Interpersonal Communication in an Intercultural Setting


Cultural growth in the twenty-first century has heightened the
emphasis on interpersonal communication in an intercultural
setting. As our world grows, expands and becomes increasingly more
interconnected by various technological advances, the need for
effective interpersonal communication among differing cultures has
become quite clear. Due to the advancement of technology in
today's world, a world in which some businesspeople are involved in
transactions with other businesspeople in faraway countries, the
call for knowledge of intercultural communication within this
setting has become a reality. Interpersonal communication is a
form of communication that involves a small number of people who
can interact exclusively with one another and who therefore have
the ability to both adapt their messages specifically for those
others and to obtain immediate interpretations from them (Lustig et
al, 1993). Although interpersonal communication is usually thought
of as being perf! ormed in small, centralized groups, a need to
broaden these groups and bring about a general feeling of cultural
awareness has become apparent. To a certain degree, all communication
could be called interpersonal, as it occurs between two or more
people. However, it is useful and practical to restrict the definition
to distinguish those relationships that involve a relatively small
group of people, such as couples, families, friends, workgroups, and
even classroom groups from those involving much larger numbers of
people, as would occur in public rallies or among massive television
audiences. Unlike other forms of communication, interpersonal
communication involves person-to-person interactions. Additionally,
the perception that a social bond has developed between the
interactants, however tenuous and temporary it may seem, is also much
more likely.
Intercultural communication is a symbolic, interpretive,
transactional, contextual processing tool with which people
from different cultures create shared meanings (Berko et al,
1998). When we speak to someone with whom we share little or
no cultural bond, it is referred to as intercultural
communication. Our need to communicate across culture can be
very beneficial personally and professionally. Within an
intercultural setting, nonverbal and verbal communication are
both prevalent in emphasizing the differences in cultures. The
way we act and the things we say determine whether or not we
belong in a certain culture. Nonverbal communication systems
provide information about the meaning associated with the use
of space, time, touch and gestures. They help to define the
boundaries between the members and nonmembers of a culture
(Koester at al, 1993). In order to fully enjoy and benefit
from interpersonal communication in an intercultural setting,
one must first gain a fu! ll, comprehensive knowledge of the
determining factors of culture. There are several ways of defining
culture. Webster's dictionary defines culture as " . . . a particular
civilization at a particular stage" or " . . . all the knowledge and
values shared by a society.". A second approach emphasizes the social
heredity of a group of people, suggesting that the new members of a
culture must be taught its fundamental ideas, practices and
experiences. The social heredity approach therefore asserts that
culture is symbolically transmitted, often "handed down" through
ensuing generations, from parents or other adults to children, who in
turn grow up and teach their own children the culture's customs and
expectations. This approach is important because it emphasizes that
one does not become a member of a culture by birth, but rather through
a process of learning. The word ^culture' is often considered in terms
of nationality or one's country of origin. Other more specific dist!
inguishing characteristics of culture are region, orientation,
socioeconomic status, gender, sexual orientation and preference, age,
marital and parental status. Another approach to understanding the
concept of culture involves the beliefs, values and norms that exist to
guide an individual's behaviors in solving common problems. This
approach, often called the perceptual or subjective culture approach,
suggests that people behave as they do because of the perceptions they
have about the world and their expectations about how they should
behave in that world. Harry Triandis defines subjective culture as "a
cultural group's characteristic way of perceiving the man-made part of
its environment. The perception of rules and the group's norms, roles
and values are aspects of subjective culture." This approach
emphasizes that culture is a shared set of ideas and practices that
exist in people's minds. This shared set of perceptions then governs
people's behaviors. The conse! quences of one's subjective culture,
then, can be seen in the repetitive patterns and regularities of
people's behaviors. It is a proven fact that interpersonal
communication, whether it occurs interculturally or among people that
share a common culture, is effective at combating loneliness, shaping
self-concepts, confirming experiences, renewing personal and aiding us
in understanding who we are and how we relate to others. (Berko et al,
1998). Another aspect of the benefits of effective interpersonal
communication is the manner in which it effects our intrapersonal
growth. Intrapersonal communication refers to our internal
communication with ourselves as opposed to others. The healthiness of
our intrapersonal communication can directly effect our levels of
self-esteem, general inner growth as a human being and the way in which
we view ourselves in relation to others.
