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.
In my last two posts I began to explore the challenge of intercultural communication, and its immense relevance, given current issues in the world today. This week, my last post in this series, I’ll outline a few strategies for approaching communications with someone who doesn’t share your own cultural context.
Barring language differences, most of us take the process of basic daily communications for granted. The way we greet one another, ask about a bus seat, or navigate an exchange of goods. If we take a slightly closer look, we realize that there’s much more going on than we’re normally aware of. This can give us clues into what might sometimes go wrong.
Human communication systems are made up of symbols: when I say the word “ball” it is supposed to mean that sphere flying through the air. As Bradford J. Hall points out, symbols are both arbitrary and conventional. They are arbitrary in that there is nothing particularly correct about a certain symbol for a certain idea or item (in English we say “ball,” in Spanish “pelota” – neither is universally correct). They are conventional in that they function because a group of people has agreed on them, which gives them a sense of stability in contrast to being arbitrary. English speakers together agree to the convention that the sound-symbol “ball” indicates the bouncy sphere. This example seems simple, but what about the word “sad”? Suddenly the symbol is much more complex and ambiguous – and as such, the convention that allows it to have meaning is also more complex. Symbols might also include nonverbal communications.
Culture, then, determines which arbitrary symbols we conventionally understand. Thus it’s important to realize that we only make sense of symbols because of their relation to other things, and other people. What we might normally think of as a very straightforward notion – smiling at someone, or saying ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ in a certain situation, for example – is actually packed within an elaborate relational context. This assumed and shared context is what allows it to seem normal or appropriate to us. It’s also why it can be so difficult to bridge a cultural divide. As Hall points out, “culture is simply common sense.” We often aren’t even aware that we are employing it to generate meaning, so it’s hard to be aware of and understand the fact that meaning may not be arising in the expected fashion between people of different cultural backgrounds. What’s common sense to one person may baffle another.
It would be presumptuous of me to claim that I could advise anyone on how to deal with a particular group of migrants or refugees. As I mentioned last week, these are diverse groups of people, and I don’t have the right experiences to speak on specific cultural differences. However, taking a closer look at communication and culture as we have done in these last posts can help us develop a more reflective approach for communicating interculturally. Below are some insights we can keep in mind when communicating across cultural boundaries.
1) Leave space for confusion! Take a moment to realize that you likely do not have the context in place to understand everything the other person is saying, doing, or feeling, and in turn they don’t have the context to immediately understand you – even if you are speaking the same language. Before reacting to something that seems strange to you, slow down and try to understand more about what is going on.
2) Focus on learning – maybe that person can help you fill in the context you need to understand better and communicate in a meaningful way, or maybe you need to look for some outside resources. In many communities there are organizations that work to help educate one another and bridge communication gaps. Remember that, as a migrant or refugee, that other person is probably in a more vulnerable position than you are as a community member – they already have a lot to deal with, and do not have the privilege of assuming that their culture can continue to function as “common sense” in their immediate reality. As the person with more cultural resources available, you may be more able to accommodate or reflect on some differences.
3) Take note of what you have come to assume as normal, and realize that there may be differences in what makes a newcomer comfortable or uncomfortable. A few typical examples might include greetings, expressions of emotion, conventions regarding what it means to be polite, and various forms of nonverbal communication.
4) Last but not least, Hall reminds us that looking at intercultural communications in this way can have a few pitfalls that we should avoid: oversimplification, overgeneralization, or exaggeration of cultural difference. Part of learning about new arrivals in your community might just be how much you share in common, too, perhaps things you would have never guessed that connect you and your experiences of the world!
 Hall, Bradford J. Among Cultures: The Challenge of Communication, 2nd edition (Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth, 2005), p. 9-10.
 Ibid., p. 22.
 Ibid., p. 20-21.
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.