The Practice of Intercultural Communication reflections for professionals in cultural meetings

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The Practice of Intercultural Communication

- reflections for professionals in cultural meetings

Iben Jensen,

associate professor, M.A. & Ph.D.,

Department of Communication,

University of Roskilde, Denmark


In this article I will argue that the globalisation process has carried two major implications for intercultural communication research: 1) It has provided a new target group; professional practitioners in multiethnic societies. 2) It has made ‘cultural identity’ one of the most important concepts in intercultural research. The challenge for intercultural research today is to provide analytical tools for the practitioners - tools which are developed in relation to the complexity in multiethnic societies.

Intercultural communication research has got a new target group due to the globalisation process: The professional practitioners in multiethnic societies; the nurses, the social workers, the lawyers, the teachers etc., who in respect of their professionalism are responsible for a successful intercultural communication. Traditionally the professional practitioners have been left with handbooks and readers mainly based upon functionalistic theories (Martin & Nakayama 2000, Samovar, Porter & Jain 1981, Asante & Gudykunst 1989, Hofstede 1980, Okabe 1983, Prosser 1978). Lots of answering has been given. However more and more professional practitioners have experienced that simple answers to cultural differences do not work in multiethnic societies.

The complexity in society demands more complex questions and answers. I will argue that a poststructural approach is able to handle the complexity of the concepts, which are necessary to describe the multiethnic societies. I will also argue that it’s both necessary and possible from a poststructuralistic, approach to develop analytical tools, which refer to the practitioner’s everyday experiences. The functionalistic approach has already proved that practitioners want practical tools, they can use in praxis in everyday life. In respect of this need I find one of the challenges in the field of intercultural communication to develop analytical tools on the basis of the complex concepts describing complex societies (Bauman 1999, Jensen 1998/2001).

The article is divided in three parts. In the first part I will discuss how the field of intercultural communication research can contribute to professional practitioners in multiethnic societies. In the second part I will present four analytical tools for intercultural communication as seen from a poststructuralistic perspective. These analytical tools sum up into a model for intercultural communication. The third part will discuss the concept of cultural identity in relation to intercultural communication.

Keywords: multiethnic societies, cultural identity, positions of experiences, cultural presuppositions, self-perception, analytical tools for practitioners.

Intercultural communication in a global context

Intercultural communication research has by definition been related to the understanding of national cultures as the fundamental principle. Cultures were nations. Apart from the curiosity that most intercultural readers began with a short passage telling that sometimes people inside a nation could be more different from each other than people across cultures (Samovar, Porter & Jain 1981), the whole idea of intercultural communication was linked to national culture.

However already 10 years ago Ulf Hannerz argued, that rather than talking about different national cultures, we should see all cultures as creolised societies (Hannerz 1992). Hannerz grasped early the discourse that continued in new discussions about globalisation. Globalisation normally refers to two opposite processes: a) The globalisation process, in which we are all getting closer and closer to each other by consumerism, ideology and knowledge about each other. b) The localization process, which makes us focus intensively at our local nation or local ethnic group (Featherstone 1990, Hylland Eriksen 1993).

In the debates about globalisation it is intensively discussed, whether globalisation is a new process or not. Jonathan Friedman suggests that there is nothing new. He argues that the mobility, which is seen as central to globalisation, primarily applies to the elite (Friedman 1994: 23). Zygmunt Bauman agrees, but he adds that it makes sense to see the mobility as the idea of society. Bauman also argues that the mobile society is not open to everybody. Globalisation has, according to Bauman, caused a new polarisation in societies that divides people into two groups: tourists and vagabonds. The tourists can travel free with few restrictions. The vagabonds are forced to travel caused by war, poverty or hunger. The vagabonds are not welcomed like tourists, but are met with high walls of customs duties and barbed wire (Bauman 1999). Although Bauman can be criticized for making up a too simplistic picture, I think he points to some of the most important discourses in Western societies, significant to the intercultural communication process: The discourses telling whom to include and whom to exclude, which I find is a social practice crucial to research in intercultural communication.

It’s often argued that there is no difference between intercultural communication and other kinds of communication (Gudykunst 1994, Sarbaugh 1979). However in multiethnic societies, one of the differences is exactly that in intercultural communication it is a legal discourse to discuss who of the participants in a communication process ‘really’ belongs to the majority culture. Intercultural communication in a globalized world is forced to take that circumstance into account and include questions of globalisation and cultural identity.

