Intercultural communication

In this dialogue, the children are chatting about everyday situations, e.g. welcoming guests, a child’s upbringing at home. Even though these are ordinary situations, they have experienced at the very least a surprised reaction from the person they are talking to. At the same time, it is important that all the parties to the situation meant their conduct well: the mother really looked forward to the visit, Suong’s friend wanted to thank her with cake and buns for her welcome, the schoolmaster wanted to educate the boys well, the boys were really good friends. A person can experience such varied situations if they have frequent meetings with someone who has grown up in the environment of another culture, in which they were taught different customs and rules of polite behaviour, or if they arrive in the environment of another culture as a foreigner. In order for us to better prepare ourselves for similar surprises, a sphere has slowly come into existence which is concerned with how communication takes place in various cultures, and what causes and significance specific communicative habits have. For this reason, we want to introduce you to some basic information regarding intercultural communication.

  • What is...?

Interaction: The mutual contact of two parties, either conscious or unconscious.

  • Topic

There exist many theories which address communication in general, and intercultural communication as a special discipline. Let us look at both, i.e. at general communication and, following on from this, at intercultural communication:

1. Communication in general
a/ What is communication?
Communication is a specific type of interaction between two or more parties in which, in the simplest sense of the word, one party knowingly transmits a message to the other. This message may be an instruction, some information, a warning, etc.

The message is transmitted in the form of symbols (e.g. signals, signs, gestures, words, concepts, pictures, slogans), sequenced in various ways, and, in the case of a linguistic message, in accordance with certain established rules (which are described by a grammar). When thinking, the parties assign symbols to certain objects (things, ideas, phenomena, activities, etc.) (e.g. specifying a direction by means of an arrow, greeting someone with the word “hi”, the number 1 denoting distinction, etc.), on the basis of the meaning which they ascribe to these objects. For this reason, symbols do not express only the object described, but also how the person interprets them. A ring is always the same ring, but for one person it might be a souvenir of their first love, while for someone else it is stolen jewellery for sale, etc.

In order for communication to be effective, the person receiving the message (the listener) must explain to themselves the message transmitted (the set of symbols) in the way that the speaker expects, otherwise they will not understand each other or there will be a distortion of the message. Attaining effective communication depends on many factors:
- on the situation – the speaker must transmit the message at the right moment (e.g. they may not speak if someone is concentrating on something else, if there is noise around)
- on the motivation of the speaker – the speaker must have the need to transmit the message (e.g. to communicate with the other)
- on clearly defined contents of the speaker’s message – the speaker must know what message they wish to send (e.g. I have to know what they are trying to say)
- on how the speaker themself interprets the message – what they understand by the message in question and what they take as the consequence
- on the system of symbols selected (on the language) – the speaker must know a system of symbols which is intelligible for the listener
- on the correct formulation of the message – the speaker transmitting must correctly link the contents of the message, their interpretation, and the language in such a way that the listener understands everything in the way the speaker wants (e.g. calls a situation by the right name, correctly describes a plant, etc.)
- the transmitter must use the communication medium correctly (e.g. if I want to transmit a message to only one person, I cannot use a television broadcast)
- the message must be transferred to the listener without barriers – barriers to communication include, for instance, a medium failure, the deliberate or accidental distortion of the message, various values, various methods of perception, various stereotypes, and various styles of communication also caused by the different cultures of the speaker and the listener
- the recipient must know the system of symbols and how to decode the message correctly (e.g. the language which I speak)
- the recipient must understand the message as the transmitting party intended it (e.g. they must understand why I am choosing this word and not another, what I am implying by my utterances), and interpret it correctly
- the recipient must want to accept the message (e.g. I must be willing to listen, accept the other party as an authority, etc.)
- the recipient must accept the message in the right situation (e.g. I must listen when I am able to concentrate sufficiently on the message)

Let us take two communicating parties. Communication takes place in the space between them and is influenced by several facts, which we will look at in greater detail now:

