Barriers to cross-cultural communication
If you are to work effectively with people who are culturally
different, you need to become aware of your own culture and how that impacts
on others. As one textbook on professional communication puts it:
‘... we need to become more aware of the cultural
basis of our own behaviours, perceptions, beliefs, and values. This enables
us to see an interaction from a cultural perspective. It is not just the
other person who is displaying culture-specific attitudes and behaviours;
we are also doing just that’ (Peter Putnis & Roslyn Petelin, ‘Professional Communication
– principles and applications’, Prentice Hall, Sydney, 1996, p.76).
Understanding your own values may not be easy, however.
You have probably taken your cultural identity for granted, as you have
grown up with it. You have never had to soul search or ask yourself about
that identity. Your personal values may, in fact, constitute a barrier to cross-cultural
communication. Consider this list
of common attitudes that may affect your ability to communicate. Two
of the key elements from the list – prejudice and ethnocentrism
– are discussed below.
Prejudice arises from the ‘pre-judging’ of
someone’s characteristics simply because they have been categorised
as belonging to a particular group. It is usually associated with negative
attitudes to that group. Prejudice often has ethnic or racial overtones. Jan Elliott, a retired US school teacher, has developed
an interesting approach to challenging such prejudice, with her ‘blue-eyes/brown-eyes’
simulation game. In this game, children learn to experience the impact
of prejudice and thus begin to understand the nature of racism.
Ethnocentrism is the assumption that the culture of one’s
own group is moral, right and rational, and that other cultures are inferior.
When confronted with a different culture, individuals judge it with reference
to their own standards, and make no attempt to understand and evaluate
it from its members’ perspective. Sometimes ethnocentrism will be
combined with racism – the belief that individuals can be classified into
distinct racial groups and that there is a biologically-based hierarchy
of these races. In principle, however, one can reject a different culture
without in any way assuming the inherent inferiority of its members (Online
Dictionary of the Social Sciences, Athabasca University).
Since ethnocentrism is often an unconscious behaviour,
it is understandably difficult to prevent in advance. Fortunately, it is
possible to deal with the problem if you reflect on your practice in a
new environment such as a practicum placement. As an example, consider
this report from a social work intern
in the US about how his opinions about ‘lower-class’ clients
changed over time.
An example of ethnocentrism can be seen in western journalists’ comments
during the recent events in Afghanistan, in particular
regarding the wearing of the burkha, a full-length gown and hood which
women wear in public according to Islamic tradition. Many western commentators
assumed that the burkha was merely a symptom of womens’ oppression
and expressed surprise when women continued to wear it after Kabul was liberated
from the Taliban regime. Many Islamic women make their
own choice to wear the burkha and some have expressed exasperation with
what they see as Western feminists’ preoccupation with it. These
news reports and Islamic women’s opinions on wearing the
burkha illusrate the differences in cultural interpretations.
Cultural relativism is in stark contrast to ethnocentrism –
it is the refusal to make any judgement on the cultural values of other
individuals, institutions or cultures. While it avoids the problem of
prejudice, it is inadequate, since it involves a denial – or at
least a suspension – of your own values. You will find this
more comprehensive discussion of cultural relativism and ethnocentrism helpful.
If the experience of contact with cultural differences
is too challenging, this can result in culture shock, a response characterised
by physical and emotional symptoms:
‘Culture shock is more than your initial mental adjustment
to strange customs, new language, and perhaps water that isn't safe to
drink. It is a very real set of symptoms that may include depression,
anxiety, increased incidence of minor illnesses, and a sense of helplessness’ (Kathryn A. Wilson http://international.monster.com/workabroad/relocation/followspouse/).
Although culture shock occurs most often when in a foreign
country, it can occur after spending time in any new environment that
challenges our cultural expectations and assumptions. Consider, for example,
the previously described reactions of the university lecturer confronted
with factory life (Lodge, 1988, ‘Nice Work’) and the teacher confronted
by the realities of life in the outback (Cook, 1967, ‘Wake in Fright’).
How do you think you would react if you found yourself
working in an overly-bureaucratic system, or isolated as the only female in an all-male environment or the only male in an
all-female environment? If you did suffer problematic effects of culture shock in such a situation, you would need to protect yourself
in the short term by:
- Keeping the problems in perspective (e.g. by spending time outside
the workplace environment).
- Talking with your workplace supervisor or course coordinator.
- Seeking moral support from peers, friends and family (the telephone
is your friend!).
In the longer term, you would need to come to terms with
the challenging aspects of the culture. This is covered in the next section:
‘Working well with cultural diversity’ .