Edward T. Hall, a prominent scholar in the field of
Communication, developed and presented two major ways in which
one's culture is conveyed. The two patterns are drastically
different, and express the culture of a given group quite
effectively. Hall developed high and low context patterns to
indicate what perceptions to notice in the communication
process and how to interpret them. According to Hall,
high-context cultures use high-context messages, in which most
of the meaning is either implied by the physical setting or is
presumed to be part of the individual's internalized beliefs,
values and norms. Examples of high context cultures include
Chinese, African and Latino cultures. The use of high context
messages is especially prominent within the African American
culture, i.e. their interpretation of chronemics, the study of
how people structure and use their time. Among high context
cultures, time is more informal and "open-ended," and less
structured. In contrast, ! a low context culture views time
in a highly technical way, in part because of the additional energy
required to understand the messages of others. Low context cultures
prefer to use low-context messages in which a majority of the
information is vested in the explicit code. For example, human
interaction with computers and other highly scientific machines can be
considered a low context message because in order for computers to
interpret and "understand" a message, every statement must be very
precise and clearly relayed (Lustig et al, 1993). Within the American
culture, low context patterns are deeply rooted in the Bill of Rights.
The First Amendment has provided Americans with a strong reliance on
overt and explicit codes. The American culture is not one that
operates under presumptions or implicit messages. Ideas and feelings
are clearly expressed and is usually designed in such a way that
misunderstanding is almost impossible. Germany, Sweden and English
societies a! re some examples of low context cultures.
A prominent aspect of interpersonal communication is a study
known as proxemics. The word ^proxemics,' which is a
derivative of the word ^proximity,' refers to how different
groups of people use and perceive their social and personal
space. Every person is surrounded by a psychological "bubble"
of space. This bubble contracts and expands depending on the
person's cultural background, emotional state and the activity
in which he or she is participating. There are four distinct
levels of personal space. Intimate distance covers a space
varying from direct physical contact with another person to a
distance of eighteen inches. This space is used for our most
private activities- sharing intimate ideas and emotions,
kissing and lovemaking. The next level of personal space is
known as personal distance. Personal distance is also commonly
known as the "comfort bubble," which covers a space of eighteen
inches to four feet. This space is usually reserved for the
conversation o! f close friends. Social distance covers a
four to twelve foot zone that is commonly used during business
transactions and casual social exchanges that take place between
acquaintances. The largest amount of personal space is known as public
distance, dictating a separation of as little as twelve feet, but
usually more than twenty-five. It is used by teachers in lecture halls
and by public speakers at public gatherings who wish to place a barrier
between themselves and their audiences. In modern times, this level of
personal space has been implemented into the universal idea of polite
etiquette at the ATM machine. Northern Europeans -English,
Scandinavians and Germans- tend to have a larger zone of personal space
and often avoid touching and close contact unless absolutely
necessary. They require more room around them and structure their
lifestyles to meet this need for more room. Thus the English are
stereotyped as being distant and impersonal, not showing great
through kissing, hugging or other forms of intimate touching. This
stereotype derives from the respect they exhibit for each other's
territory. In contrast, Italians, Russians, Spaniards, Latin
Americans, Middle Easterners and the French generally tend to like and
condone close personal contact. Many marriage counselors in the
United States utilize the study of proxemics in deducing the cause for
marital conflict between some couples. Consider, for example the
conflict that can take place between a couple in which the woman comes
from a family of English heritage and a man with an Italian
background. The woman is not accustomed to a large amount of close
personal physical contact, and naturally avoids it to a certain
extent. The man, on the other hand, coming from a family where
physical contact is the norm, and grandiose displays of affection
through kissing, hugging and touching are commonplace, expects his
wife to soothe him after a hard day, sit close to him and sho! w
outward emotion. She does not understand the "exaggerated" emotions of
his family. He cannot understand the aura of distance surrounding the
manner in which her family relates to one another. Thus a conflict can
result from the large differences in these two partners' proxemics
patterns and expectations. Imagine, also, an American businessman
meeting with a Spanish colleague when attempting to close an important
business deal. The American may feel a strong aversion to the
Spaniard's perfectly friendly, normal physical actions such as extended
handshaking, seating himself very close to his colleague and invading
the American's closely guarded bubble of personal space. Such a
situation could result in the ruination of the business transaction,
all due to a misunderstanding on the part of the two businessmen, both
viewing one another as rude and distant/pushy. Depending upon what an
individual's culture has taught him/her, a businessperson may construct
his/her office s! o that his/her personal space cannot possibly be
invaded. This can be done by arranging the furniture in such a way
that there is always a certain level of personal space enforced. For
example, some businesspeople may place their desk and guest chairs so
that any visitor must sit on one side of the desk. All parties
involved in the conversation tend to be more comfortable this way. In
contrast, many interviewers have reported a completely different
atmosphere when talking to job applicants if the two chairs are placed
facing each other about three to four feet apart instead of on opposite
sides of the desk. This nurtures a more intimate atmosphere, fostering
a sense of honesty and open communication between employer and
interviewee. Much of what is known about this field is based on
anthropological research.
Another important aspect of interpersonal communication in an
intercultural setting is the study of chronemics. Chronemics
is the study of the way people handle and structure their use
of time in a communication setting. Only within certain
societies is precise time of great importance or significance.
