Thursday, January 21, 2010

Documenting My Thoughts on Intercultural Communications: The Introduction

There was a time in my life when I had to sit through one meeting after another with a group of people whose intercultural experience was a week in Cancun at the most. To say that it was excruciatingly painful would be an understatement. I can laugh about it now. Back then, however, there was nothing hilarious about it. Believe me.

Don't get me wrong. There's nothing wrong with having limited international experience; not everyone is blessed with the opportunities or the means to travel internationally or hang out regularly with foreigners. Not being able to speak multiple languages doesn't lessen your worth as a human being. And certainly, there's nothing wrong with spending a week in Cancun, Aruba, or what have you. But when people like this form a team whose responsibility is to develop training materials for international consumption, what ensues is a series of mistakes, unresolved issues, headaches, interpersonal conflicts, confrontations, defensiveness, hurt feelings, delays, and, in our case, a project that was aborted before it got off the ground.

Thinking about that particular experience and several others, I feel compelled to document my thoughts in the area of intercultural communications. Although my academic trainings are in the areas of linguistics and philology, the people whom I have met in my international travels and years of learning multiple languages have taught me a great deal about what to do and what not to do when it comes to communicating to people from a different culture.

I'll leave the nonverbal part (should I bow or shake hands? Should I burp after a meal? Does the "okay" hand signal mean something lewd here? Should I take off my shoes or keep them on when entering a home? Etc.) to the cultural etiquette experts. As important as those things are, they are not what I am addressing here. The issue at hand is in the verbal part, more specifically how to choose words, phrases, sentences, analogies, illustrations, etc., in such a way that leads to the following:
  • You feel confident that your message isn't lost in translation.
  • You don't come across as an idiot to the foreigner.
  • You don't make the foreigner feel like an idiot for not understanding you.
  • You don't falsely assume that the foreigner understands you.
  • The foreigner doesn't assume that s/he understands you when s/he doesn't.
  • Both parties recognize that some compromising is necessary in intercultural communications.
  • When difficulties arise, both parties recognize them and work together in solving them.
These are my thoughts which are independent of any textbooks or theories laid out by practitioners in this field; they're based on what I have seen, heard, felt, and meditated upon. As I previously mentioned, my academic trainings fall outside of this area. I'm a philologist, not an ESL teacher. So please take what helps you and discard the rest.