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By Mari D. González
I conducted a series of training sessions last year for a company whose employees are close to 50 percent Latinos of which about 30 percent are not fully bilingual. The communication across cultures is as challenging for English-dominants as it is for Spanish-dominants.
Several Asian-American employees also work for this company. Their communication style is different from Americans as well as from Latinos which enriched our training activities and discussions.
At the end of the mixed-group training sessions, I asked participants to brainstorm on what they had learned and what has worked for them in the past that they can apply when communicating with someone outside their primary culture and language.
My question was, based on what you have learned during training and from your own personal experience, what do you recommend when working with people from different cultures?
I wanted the “takeaways” to come from them instead of me. This is what they came up with:
- Have a positive attitude.
- Do not be afraid to ask questions.
- Use “yes or no” questions.
- When unclear, ask again, paraphrase and repeat.
- When something is critical, communicate face-to-face.
- Use non-verbal communication such as hand gestures.
- Ask for help when needed; simply say “I need help.”
- Talk slowly, not necessarily louder.
- Avoid the use of slang.
- Show it instead of telling it.
- Use pictures and visual aids if possible.
- Give a warning upfront if your second language skills are limited.
Assimilation is a process in which people with a different culture of origin completely adapt to the culture of residency, leaving behind traits from their culture of origin. That has been the expected social standard in the US. Yet, Latinos have not and will not assimilate. Latinos and Americans are “acculturating” to each other. Acculturation and assimilation are two different terms and should not be used interchangeably.
By Mari D. González
Published at DTC Perspectives on September 16, 2014
As a professional medical interpreter and a cross-cultural communication consultant, I find cultural contexts the most challenging and fascinating aspect of translating between Spanish-dominant patients and English-dominant doctors during medical interpreting assignments.
Cross-cultural communication refers to the comparing and contrasting of different communication styles based on culture. One of the basic tenets in cross-cultural communication is the influence of our personal and social identities on the way we communicate.
If we are dominant in one language—in the case of monolingual speakers—or more dominant in one language than another—in the case of Spanish-dominant or English-dominant speakers—a particular cultural programming or set of values, world view, or behavior always dominates when we converse. Harry C. Triandis observes in his article, “The Self and Social Behavior in Differing Cultural Contexts” that “People who speak different languages or live in nonadjacent locations…have different subjective cultures” (1989, p. 506). Our dominant or primary language provides an essential clue into our social upbringing and communication styles.
Spanish-dominant Latinos/Hispanics are predominantly “collectivist” and “high context” due to their group-based identity and their ability to get implied meanings in oral communication. Triandis further states, “Individualists give priority to personal goals over the goals of collectives; collectivists either make no distinctions between personal and collective goals, or if they do make such distinctions, they subordinate their personal goals to the collective goals” (p. 509).
Generally, Spanish-dominant patients lack the necessary knowledge of U.S. culture to completely understand the narrowness, linear-ness, and precision of “individualist” or “low context” communication. On the other hand, a medical provider or physician whose primary language is English may often get frustrated by the expansiveness, circular-ness and all-over-the-place “high-context” communication style of Spanish-dominant patients.
The medical interpreter, in her role as cultural broker, performs a delicate balancing act: She has to explain to doctors that the patient is giving the context for his or her answer while explaining to the patient that the doctor is looking for a precise, specific, and short answer. Impatience is the doctor’s natural reaction to a perceived overload of information. This need for exactness is crucial in the financial, accounting, and technology fields, but it is not always recommended at the doctor’s office because impatience does not help in building trust. It results in patients not asking the right questions or reporting inaccurate information due to a fear that the doctor may get upset.
People from collectivist cultures, such as Spanish-dominants, value harmony over confrontation. Harmony is an essential value if you come from a large and extended family. Maintaining harmony and balance is a requirement to keep large groups functioning. Furthermore, people from high-context societies sharply scan emotions and grasp what was not explicitly said. It does not matter if a doctor smiles at the patient while being impatient. The emotion and what he or she implied was perceived first.
