Communication Between Cultures

(Sean Pound) #1


We have mentioned that to be a competent intercultural communicator, you should
bemotivatedand havea fund of knowledgeabout other cultures. We now add a third
phase of competency—skills. Skills are the specific behaviors you engage in to make
the communication encounter a successful one. Just a few of these behaviors will be
revealed at this juncture, as the remainder of this book will set forth numerous recom-
mendations on how to improve your communication skills.

Develop Intercultural Listening Skills. Listening is one of those communication activities
that is part of all three of the communication competence components we have
been discussing. Listening involves being motivated, having knowledge about your
communication partner, and possessing the specific skills to listen effectively. You
need these three attributes, as there are cultural differences in how people engage in
listening. To help you better understand those differences, let us look at a few ways
culture and listening work together.
First, as we have noted elsewhere, in many cultures in the Far East, the amount of
time spent talking and the value placed on talking are very different from what hap-
pens in those cultures that value conversation (Middle East, Latin America, and the
United States). Japan is a relatively homogeneous culture; therefore, most people
have a pool of common experiences. This commonality has facilitated the develop-
ment of standardized social behavioral protocols. As a result, the Japanese can often
anticipate what the other person will do or say in a particular social context. In fact,
at times, they, like many other Asian cultures, believe words can get in the way of
understanding. Hence, silence is valued over talk. Think about the connection
between speaking, listening, and silence in the Buddhist expression“There is a truth
that words cannot reach.”Place that against the Arab proverb“Your mouth is your
sword.”These are two different orientations—one favoring talk and one silence.
Second, when listening to people of different cultures, you must also be aware of
cultural variations in how speakers present themselves and their ideas. As you will
learn in Chapter 8 when we discuss language, some cultures value a dynamic presen-
tation of ideas, whereas others are passive. For example, in Japan, Thailand, and
Cambodia, people tend to speak in soft voices, whereas in the Mediterranean area,
the appropriate volume is much more intense. Both of these communication styles
put different demands on the listening process.
Third, even the nonverbal responses to what you hear are usually influenced by
culture. In the United States, it is often a sign of paying attention when you make
the sound“um-humm”or“uh-huh”when someone is talking. Many other cultures
find such interruptions by a listener to be impolite. Eye contact is another nonverbal
action that influences the listening process. In the United States and other Western
cultures, a good listener is seen as paying attention when having direct eye contact
with the person talking. But you will recall that direct eye-to-eye contact is not the
correct custom in many Asian cultures or in the American Indian co-culture. In
short, to be a good listener, you need to know what nonverbal actions are appropriate
and which might hamper the communication encounter.
Fourth, be aware of whether the culture of the person you are speaking with uses a
direct or an indirect communication style. Although these orientations represent two
extremes, they nevertheless provide a useful way of understanding listening. In direct
listening cultures, such as those of France, Germany, and the United States, people

64 CHAPTER 2•Communication and Culture: The Voice and the Echo

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