Communication medium

Communication medium: Two parties communicate by means of the most varied media (directly – the medium is air, by telephone – a telephone line, email – an electronic link, letter – paper, signals over distance – light, etc. The medium is the (active and non-active) mediator of the message. Each medium requires different rules and a method for transmitting the message. Sometimes, it is necessary to first dial a telephone number and assume that the second party cannot see where the speaker is standing and that the transmitter themself does not know where the listener is standing (telephone conversation). Sometimes, the speaker must speak loudly in order for the listener to hear them (when they are standing in a noisy street talking to someone). Some media do not permit that the second party reply (television, newspapers, etc.). Whenever we receive information, we have to decide by means of what media it was sent, and only then can we decode the message effectively, understand it, and imagine the situation within which the message was created and the reasons for it. The medium may also be an interpreter, for instance. Each medium may distort the message in a certain way (overlook some of the symbols, leave them out, translate poorly, etc.), while others emphasise it. A television broadcast is frequently directed with a certain intention in mind, while a translator can sometimes translate very poorly, etc. Part of effective communication must be an awareness of how the mediating medium operates.

Language, as one of the means of communication, is a specific communication system of symbols which links words and concepts and the combination thereof (sentences and statements). Language expresses by what means a person designates the objects around them using words and concepts, it is a manifestation and characteristic of human thinking. Language is a complex system, the rules of which we call grammar, and in the case of which we enquire into pronunciation, meanings, style and forms, regional differences (accents and dialects), social differences (informal, professional, group idioms), the composition of individual words, the form of recording language, spelling, sentence structure and intonation, the aesthetic composition of language (poetry, etc.), variety and preservation, changes on the basis of other languages, and social events. In order for a person to use a language correctly and fully, they must know how to think in this language, know its vocabulary, the way it is pronounced, how to follow the words, and write it correctly.

Understanding the message: We can understand the comprehension of language on two levels. We can correctly decode the symbols, i.e. literally understand the words which the speaker is using. However, we can also understand for what reasons the speaker is communicating the message, what they want to attain by their message, or for what reason they are saying it. It is one thing when we correctly understand and hear that today it is pleasant outside, and something else when we know that the speaker is telling us that we should get lost, what are we still doing inside. Literal comprehension can lead to results and conclusions which are utterly different to a perception of the motivation of the speaker and the intention of their message. The intention and contents of the message are not the same under certain circumstances. And so, the following are different: - the object, which we give words to (four legs, a top, the legs are perpendicular to the top and they are attached at the corners of the desk, they serve for placing things on the desk so that a person does not have to bend over but can sit at the table – this applies only to certain cultures, since elsewhere a table is not used for putting things on or does not even exist),
- the concept which we assign to this item (stůl, der Tisch, the desk, cái bàn),
- the interpretation which we assign to this concept (table, coffee table, shop, a rotten piece of wood, etc.)
- the intention with which someone uses this concept in a message (I want to describe a place, I want to imply that I don’t like this table, I want to learn this word, etc.)

Empathy: The ability to imagine oneself in another’s situation, mood, or state of mind. This ability does not mean accepting the opinion of another, but being able to imagine the psychological state of the other and to guess at the reasons for this state, to see the world around as the person into whose thoughts we enter sees it. The ability to feel empathy can be very useful if we want to identify the motives for the conduct and behaviour of the other. On the other hand, if someone sad meets someone who is capable only of empathy, then both will begin to be sad and to cry, and the mood of the first will be compounded by the second. When a person acts on the basis of how the other operates upon them, what mood they feel from the other, we call this mirroring. In several cultures, mirroring is a sign of courteous conduct. In others, mirroring is appropriate only sometimes. An extreme case of mirroring would be a situation in which the speaker asks a question with the same content in two different ways, and the listener answers differently each time.
1) Q: But I mean, you’re perfectly content, aren’t you? A: Of course I am. (The listener knows that the other wants to year that they are content. The listener’s reply does not have to be true, but mirrors the feelings of the speaker.)
2) Q: You’re not very brave though, are you? No, I’m afraid I’m not. (The listener knows that the speaker does not want them to be brave.)