To mediate this exchange of low context and high context communications, medical interpreters find themselves repeating the doctor’s linear and precise questions to patients who typically give the whole context by using stories and not answering with a yes or no or with a specific number. Most patients eventually understand that their doctors are looking for clear-cut information, but they do not always understand why the rest of the information is not as important.
Let’s not confuse a basic-to-intermediate-level of fluency in a foreign language with understanding the culture of those who speak it as their primary language. Applicants for jobs as health care providers may include fluency in Spanish, or any other second language for that matter, among their qualifications, but that may indicate nothing about their “cultural fluency.” Cultural fluency is gained through socialization or a constant association with those who speak a different language, which promotes a sense of shared comfortableness. If language fluency was acquired indirectly through media such as CDs, DVDs, books, or even through courses that are devoid of people from that culture, the cultural fluency that allows one to perceive differences in communications styles will be lacking.
I love personal stories and to see how they are part of that bigger picture. I have always been fascinated by the history of the borderlands. Although I majored in Business Management and Communications, I was allowed to do my senior research project on Chicano and Mexican-American literature.
As a lighter-skin Mexican who had grown up believing the myth of having mostly European ancestry, this project was a real eye opening. The more I learn about whom I considered the “other,” the more I feel connected with my indigenous side.
Culturally, Mexicans are more indigenous than we are ready to admit yet, “hay una directriz que nos separa,” there is fine line that separates us by color as a result of the almost gone colonialist ideas.
Let us reconcile our true history and embrace our indigenous people and the African-descent Mexicans as part of the Mexican society and who we are historically. By seeing them both as equal citizens, Mexicans will have acquired a broader ethnic identity.
By Mari D. González
The Oscars’ controversial comment by Sean Penn when presenting Alejandro González Iñárritu is a great example on how communication between members of Low-context and High-context groups causes misinterpretation.
According to anthropologist and intercultural communication pioneer, Edward T. Hall, North European and North American macro-cultures would be defined as “Low-context” because their communication preference is characterized by explicit verbal messages. Hall further explains that in Low-context, “Effective verbal communication is expected to be direct and unambiguous.” On the other hand, societies from the rest of the world including Latin America, Asia, and Arab countries utilize “High-context” communication in which, “most of the information is part of the context or internalized in the person; very little is made explicit (Hall, as cited by de Mooij, 2014). In these countries, people are programmed to read context and meaning between words.
Low-context communication is related to an individualistic identity in which people are “I” conscious and express private opinions publicly. Conversely, in High-context or collectivist societies expressing personal opinions and disregarding group of reference’s perceptions is not recommended. There is a risk of making them feel humiliated or what Asians call “losing face.”
In collectivist cultures, personal identity is related to and not separate from that of the group of reference as in “we.” An offense to a person of that group is an offense to all members who identify with that in-group. Hence, a perceived offense to Iñárritu could be perceived as an offense to those who identify as Mexicans because their individual identity is not separate from that of the group of reference as it is for members of individualistic cultures.
The best reading about culture is Geert Hofstede’s Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind. There, he talks about 4 manifestations of culture: Symbols, Rituals, Heroes and values which are most subjective. All of these can be effectively used when creating advertisements.
I did a masters in cross-cultural communication (MAIR) with an emphasis in online marketing. When I graduated, I thought I had simply spent 6 years of my life studying what I was most passionate about and wondered if companies would ever be interested in cultural studies.
Surprisingly, 2015 has been the year in which companies and marketers are beginning to understand that “culture” (group behavior) not psychometrics is what drives social media and most earned and content marketing.
A story about the Wixárika People, one of the last living Pre-Hispanic cultures in Latin America, and their struggle to preserve Wirikuta, their most sacred territory and the land where the peyote grows, the traditional medicine that keeps alive the knowledge of this iconic people of Mexico.
Una historia acerca del Pueblo Wixárika, una de las últimas culturas prehispánicas vivas en Latinoamérica, y su lucha ante el gobierno mexicano y corporaciones transnacionales mineras para preservar Wirikuta, su territorio más sagrado y la tierra donde crece el peyote, la medicina ancestral que mantiene vivo el conocimiento de este pueblo emblemático de México.
Available at/Disponible en: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/huicholesfilm