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Intercultural or “Inter-Diversity” Communication?

Diversity Workplace

Inter-ethnic relations have been a taboo in the U.S. because assimilation has been expected from immigrants and minorities. Assimilation has mainly occurred among people from countries with less cultural and linguistic distances (Anglo-Saxon, Ireland, France)—for whom the term expatriates is used—or among people who are not seen as “others.”

In the last decade due to fast technological advancements such as the Internet, social media, and cell phones, many immigrants are not assimilating. While there is a great level of acculturation to the American way of doing business—mostly by college graduates, immigrants and expats bring and keep their own worldviews, perspectives, and values representative of their first language and culture of origin.

Minorities in the U.S. who live in silos have strengthened their diversities. The more an ethnic group is segregated, excluded or other-ed, the less it assimilates. Diversity is a positive aspect. It enriches any company, organization or team. Silicon Valley, Tech Venture Capitalist, Paul Graham explains, “United States has only 5 percent of the world’s population; it stands to reason that most of the world’s best new ideas will be thought up by people who weren’t born here.”

The challenge is when communication styles clash let alone the perpetuation of harmful stereotypes. It results in misunderstandings, frustration, decreased productivity and lower morale. We all have seen this!

Recommendations for Intercultural Interactions

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:

  1. Have a positive attitude.
  2. Do not be afraid to ask questions.
  3. Use “yes or no” questions.
  4. When unclear, ask again, paraphrase and repeat.
  5. When something is critical, communicate face-to-face.
  6. Use non-verbal communication such as hand gestures.
  7. Ask for help when needed; simply say “I need help.”
  8. Talk slowly, not necessarily louder.
  9. Avoid the use of slang.
  10. Show it instead of telling it.
  11. Use pictures and visual aids if possible.
  12. Give a warning upfront if your second language skills are limited.

Low and High: Context in Communication

Vitalworks-Hospital-CCO Public Domain

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.

Activist and Jornalist

Jorge RamosJorge Ramos’ track record as one the best journalists in the U.S. cannot be dismissed by his activism. Yet, simple-minded people who see the world as either/or and feel threatened by his influence wished they could so.

Low-Context and High-Context at the Oscars

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.

Millennials’ High Context is Influencing American Values

By Mari D. González

I’m pleased to see how millennials are influencing our current society. They have acquired a broader awareness of their social and global environments than previous generations.

Millennials are more “contextual” or high context and have influenced the workplace and our current societal values. They are more in tune with their immediate social environment and with global happenings and expect people to have a sense of a global community. They care about world affairs and social causes.

These facts are relevant to cross-cultural communication because millennials are changing the emerging fabric of the American culture.  I’d attribute these changes to two factors. One is the circularity and interconnectedness that online communication offers. Secondly, a great majority of millennials come from cultures that are collectivists such as Latino and Asian.

More on this topic at Hiring Millennial: You’re Likely Missing the Point.

Cross Cultural Marketing and Communications Association (CCMCA)

-The CCMCA Promises to Mainstream Us All-

Map of the United States of America showing th...

Map of the United States of America showing the largest minority group by color in each state. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Mari D. González ​

I am pleased to learn that there is a newly formed national professional organization that addresses cross-cultural understanding in marketing –The Cross Cultural Marketing and Communications Association (CCMCA). This organization will facilitate and expand a much-needed cross-cultural perspective in the U.S. Thus, the idea that there is a dominant culture to which everyone should adhere is beginning to lose popularity. This acknowledgment informs us that the exponential growth of U.S. micro cultures, or so- called minority groups, can no longer be ignored.

In the last few decades, the conversation on ethnic marketing has paid a lot of attention to Hispanics. At the beginning of 2013, driven by census results in population growth of Asians, African-Americans, and Latinos and by a larger display of political power from those emerging groups, we began to hear less about Hispanic marketing and more about multicultural marketing.