Some cultures relate to time as a circular phenomenon in which
there is no pressure or anxiety about the future. In circular
time, there is no pressing need to achieve or create newness,
or to produce more than absolutely needed to survive.
Additionally, there is no fear of death. Such societies have
successfully integrated the past and future into a peaceful
sense of the present. Many Native American cultures have been
raised with this cultural attitude toward the passing of time.
Obviously, if one made an appointment with an individual raised
in this culture, he/she should be prepared for a possibly long
wait. Circular time is the most casual of all concepts of
time. ! North Americans, Asians and those raised in Western
American societies operate on linear time, which focuses on the
factual and technical information needed to fulfill impending
demands. In this culture, punctuality is considered a large part of
good manners and civility. When one says they will arrive at eight
o'clock in this culture, that is precisely what they mean. These
cultures view tardiness as a signal of hostility, procrastination and
a relaxed attitude toward responsibility. In Britain or North America
one may be five minutes late for a business appointment, but certainly
not fifteen or thirty minutes late. In Latin America one is expected
to arrive late for an appointment, and is considered rude if he/she
arrives early or punctually. This same tardiness for Germans or North
Americans is unacceptable and frowned upon. Another way of viewing
time is understand its technical, formal and informal uses. Technical
time is precise time, as in the way scientists me! asure things in
milliseconds. Few of us continually come into contact with this
particular usage. On the other hand, formal time is the way in which a
culture defines its time, and it plays a daily role in most of our
lives. Formal time refers to centuries, years, months, weeks, days,
hours and minutes. Informal time refers to a rather flexible use of
time such as "soon" or "right away." These terms often cause
communicative difficulty because they are somewhat arbitrary and mean
different things to different people. One concept of time known as
"C.P. Time," or "Colored People's Time," interprets chronemics in a way
that differs from formal time. Unlike formal time, C.P. Time supports
a much more relaxed idea of deadlines and arrival times. When an
individual in this culture indicates that he/she is on C.P. Time,
insiders within this culture would automatically know that this
individual does not plan to be on time. Time is critical in the
American workplace. Deadline! s must be met and meetings are held
from one specific time to another. Euro-Americans, North Americans and
western Europeans are "clock-bound," whereas African, Latin American
and some Asian-Pacific cultures are distinctly not. Time is based on
personal systems and universal understandings within a specific
culture. Americans traveling abroad often become irritated by the
seeming lack of concern for time commitment among residents of some
countries. Businesspeople may become confused over what "on time"
means as they meet those from other cultures. For example, in Mexico
and Central America tours may be late, and guides may fail to indicate
the correct arrival and departure times. Yet, in other places, such as
Switzerland, one can set his/her watch by the arrival time of a train.
Time, as a communication tool is often greatly misunderstood. It is
always best to perform a basic study of the time concept of a
particular locale before spending time there. Knowledge of th! e
norms and patterns of different cultures is important because it
reduces feelings of awkwardness and confusion.
Another significant dimension of interpersonal communication is
known as haptics. Haptics is the study of how touch is used to
communicate with others, whether it be in an intercultural
setting or among individuals that share a common bond
culturally. Touch can communicate many different things, such
as affection, playfulness, hostility and urgency, to name just
a few. There are four universally recognized aspects of
haptics, all of which communicate varying emotions and
intentions. The first is the professional touch, used, for
example, by businesspeople, between a professor and his/her
students and two people meeting for the first time. The second
is the social/polite touch, used by acquaintances who wish to
convey friendly but slightly detached appreciation and
affection. The third is the friendly touch, which could be
used by close friends or close businesspeople and colleagues
congratulating one another on an accomplishment. The fourth
and most intense touch is k! nown as intimate touch, which is
usually reserved for couples expressing love and affection through
kissing, hugging, caressing or lovemaking. As mentioned earlier in the
discussion concerning proxemics, different cultures vary in the amount
of touching that is considered customary and polite among casual
acquaintances, friends and even family members. Individuals from an
English, German or Swedish culture tend to use touch less as a rule,
and rely upon the physical setting to set the tone of a given
situation. However, those with Asian, African American, Italian or
Latino heritage incorporate a much larger amount of touch into their
personal exchanges, using elaborate, extended handshakes, embraces or
even kisses to convey their affection and gratitude. Many
misunderstandings and much discomfort can arise from a situation that
places two people from drastically different cultures together. It is
always best to attempt to adapt oneself as comfortably as possible to a
situ! ation to decrease the possibility of personal insult and
Another important tool used in deciphering the meanings and
intentions of individuals in a communication setting is known
as kinesics. Kinesics is the study of communication through
body movements. We communicate through the gestures we use,
the way we walk and stand, the expressions on our faces and in
our eyes, and how we combine these variables to open or close
channels in the communication process. Among the myriad of
different methods individuals utilize to express just as many
different emotions are five more prominent ones: emblems,
illustrators, affect displays, regulators and adaptors.