b/ What elements does communication have?
Depending on the type of symbols transmitted, we divide communication into verbal (where we use language), meta (para)-verbal (where we use various sounds), and non-verbal (where we are using our body or a part of it besides our sound-producing organs). Non-verbal communication is actually the boundary between conscious and unconscious interaction, since these days we make things clear other than our moods, and frequently we cover these up with words, though unconsciously our body is signalling to the second our real mood, thanks to our intonation, the expression on our face, the ease or otherwise of our body, etc. And thus it can easily happen that speakers from a culture where it is pretty easy to identify non-verbal language will recognise that the word spoken does not correspond to the actual mood and feelings of the speaker from a culture centred on rational and verbal communication (Roma versus traditional Czech culture).

We study verbal communication from the most varied points of view, c.f. language and comprehension of the message.

Meta-verbal manifestations include intonation, the use of insignificant words as crutches (“sort of”, “I mean”, “it’s like”, etc.), various interjections and slips of the tongue.

Non-verbal communication, thanks to which we can communicate most of a message (as actors do on stage), we use consciously very rarely. We divide its resources into components: distance (eyesight – distance and hearing – the strength of a sound) and contact (smell, aroma, touch – the method of touching)
- spatial conduct (the position of two persons in a space which expresses their relationship)
- proximity (the distance between two persons which expresses their relationship)
- the position of the body (this often unknowingly reveals our moods, psychological states)
- vertical position – whether the speaker is higher or lower than the listener. They will also communicate in accordance. A tall person above a small person with a hat, cannot perceive how the smaller person is responding, and vice versa. This position expresses a certain distance based, for instance, on a position of respect, inviolability, power, etc.
- the direction and length of a look and the movement of the eyes (a direct look into the eyes in certain cultures indicates honesty and a seriousness of communication, in others it indicates overconfidence and impoliteness)
- mimicry (the one who laughs can in one culture be happy, in the second can feel very unpleasant)
- gesticulation (illustrative and meaningful gestures – “hey you” – be careful, come here, etc.)
- touching another person’s body (stroking a girl’s hair by a boy in public in front of other people in certain cultures can express respect and love of the girl, in others can be condescension on the part of the boy)
- olfactory and taste stimuli (relating to food, sex, etc.)
- changes in posture or the body: a change of colour of skin, deformation of the posture, etc.
- various artefacts attached to the human body: jewellery, piercings, uniforms, costumes, etc.

All of the symbols specified (gestures, mimicry, appearance, position, etc.) in communication transmit the requisite information and values and standing of the person (uniforms), their state of health (colour of skin), youth and opinions (eyes, mimicry), the contents of the message (gestures), their endearments and attractiveness (their position in relation to us, their aroma, complexion), etc. Specialist literature says that when first meeting an unknown person, we receive the most information unconsciously through their body language (55%), next from their tone of voice (40%), and only then from the contents of their speech (5%), i.e. from their message. This first impression can have an impact upon our mutual relationship. Only with longer and more intensive contact do we focus more on the contents of their communication. This means that non-verbal communication has a huge first impact, and verbal communication only later. Several cultures are known for perceiving non-verbal stimuli a lot more than Czech culture. It is also said that women pick up on non-verbal stimuli more than men.

2. Intercultural communication
As is clear from the preceding text, communication is in itself a very complex discipline, the quality of which is influenced by many different factors. In a situation in which a meeting (and communication) of people from different cultural environments is involved (differing by ethnicity, religion, socially, or otherwise), there can naturally be problems on almost all of the levels mentioned. In order to offer one example for all, on the level of symbols there can be misunderstanding on all levels and all phases of communication, i.e. during:
- evaluation of the communicative situation and its suitability,
- ascertaining the motivation of the speaker or listener,
- defining the contents of terms
- interpreting terms
- there can be an alleged or genuine conflict of values, stereotypes, communicative style, etc.
- there is a poor evaluation of the intention of the speaker, interpretation of their message, etc.

Some illustrations to back this up:
When someone Chinese sees a cross, they immediately think of the number ten, because this is how it is written in Chinese script. A Christian will think of the religious symbol, or the mathematical symbol for plus, or of the Red Cross. The red cross in several Arab countries is not the sign of a cross but of a half-moon.

