Cross-cultural communication comes with challenges

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ITD Brown-Bag Lunch Diversity Series – "Improving cross-cultural communication"

Featuring Rep. Cherie Buckner-Webb

Sept. 28, noon, HQ Auditorium and district offices via video conference

Finding a means to communicate seems to have gotten much easier than participating in the simple act of communication.

Despite texting, Tweeting, Skyping, blogging and posting, too much of modern human communication can best be summed up by a line from the 1967 movie “Cool Hand Luke” – “What we have here is … failure to communicate.”

“Failure to communicate” is a challenge that can be traced to individual cultures that influence how people approach problems and how they participate in groups and in communities to solve those problems.

“Culture is a complex concept, with many different definitions,” said authors Marcelle E. DuPraw and Marya Axner writing for the PBS series “Toward a More Perfect Union in an Age of Diversity.”

“Simply put, ‘culture’ refers to a group or community with which we share common experiences that shape the way we understand the world. It includes groups that we are born into, such as gender, race, or national origin. It also includes groups we join or become part of.

“For example, we can acquire a new culture by moving to a new region, by a change in our economic status, or by becoming disabled. When we think of culture this broadly, we realize we all belong to many cultures at once.”

The authors note that our collective histories become critical pieces of our cultures.

“Historical experiences – whether of five years ago or of 10 generations back – shape who we are. Knowledge of our history can help us understand ourselves and one another better. Exploring the ways in which various groups within our society have related to each other is key to opening channels for cross-cultural communication,” they write.

Different communication styles, attitudes toward conflict, approaches to completing tasks, decision-making styles, attitudes toward disclosure and methods of learning, are ways in which cultures may dramatically vary from one another.

Culture acts as a filter that is central to what people see, how they make sense of what they see and how they express themselves.

“Awareness of cultural differences doesn’t have to divide us from each other. It doesn’t have to paralyze us either, for fear of not saying the ‘right thing,’” DuPraw and Axner contend. “In fact, becoming more aware of our cultural differences, as well as exploring our similarities, can help us communicate with each other more effectively.”

Tips for better cross-cultural communication begin with simply being aware that cultures communicate differently.

Listen carefully. Practice active listening, which involves restating a speaker’s statements to ensure that meaning is understood. Ask questions.

When speaking to someone from another culture, avoid jokes, slang or other references that might confuse or mislead a non-native speaker, who may not share similar cultural beliefs or attitudes.

When in doubt, keep communication formal and friendly.

Published 9-16-2011