Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Culture Shock (Who on earth are we?)

.....Talking about culture in any way is surprisingly hard - even describing what our own culture is like can be difficult, and it’s even harder to say how our culture affects the way we behave. And what about ‘foreign’ cultures? We may have a few ideas about what ‘foreigners’ are like, but are these ideas based on truth, or are they just stereotypes – simple and inaccurate pictures of people we don’t know very well. For this Blog we’ll be thinking about these issues: we’ll also be understanding about ways of describing culture, and exploring some of the major differences between cultures. For this part, as an introduction, we’ll be looking at a topic that will be central to all the points in the series: ‘inter-cultural communication’ - what happens when people from different cultures meet and communicate. But we start with what happens when communication breaks down. War.

In this statement from Kofi Annan, UN Secretary General mentioned about in 1945 the United Nations was established "to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war’. 55 years later, he welcomed the latest attempt to build lasting world peace – the proclamation of the year 2001 as the Year of Dialogue among Civilizations.
So, this dialogue, this communication between people from different cultures, isn’t something that’s only relevant to politicians and representatives of the UN. It’s personal. The world, we hear, is getting smaller. Global business, worldwide tourism, faster and more accessible ways of communicating all mean that most of us, at some point in our lives, will come into contact with people from cultures that are very different from our own. And when that happens we find ourselves facing some very interesting, very personal questions.

Everyday, we all are looking at things and judge their value from our own cultural backgrounds. No problem with that, of course…. until we meet people who see, judge, and do things differently. Here’s Rebecca Fong, with comments by Kjung-Ja from Japan and Rajni from India. Let’s see:

Rebecca Fong
You don't actually notice culture very much until you meet someone from another culture. And in the first week or two or maybe even the first month or two, you might not notice any differences; you might get on quite well with that person. But then a misunderstanding might suddenly occur. The reason that something has gone wrong is that your culture and the other person's culture have collided.
We all grow up inside our own cultures and what this means is that we assume without thinking a number of different values, attitudes, beliefs, ways of doing things, ways of saying things which come to us naturally - but the way we do things isn't necessarily the same as the way people in other cultures do them and it's not until something goes wrong that you're going to realise that the way someone else does something is different from the way that you do it.

Kjung-Ja Yoo
One of my husband's colleagues came to the house and he kissed me, kissed me, hugged me you know as a friendly terms. But in Tokyo I'm someone's wife and then someone – westerner - kissing my cheek is an embarrassing thing. I didn't want to embarrass him, so I just accepted and then when I looked at my husband he just pretended - not seeing anything, typical!

Rajni Baldani
When I first went to England I was absolutely, absolutely shocked. There were three of us, two of us Indians and there was one English person, who whilst he was talking, right in the middle of the conversation he takes out a banana, peels it and starts eating it. And he's peeling this banana and eating it without even saying excuse me or whatever. We expect to be offered. That is something that is culturally very different.

Rebecca Fong
When there's a cultural misunderstanding like this, the temptation can be to think 'Well they've got a stupid way of doing it - why don't they do it like we do it ' and you find that your standards become the standards by which you judge everybody else. And lead to a lot of conflict.

So how can we avoid cultural misunderstanding and the possibility of conflict? What do we need to learn to be able to communicate better with people from other cultures and so become ‘inter-culturally competent?’ We could study the other culture - find out what food people eat, what their economy is like, learn about their history, read books, and others…

Well, Intercultural communication is a bit more sophisticated than that if you like. It's not really only about the knowledge that we gain by reading books or watching documentaries about a certain other culture. It's really much more about what happens when we meet someone from that culture and we interact with them. Their behaviour patterns will be culturally specific - just as ours are. So how do we act in different situations, how do we respond to things - do we respond verbally or non-verbally, how close can we stand to someone when we're talking to them. Time, how do we use time, how do we use space. So what that involves is not just learning facts about another culture but also the competence that you get from actually engaging in an encounter with someone from another culture.

Studying culture and intercultural communication can help make communication across cultures easier. It can help make us more tolerant of ‘difference’ and things that are ‘strange’ or ‘foreign’. But it’s also great fun. I’ve been lucky enough to have met people from all over the world – and communicating with them has been an enormous pleasure and a great education. But, strangely, although I’ve learnt a lot about other cultures in the process, I’ve learnt more about myself. Which is not an unusual experience for people involved in inter-cultural communication.

Finally let’s see Mahmood Jamal from Pakistan, he memntioned about his experiences:

Mahmood Jamal
When I first cam to Britian I did not know who I was. Over the years I began to discover, as I discovered Britain, I also discovered myself. and this is also very important in people who move from one culture to another, one place to another because it’s not just discovering the other place you also discover who you are.

Let's wait for the next series about culture and language...