Nevertheless, the term multicultural had already lost its distinctive meaning because it has been overused. “Multicultural” became the kind of I-feel-good-using-it-but-do-not-know-what-it-really-means expression. It lost meaning because many people used it thoughtlessly. Most people do not dare to learn about the culturally different unless they live in Oakland, CA, where there is greater diversity and they are likelier to make friends with people of other ethnicities.

On the other hand, cross-cultural, which means looking at similarities and differences, places social groups on a level playing field. Cross-cultural communication promises to see groups without any hierarchy, to cross over and even get closer to another cultural group. In cross-cultural communication, we learn by looking at how these cultural groups see themselves as opposed to how they have been perceived by the macro or dominant culture, which in this case, would be considered top-cultural instead of cross-cultural.

As a professional interculturalist who has done cross-cultural analysis in marketing, I could not be more delighted that a nation-wide professional marketing organization now exists and has the potential to address domestic, as opposed to international, issues related to culture in marketing and communications. This is an internal, inside the country, analysis of the relevance that the many ethnicities and social groups have in this country instead of, for instance, looking at the Chinese or the European markets.

Hispanic Marketing – Segmenting Latinos

market 1

market 1 (Photo credit: tim caynes)

By Mari D. González

Last year, I was approached by Lee Raymundo, MBA candidate at UCLA. He asked for an interview. He wrote:

“I read your article ‘Marketing to Second-Generation Latinos’ with
great interest and believe your insight would be of great value to me. I have
been trying to understand the behavior and culture of second generation Latinos vs. first generation and what ideals would most likely appeal to them. I understand that Bud Light is especially popular with this segment but have so far, struggled to understand why.”

He explained that his team was working with Budweiser, “on understanding the most effective way to reach the Latino community with a brand that resonates with this segment.” So, we addressed his questions. I gave him a general overview on the language preferences for first- and second-generation Latinos/Hispanics, which are basically related to acculturation.

Based on that particular interview and several other similar conversations, I have concluded that many professionals trying to reach Latinos/Hispanics assume that Latinos/Hispanics fall into one single market–an assumption that is too general.

“Latino/Hispanic” is a term used in census-taking to track people whose
heritage can be traced to 21 countries in Latin America plus Spain (Europe),
but should not be used—or misused—when marketing to a specific population under this umbrella term.Thus, every time I am asked to talk about Latinos/Hispanics, I always reply with the same question, “Which segment of Latinos/Hispanics?

Most people do not understand the huge cultural, socioeconomic, and generational differences among Latinos aside from their country of origin, language of preference, and acculturation levels. Language is of utmost importance. Yet, it should not be understood simply as English vs.Spanish, but how well the target group speaks either language and how extensive is their vocabulary in either one.

Other questions include: Has the market segment been schooled and/or received college degrees in Spanish or in English? Do they prefer reading in English but speaking Spanish at home? It might be that English is the language they learned to read and write grammatically, but they prefer the emotional connection associated with the sounds and certain words in Spanish. Our accents and the extent of our vocabulary tell a lot about who we are culturally, where we come from, our education and socioeconomic levels–all of which are important marketing indicators for Hispanic marketing strategic planning.

There is also the “American Latino/Hispanic” layer, which encompasses all Latinos/Hispanics living in the U.S. and can be very subtle. For instance, most first-generation, Spanish-dominant Latinos/Hispanics in the U.S. know common English-language terms they use in their daily lives even though their primary language is Spanish at home and work.

Moreover, there are cultural dimensions that second-generation, bilingual and English-dominant Latinos/Hispanics do not give up and that includes collectivismus, we, nosotros. That is the one specific example I gave to Mr. Raymundo. I told him that whatever message he is trying to communicate across the board with Latinos/Hispanics, do not market to them through an individualistic identityme, I, only myself—because that’s crossing into assimilation terrain and an assimilated Latino/Hispanic no longer counts culturally as a Latino/Hispanic.

Part-time Anthropologist

English: Art House Hall University Center Sout...

