, culture is a “system” – an organization of elements with its own momentum, which both enables and constrains us in various ways. Second, this system is used to create meaning. In Hall’s words, “although systems make it possible to even have meaningful interaction with other humans, they also constrain us from seeing or understanding some of the possibilities that exist for us and others.”
Thus the challenge of intercultural communication is ultimately about bridging gaps in meaning. There is not just one meaning behind an action or statement, which different people simply disagree on based on different perceptions, morals, or principles. Such a view can quickly and easily give rise to dangerous assumptions about a cultural “other” – perhaps that they don’t share the same kinds of moral standards of decency or respect, for example. It’s more complicated than that: there is a rift in how meaning itself is formed and derived from a situation. It is for this reason that intercultural communication can be such a formidable challenge.
Chew on that concept for now – it’s not a small one – and come back next week for part III, as I explore some strategies for thinking about and approaching intercultural communication in the context of the refugee/migrant crisis.
 Hall, Bradford J. Among Cultures: The Challenge of Communication, 2nd edition (Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth, 2005), p xiii.
 Ibid., p. 4.
 Ibid., p. 5-6.
Ellen F. Kandell is a certified professional mediator and attorney with over 30 years of public and private sector experience. She provides mediation, group facilitation and training to diverse, national clients. Get in touch with her via email, LinkedIn, Twitter, or give her a call at 301-588-5390.