The Way You See The World: Culture and Communication

The Way You See The World: Culture and Communication

By: Akanksha Thakur | Intercultural and EAL Project Assistant, Work Integrated Learning
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The opportunity for intercultural learning occurs whenever different cultures meet. I have come to understand that it is partly about gaining practical knowledge of the differences and similarities between cultures, but it also goes much deeper than that. It involves discovering how your own cultural identities shape the way you understand and operate in the world, and recognizing culture at work and in your everyday experiences helps with your own intercultural learning. Let me start off with a classic example of intercultural communication, or in this case, intercultural miscommunication:

Between Japan and USA.

"On Prime Minister Sato's 1969 trip to Washington, President Nixon insisted that Japan exercise export restrain. Mr. Sato's classic reply, delivered with a heavenward glance, was, 'Zensho shimasu'. Literally translated as, 'I will do my best,' the expression really means, 'No way.' Nixon naturally understood it to mean that he had his guest's agreement. When there was no practical follow-up he denounced Sato as a liar. But unlike Americans, who expect yes or no answers, Japanese are quite happy with the gray areas. 'They hate no, and they hate 'yes'.

Raymond Cohen (1997). Negotiating Across Cultures. Washington, DC: U.S. Institute of Peace Press, 113.

Like Japan, I too come from one such “high context” or “indirect” culture. Two questions arise here: (1) where am I from? And (2) what is a “high context” culture? To answer those in order, I immigrated to Vancouver from Mumbai, India back in 2008. Having been born and raised in India, I embody what is known as an “indirect” style of communication. In other words, I come from a “high context culture” where people rely less on words—especially the literal meaning of words—and rely more on non-verbal communication. Canada, similar to America, is a culture that communicates directly. I noticed overtime that words tend to be interpreted literally—getting or giving information is the goal of most communication exchanges. So, for example, when I am assigned a task at work and say to my supervisor, “I’m sure I can get it done by then”, my supervisor interprets it literally, and consequently expects the work to definitely be done by the assigned due date. This is in spite of the fact that the actual meaning of my statement is, “I am not fully sure it can be done by then, but I will try my best”. Of course, even if the work gets done in the end and there is no miscommunication per se, I can tell that there is a difference between what my supervisor understood versus what I intended to say indirectly, without actually saying it.

As I was speaking to one of my friends who is an international student, she mentioned that the one thing she struggled with when she moved to Canada was the usage of idioms. She recalled how when a professor said to the class, “Please don’t email me at the eleventh hour with questions regarding assignments”. After hearing this, she wondered if the prof had meant not to email at 11 o’clock and had to Google search the meaning of the expression. While this may not be a ‘Canadian’ phrase particularly, it was a phrase she had never heard of before. And while it makes for a good laugh today, her story made me realize the little things that may be overlooked during intercultural communication.

Her story also reminded me of my own experiences with Canadian phrases. Growing up in India, I have learned English since kindergarten. All lessons were conducted in English, just like in school here, and Hindi was offered as an additional language, just like French and Spanish is offered here. Knowing that, you would think I wouldn’t encounter language barriers, right? Wrong. While I did not face severe language barriers, I faced culturally influenced communication barriers. For example, someone once said to me, “Aw man, can I take a rain check?” I will never forget the utter confusion and feeling of stupidity that came over me. It was the first time that I had not understood something someone said in English—a language I am arguably more fluent in and comfortable with than Hindi. If this is how I felt in a brief moment of cluelessness during communication, I wondered how often students who come across such instances more often than I do must feel. Thinking back on my own encounter, I remember feeling a loss of self confidence and uneasiness creep over me. I suddenly wanted the conversation to end because I felt embarrassed that I did not understand something being communicated to me in a language I claim to know. It is in this moment that I became self aware of intercultural communication and its hidden complexities.

Intercultural communication involves several elements: language ability, differences in expression of emotion, differences in verbal and non-verbal communication styles, and differences in the kinds of expressions used to converse in that culture. In other words, disparities in communicative patterns across different cultures exist. One’s communication patterns are closely related to her/his culture and members of each culture have developed a particular set of rules and norms for communicating with one another. In cross-cultural contexts, people following one set of cultural rules and norms may have difficulties communicating with others who follow a different set of cultural rules and norms, even though they may speak the same language.

Due to the fact that communication and interaction are fundamental parts of everyday life, a person’s ability to communicate and interact has a major impact on their overall well-being, happiness, and success. If you are a domestic student, I urge you to pause and consider all the obstacles that non-domestic students have to face: unfamiliar living circumstances, financial burdens, balancing work and studying schedules, different learning styles, or any difficulties related to language, culture, and personal barriers in everyday life. After reading this article, my hope is that I have brought to light how intercultural communication embodies several taken for granted, hidden complexities. I believe that while every individual in a new culture must adapt to their new environmental changes (language, social rituals, behavior, and communication style, to mention a few), at least minimally, the responsibility must be shared with individuals from the host culture as well. After all, intercultural learning does not only involve learning the different aspects of culture at the cognitive level; it requires active participation in social experiences that stimulate learning and growth on both emotional and behavioral levels. Living in an immensely culturally dynamic city such as Vancouver, we come across opportunities to reflect on our own cultural identity and further strengthen our intercultural skills everyday. Let’s take advantage of that!

Akanksha is a Sociology student at SFU minoring in Global and International Education, Curriculum and Instruction. She has played a very large role in the reaserch, development, design and implementation of English as an Additional Language (EAL), an online resource for students who do not speak English as their first language and who are looking for work in Canada. EAL assists these students in their job search as well as their transition into and success in the Canadian workplace. She has worked for Work Integrated Learning since May 2015 and hopes to pursue a career in education.  

Beyond the Article: 

  • If you would like to contact Akanksha, please email her at arthakur@sfu.ca 
  • Be sure to check out English as an Additional Language (EAL) right here on the SFU OLC! 
  • Nyssa talks about the complex nature of culture and her experiences with forming meaningful relationships across linguistic and cultural barriers during her co-op in Spain. Read here.  
Posted on September 14, 2016