English: Art House Hall University Center South in Ciudad Guzman, Jalisco, Mexico Español: Pasillo de Casa del Arte del Centro Universitario del Sur en Ciudad Guzmán, Jalisco, México (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Mari D. González

In the December 2009 edition, a writer for The Economist said, “Every foreigner of inquiring mind becomes a part-time anthropologist.” That statement describes me personally and professionally.

I moved to the U.S. in the 90’s. Having completed a B.A. at eighteen, I wanted to explore the world—specifically to learn about people and their culture or their “programming” as Geert Hofstede calls it. My first job in the U.S. was bilingual health educator. At that time, my passion for learning and breaching cultural gaps was greater than my actual English-Spanish bilingual skills.

At fourteen in Mexico, I had moved from my inland hometown to the coast to study.  Although it was within the same state, the cultural differences were vast. That was my first intercultural experience. In Ciudád Guzman, my new home, I was called güerita or blonde. As you can see in the picture, my hair is not blonde nor have I ever dyed it, but that was a contextual distinction in a place were most people were darker-skinned than I. Color aside, I wanted to fit in this new place and did not want to be seen as “different.”  There were several instances when I would get preferential treatment, which I did not enjoy, such as people getting up from their chairs to let me sit.

I was seen as an outsider and treated like one. I had more privileges because I was perceived as belonging to a higher color-based hierarchy.  That’s the type of cultural programming or enculturation that is characteristic of many societies. I found the distinct treatment fascinating, not because of the benefits I got, but because I did not believe I or anyone else deserved such treatment based on appearances. I knew it was a learned attitude that remained unquestioned, and that was my first cross-cultural analysis.

I am back to my writing on intercultural communication, a topic I love. Since my last blog post, I have completed my thesis research and earned a long-awaited Master of Arts degree in Intercultural Relations (MAIR); I am continuing to work on a paper that should be published soon; I have taken several courses in online communication and marketing and passed my written test for medical interpreting. I am happy to be able to write again.

Edited by Connie Cobb

CROSS-CULTURAL vs. INTERCULTURAL

By Mari D. González

Searching for blog articles on intercultural online communication, I found one on a well- respected social media blog. To my disappointment, not only did the author use “cross-cultural” to mean “intercultural” but she also argued that most people, even academics, use the terms “interchangeably”; when I tried to clarify the differences in the comments section, she responded that I didn’t need to bother explaining. This is what I wrote:

“’CROSS-CULTURAL’ means a comparison and contrast between two cultural groups. For example, my cross-cultural study of Brazilians and Mexicans when they celebrate a birthday shows that Mexicans love to focus on cooking and sharing of the food, while Brazilians love the dancing –even grandmas are dancing the samba. ‘Intercultural’ refers to what happens when people from these two groups come together. As a Mexican, I may complain that there’s not enough food, but I love the dancing and join the group. Thus, INTERCULTURAL is what happens when the two (or more) culturally-different groups come together, interact and communicate. Both terms describe important aspects of the study.”

As an interculturalist, I also found it troubling to read the author’s definition of “culture” as “layers of identity–not as groups of people.” My instructor and intercultural communication pioneer, Milton J. Bennett (1992) defines culture as “learned and shared values, beliefs, and behavior of a group of interacting people”; this is the definition I use in offline and online communication contexts.

Myron W. and Koester (1993) define intercultural communication in their book Intercultural Competence: Interpersonal Communication Across Cultures as “a symbolic, interpretative, transactional, contextual process,” which implies the engagement of culturally-different people. On the other hand, they define cross-cultural communication as “the study of a particular idea or concept within many cultures…in order to compare one culture to another…. Whereas intercultural communication involves interactions among people from different cultures, cross-cultural communication involves a comparison of interactions among people from the same culture to those from another culture.”

In the graduate program in Intercultural Relations, from day one we learn the definitions of intercultural vs. cross-cultural in the context of communication across cultures. Because social media has become “the” online platform for collaboration, learning, and exchange of knowledge, the blog author needs to learn both the correct definitions of the terms and the principles of the new media. Trying to oblige one’s ideas through new media is a thing of the past so, as a colleague of mine put it, “she is a traditionalist.”

Edited by Connie Cobb