Emblems are nonverbal acts that have a direct verbal
translation or dictionary definition, usually consisting of a
word or two. The sign language of the deaf, gestures used by
behind-the-scenes television personnel, and the signals
between two underwater swimmers are examples of the use of
emblems. Of course, all emblems are not universal. For
example, in Hong Kong, the cultura!
lly recognized signal for summoning a waiter in a restaurant is done by
making a writing motion with both hands. In some parts of the United
States, however, extending two fingers and motioning toward oneself may
be accepted as the appropriate signal. This would be considered very
rude in Hong Kong; it is only used to calling animals. The second
method of kinesics is illustration. Illustrators are kinesic acts
accompanying speech that are used to aid in the description of what is
being said or trace the definitions of speech (Berko at al, 1998).
They are used to either sketch a path, point to an object, or show
spiritual relationships. Many parts of North America and beyond
consider the pointing of one's finger at an object or another person to
be extremely rude. Affect displays are facial gestures that show
emotions and feelings such as sadness or happiness. Pouting, winking
and raising or lowering the eyelids and eyebrows are examples of the
more obvious affect displ! ays. Different people and cultures tend to
use facial expressions in different ways. For example, North American
males frequently mask and internalize their facial expressions because
they have been taught that showing emotion is not a sign of
"manliness," while an Italian male feels none of these restrictions and
uses facial expressions freely and frequently. The fourth important
factor of kinesics is the way regulators are used. Regulators are
nonverbal acts that maintain and control the back-and-forth nature of
speaking and listening between two or more people. Nods of the head,
eye movements and conscious and unconscious body shifts are all
regulators used to encourage or discourage conversation. Americans
tend to use little or no extended eye contact while Italians, some
Asian cultures and the French, to name a few, incorporate much more eye
contact into their nonverbal communication. It is a proven fact that
most of us cannot control the responses of our eyes, thu! s revealing,
to a certain, degree, our inner emotions. It is for this reason that
members of the Arab culture go as far as wearing dark glasses, even
indoors, to conceal the responses of their eyes, especially when
negotiating. Finally, adaptors are used frequently to express boredom,
show internal feelings or regulate a situation. For example, those who
are bored tend to tap their fingers and glance around the room at
random, paying little attention to speaker(s). All emblems,
illustrators, affect displays, regulators and adaptors are not
universally recognized. Each culture has its own unique set of
recognized symbols and gestures that convey a variety of emotions and
meaning. Care must be taken to adapt one's gestures to their
environment so as not to insult or cause awkwardness when speaking with
a person from a different culture.
Another aspect of communication is olfactics, the study of
smells and how they affect us. Our sense of smell is
extraordinarily precise. Growing evidence also suggests that we
remember what we smell longer than we remember what we hear and see
(Berko et al, 1998). We are attracted by the scents of certain
colognes repulsed by others. Some people find certain body odors
extremely offensive. This is especially true in the United States
where we have been taught through advertisement and those in the
medical field to wash off natural odors and replace them with neutral,
fragrance-free or substitute smells. This is definitely not the case
among other cultures, causing North Americans to view people with
natural body odors and smells as being dirty. The French have a
particularly infamous reputation in this regard.
The need for increased awareness concerning interpersonal
communication in an intercultural setting is great, and should
not be ignored. If relations and exchanges between people from
drastically different cultures could be smoothed and cleared of
confusion and awkwardness, cultures would not be so
apprehensive about communicating with one another.
Misinterpretation of the underlying dimensions of interpersonal
communication can lead to conflict. Current findings have
important ideas for better ways to improve and enhance
interpersonal communication. One example is the usage of
Culture Assimilator in different business organizations and
educational institutes. This technique, which trains employees
and students to be more sensitive in the face of a different
culture, has been shown to be effective in some cases. The
Culture Assimilator presents the trainee with a series of
"critical incidents," stories in which there is a conflict or
misunderstanding between a member of! a subject culture and a
member of a target culture. The trainee is then asked to evaluate the
target culture member's behavior (Randolph et al, 1996). Although
results show a small positive effect, futre research is needed in
order to explore ways to develop more effective training programs.
Many different groups of people such businesspeople, families,
couples, friends, coworkers, and students on high school or college
campuses could benefit from increased awareness and training in the
field of interpersonal communication among varying cultures. As is
true with the issue of race relations, the amount of tension,
awkwardness, insult and even physical violence could be decreased by
large numbers if organizations would train their employees or students
in how to better communicate with those that happen to be a member of
a different cultural background.


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