What does the ‘classic’ research field offer practitioners?

In short, the field of intercultural communication research can be divided in two main traditions. A tradition based upon a functionalistic approach and a tradition based upon a poststructuralistic approach. The functionalist research tradition has tried to predict how culture would influence communication. Focus has been on identifying culture as a barrier against a more effective communication (Samovar, Porter & Jain 19811, Samovar & Porter 1972/1991, Brislin 1986, Gudykunst 1983, 1994, 1995, Hall 1959, Sarbaugh 1979). In these works practitioners are offered tools to describe how they can expect the intercultural communication to appear. The functionalist research tradition also includes competence research that tries to establish criteria to determine which characteristics a person needs in order to acquire intercultural competences (Gertsen 1990, Søderberg 1994, Kincaid 1987).

The Dutch management researcher Geerd Hofstede’s work, Culture’s Consequences (1980), have had an enormous influence on the research tradition in intercultural communication. Hofstede investigated the relationships between employees and managements in forty different cultures, and on this basis he developed four dimensions like power-distance (small/large), uncertainty avoidance/anxiety, individualism/collectivism, masculinity/femininity. The dimensions are all based on the idea that cultures are homogenous national cultures that do not change in time worth mentioning. Most often Hofstedes dimensions are used uncritically in spite of the fact that they were developed more than 20 years ago2. William B. Gudykunst who is one of the pioneers in the field of intercultural communication, is one of the influential researchers who legitimise the use of Hofstedes work in newer times. “Anxiety/uncertainty Management (AUM) Theory: Current status” is the title of an article in which he presents his new theory of intercultural communication. It’s written in 1995, and builds upon Hofstedes dimensions, developed from the perspective of nations as homogeneous static societies. However, Hofstedes model is an offer. An offer to categorize the world in some very simple categories that we can recognize from everyday life. Hofstede offers all interested in intercultural communication an immediate explanation of how the communication in management is influenced by culture.

William B. Gudykunst and Yun Kim took by their book, Communication with strangers (Gudykunst & Kim 1984), a very important step in their attempt to describe the intercultural communication process. They argue (like Yoshikawa) that we shall see intercultural communication as a dialogical process, in which both persons involved are both addresse and addressed. Their model describes interpersonal intercultural communication as person A and B message/feedback influences with psycocultural, sociocultural and cultural filters. Framing the whole communication process is environmental influences (Gudykunst & Kim 1984:14). The authors explain their model as follows: “Without understanding the strangers’ filters, we cannot accurately interpret or predict their behaviours (Gudykunst & Kim 1984: 35). Related to the poststructural approach the model is missing the aspect of power. You could however argue that the aspect of power could be in every part of the model, but somehow it’s not mentioned at all. The model gives a possibility to think in social differences, but it still leaves the possibility of categorization with national cultures as the dominant and most relevant in every communication process.

Poststructural offers?

Compared to the functionalists’ offers, the poststructuralistic approach at the first glimpse does not appear very useful. Most of the researchers working with a poststructuralistic approach are either philosophical (Applegate & Sypher 1983, 1988, González & Tanno 1999, Jandt & Tanno 1994, 1996) or discussing issues related to theory of intercultural communication (Collier & Thomas 1988). Collier & Thomas discuss e.g. intercultural communication from the perspective of the individual. They define intercultural communication as “… who identify themselves as distinct from one another in cultural terms” (Collier & Thomas 1988: 100). This definition differs from the then dominant thinking by taking its point of departure in the actor rather than in the culture. It is the interpretations of the participant that determine what culture the person belong to.

From a poststructuralistic approach Fred Jandt and Dolores Tanno wrote some very important articles about ethics and methods (Jandt & Tanno 1996) the articles were outstanding theoretical and philosophical work which address the importance of labelling and constructing ‘the other’ in intercultural research. In 1995 Jandt published a reader in intercultural communication, in which students are introduced to a poststructuralistic approach (Jandt 1995). Jandt’s reader is the first, and most competent reader to intercultural communication from a critical perspective. Jandt takes a part of the funtionalistic researchers into account but is always using it related to context and research methods.