The swastika, the symbol of fascism, was originally the symbol of the sun, and in Buddhist cultures is the symbol of the sun and happiness.

When we want to ask how someone is, we ask “How are things going?” We ask about their successes. But in some places, this would be translated as “Are you healthy?” A person asks after another’s state of health. And yet we use both of these two idioms when expressing our interest in how another person is when we meet them. The symbols and their significance can differ in the same way between individual cultures.

As well as misunderstandings on all of the regular communication levels, the sphere of intercultural communication also reveals other specific qualities which are culturally encoded. These can distinguish between the values which are attributed to various phenomena. Each culture explains its relationship to the authorities differently (and evaluates its statements to them differently, etc.), sees the relationship between the individual and society differently (in each society, the individual has a different significance and role), perceives the roles of men and women differently (a different significance is ascribed to the terms men and women), handles conflict differently, etc. (Hofstede, 1991; for more on this c.f. the text Culture and Cultural Differences). Different cultures conceive of truth, sex, marriage, honour, honesty, human rights, integration, etc. differently. And we could carry on and on in this vein.

There is another sphere which is very important for intercultural communication, and that is the level of explicitness. In certain environments, the custom is to be very precise. To the question “How are you doing?” the answer could be “Not very well: I’ve got a headache and someone has stolen my wallet.” In other environments, it is customary to use a more illustrative language, more connotative. The speaker automatically assumes that the listener will fill in a large part of the contents themselves. It would seem inappropriate to them to describe everything in detail and to name everything. And so to the question “How are things?” they would answer, “It’s autumn and I’m feeling kind of autumnal.”

In the sphere of conflicts, for instance, the level of explicitness is very important. In certain cultures, it is the custom to speak publicly about a conflict and to name it (either in a group or team). For instance, “I’m afraid to say, as your colleague, that you have committed a basic methodological error and your paper cannot therefore be published in our faculty magazine.” A member of another culture in the same situation might say, “I like your essay. You don’t want to cast an eye over the methodical section once more? It seems to me that if it were a little amplified the entire text would be much more penetrating.”

Whether these differences in the communication between members of different cultures are imaginary or real, the core of the problem or its pretext, embarrassing moments can ensue in the most various situations, as well as military disputes, and ridiculous but also dangerous situations. American companies, for instance, were unable to enter the Vietnamese market for a long time because of communication differences.

Part of the Arab world and part of the European-American world have been at war regarding values, religion, as well as their communication style (how are the believers of these civilisations supposed to understand each other when they use quotes from different books, the Bible and the Koran? Were they to know both books, would they communicate more effectively?). Effective communication between members who communicate using a different system of symbols (language, etc.) is not possible without some prior mutual knowledge.

In conclusion, several words regarding the phenomenon of translation and interpretation:
Have you ever tried translating something? Let’s imagine a situation in which you are standing in between two people from different cultures, e.g. between a Spaniard and a Czech. The Czech says: “This is a Spanish village for me.” What would a literal translation sound like? If everything was precisely translated, the Spaniard would probably ask: “Which of our villages are you speaking about? I like the countryside.” For this reason, many expressions, idioms and statements, and even poems are translated. In this case, you would probably translate this sentence to the Spaniard as “I am really no expert in this field.” The Spaniard would understand you, but you would lose one important piece of information, to the effect that when you do not understand something you refer to a Spanish village, i.e. you don’t understand Spaniards. For this reason, it is a good thing in such cases to add a translator’s note, which does ensures that the listener is not only offered the correct meaning of the sentence, but is also not deprived of the method of thinking in another culture. A translation often appears without an intercultural explanation. Without such explanations, there will be no intercultural bargaining, during which the intermediary has the task to explain the real reasons and the significance of the messages of members of various cultures, in order that they mediate information precisely and faithfully, so that the communication can be effective.