From another tradition, but as part of a constructionist thinking , the Japanese-American Muneo Yoshikawa does a study of intercultural dialogue. Yoshikawa published a short article (1987) in which he presents ‘The Double Swing Model’. The model is a sign of infinity3. Yoshikawa is inspired by Martin Buber who works with a duality in the relationship between ‘you and I’. With this model Yoshikawa emphasised that both parts in the communication play the role as addresser and addressee. In the double-swing model, communication is seen as an infinite process and the two participants will both change in the meeting. Yoshikawa underlines that the goal for a communication is not to eliminate differences, but to use the dynamics that arise through the meeting (Yoshikawa 1987).

Intercultural communication model

In a study of intercultural communication in complex, multiethnic societies (Jensen 1998), I developed a model for intercultural communication from a poststructuralistic approach through 4 analytical tools.

With this model I want to a) give a description of an intercultural communication process between two actors, who are both addressers and addressees, b) to emphasize the inter connectedness between the participants in the communication process and 3) to show that the communication process is an infinite, ongoing process (Yoshikawa 1987).

The aim of the model is to let the practitioner or student think through an intercultural communication process and reflect upon it from a new perspective.

Positions of experiences

The concept of ‘Positions of experiences’ refers to the fact that all interpretations are bounded in individual experiences, but although the experiences are subjective, they are related to the social position of a person.

From an everyday perspective, theoretically represented by Berger and Luckmann (1966), the term experience is central. In intercultural communication we have to respect that our communication partner might have other experiences, and are socialised to experience his or her world as real (Berger & Luckmann 1966). It is impossible to ignore one’s experiences. That is an important fact in intercultural communication. The philosopher Hans Georg Gadamer has been occupied with the meaning of understanding. Gadamer sees interpretations as being related to the experiences of the actor. ‘Positions of experience’ is inspired by Gadamer’s term, horizon of experience.

“The Horizon is the range of vision that includes everything that can be seen from a particular vantage point” (Gadamer 1975/1989: 302).

Understanding is based upon experience. We understand the world on the basis of our own experiences, and our experience of the world is limited by our vantage point (ibid.). In relation to intercultural communication this means that we cannot only see cultural differences as the only differentiation to interpretation, but we have to take the horizon into account. As I will argue later on, the horizon could be limited by the social space of the actor. In that case actors’ experiences will be different, not only related to their different cultures, but also related to their social position in society.

The development of the concept of ‘positions of experiences’ is also inspired by the awareness of the concept of ‘positioning’. The social constructionists Davies and Harré (1990) describe positioning as follows:

“Positioning, as we will use it, is the discursive process whereby selves are located in conversations as observably and subjectively coherent participants in jointly produced story lines. There can be interactive positioning in which what one person says positions another, and there can be reflexive positioning in which one positions oneself. However it would be a mistake to assume that, in either case, positioning is necessarily intentional. One live one’s life in terms of one’s ongoing produced self, whoever might be responsible for its production” (Davies & Harré 1990: 40).

Positioning in between ethnic majority and ethnic minorities are often produced along national and ethnic differences. The minorities often have a hard time to get another positioning from the majority, not only in the media but also in the everyday position they are given (Hussain et al. 1997, Jensen 2000).

Seen as an analytical tool, positions of experiences gives: 1) an awareness of how different positions are crucial to the interpretation of the communication, 2) a reflection that persons in intercultural communication always have different opportunities to give different positions of themselves. Essential to a critical intercultural communication perspective is, that social positions and experiences are not floating in space, but are created in social structures. Experiences and positionings are made in the social space on the given conditions of the individual. This point of view resembles Bourdieu’s term habitus (Bourdieu 1986, Bourdieu & Wacquant 1992/1996).

3) The tool focuses upon the individual differences, but is interconnected with structural differences. In the case of intercultural communication ethnic background always is a part of a person’s experience, but the actual role played in the communication is negotiated with other relations.

If we use ‘positions of experiences’ as an analytical tool the following questions are relevant to ask:

Where and how in the communication does the actor tell about his/her primary experiences4?

How does different subject positions influence the actor’s way of positioning him/herself in relation to culture?

In which ways does the actor’s social position influence the actor’s experiences and his or her interpretation of the communication process?

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