  • Stories and examples

A lecture by a teacher, or on the direction of a look
I used to attend lectures given by a lecturer. One time, we had a lecture on educational communication and the lecturer said, “When you speak with someone, please look them in the eye.” And I said, “No, with us that is not the case, in fact the opposite is the case.” My flatmate also told a story. She had heard a Korean say on the radio that in his country, when people are speaking, you absolutely must not look into their eyes, the reason being that in Asia a direct look into the eyes of another during communication is regarded as insolence, discourtesy and a mark of disagreement. I myself can’t imagine how I’d feel if I was speaking with a pupil in Vietnam and they stared into my eyes. The Vietnamese do not look into another person’s eyes, but somewhere else, to the ground, for instance. Teachers and lecturers who work with Vietnamese children must be able to perceive this with the children themselves or with their parents. The children often feel this difference and change their behaviour, though the parents often do not. I have several times witnessed situations in which Czechs were speaking and the Vietnamese averted their gaze to the floor or elsewhere. The Czechs perceived it as a mark of disrespect, lack of attention or dishonesty.

If you don’t ask, you’re an outsider
When I was first with Jan (my husband to be) in Holland with his friends in a pub, I experienced an evening which knocked me for six. Almost immediately, they started to question me about everything – how old I was, where I studied, what I did for a living, if we wanted to have children, if I was happy with my future husband. I was amazed by so many questions – they kept asking and didn’t say much about themselves.
When the evening ended, I cycled home with Jan. I couldn’t stop feeling a bit insecure. I had the feeling that I should have done something else, but I didn’t know what exactly. Finally, Jan explained. In Holland, it is customary to ask loads of questions, because these express interest in a second person. If you don’t ask, it looks like you couldn’t care less about the other person. And of course, yours truly hadn’t asked because it seemed really embarrassing to ask about such intimate topics as whether I was happy in my relationship. I hope that my new friends will not think I’m uninterested.

The teacher and pupil, or about language
One of my school friends was really bad at Czech. He was also getting things wrong, leaving out prepositions when he said things like “bread butter, I am going granny’s”, although sometimes he’d use them too often, for instance “I’m afraid to go with the woods”. The teacher used to get most annoyed when he kept saying that he “would paint a nicely chicken”, or that he “would feed small piglet”. The teacher started to come down on him and to give him poor marks, and didn’t even bother to speak to him in a nice way. Back then, I thought he was stupid, but later on I read that in Romany there is no neuter gender and that there are no prepositions “with”. I was the stupid one, because Jáno’s family had come from Slovakia and spoke only Romany. He only began to learn Czech in the first grade!

What I read about, or about gestures
I used to work with a friend who had taught himself sign language. He persuaded me to read something about communication between handicapped people. I learned, for instance, that there is a difference between signed Czech and Czech sign language. Signed Czech uses Czech words whose sequence is expressed by a gesture of one or both hands, the face, etc. And Czech sign language is a language which is regularly used by the deaf in the Czech Republic between themselves, which has a completely different grammar to Czech and signed Czech. I also learned that, just as the Ostrava dialect differs from the Olomouc or North Bohemia dialect, so Czech sign language differs in different regions of the CR, and the sign languages developed and used in different countries of the world are also different.

  • Sources

(1996). Konflikt, koření života (Conflict the Spice of Life). Praha: Partners Czech. Černý, J. (1998). Úvod do studia jazyka. Olomouc: Rubico.

Hofstede, G (1991). Allemaal Andersdenkenden. Amsterdam.

Klein, Z. (1998). Atlas sémantických gest (Atlas of Semantic Gestures). Praha: HZ.

Kocourek, J. (2006). S vietnamskými dětmi na českých školách (With Vietnamese Children at Czech Schools). Praha: H & H.

Kocourková, J. (2003). Jiný kraj, jiný mrav. Jak se chovat v cizině (Another Region, Other Customs. How to Behave when Abroad). Praha: Olympia.

Krahucová – Žatková (1996). Komplexní komunikační systémy těžce sluchově postižených (Complex communication Systems of the Very Hard of Hearing). Praha: Karolinum.

Nakonečný, M. (2000). Sociální psychologie (Social Psychology) Praha: Academia.

Šotolová, E. (2001). Vzdělávání Romů (The Education of Roma People). Praha: Grada.

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