“Good judgment comes from experience and experience comes from poor judgement” (Wardlaw, “Top 25 Judgement Quotes: A-Z Quotes”). This quote from Will Rogers highlights the fact that that exercising appropriate judgment when communicating with people of diverse cultures can be daunting. Disparities in cultures can lead to disagreements, and consequently, ineffective communication. How many times have you seen government leaders disagree on social and political issues? Or advertisements that completely offend a particular cultural group? Or social media wars between celebrities and activist groups? Most likely, more times than you can count. Misinterpretations occur in intercultural communication because people interpret and have different perceptions of identical information.
For instance, did you know that the OK sign, a hand gesture meaning “okay” in the United States, might interpret as the number “zero” to a native of Belgium, “coins” to a Japanese person, and an insulting gesture to a Brazilian (Toa, Henry K. “Understanding Intercultural Communication and Conflict Resolution in Our Lives”)? We all see things differently. Thus, we must understand that intercultural communication is more than just the exchange of information across cultures; it’s also the cultural context within which information is exchanged (Jenkins, Miriam. “Identifying Barriers to Effective Intercultural Communication”). Identifying the effect of culture on perception, along with its commonalities such as ethnocentrism and stereotyping, and how they manipulate our biases, is important to communicate in everyday life effectively with school, work, family, and community.
“Culture consists of the values, beliefs, and behaviors shared by a group of people” (Toa, Henry K. “Understanding Intercultural Communication and Conflict Resolution in Our Lives”) . It controls the norms, or the unspoken established and foreseeable ways of living life. It governs the way people think, feel and behave, and it shapes their views of the world. For example, in Chinese culture, respect for the elderly is a profound role in everyday life. When it comes to eating, it is customary for elders to be served first. However, in most Western cultures, women are often served first (David, Valerie. “How to Improve Your Intercultural Communication Skills”). It’s been ascertained that culture influences how we perceive the world around us.
Perception is a process in our brains that allows us to take in data and make sense of it. Our cultural values and norms influence us on what stimuli that we need to focus, how to categorize it, and what meaning to attach. There are three main steps: Selection, Organization, and Assessment (Jenkins, Miriam. “Identifying Barriers to Effective Intercultural Communication”). The first stage begins with how one reacts to their everyday environment; these could include sights, sounds, smells, touches, and tastes. Since it’s impossible to pay attention to everything, we focus on specific stimuli instead. These tend to be the things that we crave or are familiar to us. After processing the selected stimuli, they need to be organized in a logical way. So, we categorize similar things together and label them using beliefs, language, and other relevant aspects of our culture. Finally, our brain assesses and bestows meaning to the organized information. The meaning we attach is governed by our cultural norms. Oftentimes, when the information we receive breaches what we perceive as normal, we may feel emotionally triggered.
For example, in Thailand, fried insects like crickets are considered a treat. If your Thai friend brought this to your social, how do you think this would be perceived by your Western friends? They would probably think it is gross and possible be offended. This reaction might happen because insects are considered disgusting in Western culture, and the norm is to exterminate them, not eat them. As you see, depending on one’s culture, perceptions can be very different; you would not want to offend your friend, so it is vital to keep an open mind and not judge other cultures because they have different tastes than your own.
We are all guilty of having preconceived notions. Oftentimes, we are not aware of them. When our preconceived notions sway our perception, we develop a distorted view of reality. Ethnocentrism and stereotypes can bias our worldview, and in turn, lead to ineffective communication with diverse groups.
Ethnocentrism is a cultural narrowness. It refers to the belief that the in-group is the center of everything and is superior to all out-groups (Jenkins, Miriam. “Identifying Barriers to Effective Intercultural Communication”). When we believe that our ways of living are better, it prevents us from understanding other people’s points of view. A common example is when one cultural group believes that their religion is the only true one and all others are wrong. Previous studies reveal that religion, despite its ideals of hospitality, and compassion, is a primary source of ethnocentrism. Another cultural obstacle that impedes respectful communication is stereotyping. Stereotypes are oversimplified views of a cultural group (Jenkins, Miriam. “Identifying Barriers to Effective Intercultural Communication”). It is a procedure in our brains that helps organize the inbound information.
Stereotypes become problematic when we make generalizations that all people of a particular group are the same. This broad view is not a good thing because we build expectations on how they should act or behave. Stereotypes generate significant consequences for perception, as we subconsciously seek information to confirm our beliefs; more often, they are untrue postulations. Even though there are both constructive and destructive stereotypes, the bulk of them can offend the receiver.
Most stereotyping comes from a bias that contradicts a particular group or religion. Stereotyping can become a way of conveying displeasures. Race, nationality, gender, and sexual orientation are the main factors of stereotyping. Stereotypes are innumerable; however, the most common ones are gender and racial. Every nation, culture, race, religion, and community has a typecast. It is one of the easiest ways of establishing a group’s identity. By conforming to a fixed impression, the identity can be understood and recognized. A typical example of a stereotype would be saying that most Hispanic immigrants are illegal in the United States. This assumption is untrue and can be hurtful to law-abiding Hispanics. Stereotypes should be rejected and one should only pass judgment when exceptionally acquainted with others.
Stereotyping alters how we form judgements and can cause the development of bias. Bias is a predisposition to prefer material that reinforces a skewed thought or belief. Biases should be avoided. They affect each part of our collective lives, from innocent acts, like favoring one friend over another, to dangerous biases, like race superiority. For instance, in the south, racial bias led to African Americans being segregated and subjected them to appalling treatment. The Declaration of Independence states that “All men are created equal,” therefore, it’s not only lawful, but it is logical that each and every person deserves to be treated with respect.
Finding ways to detect, identify, and considerately address the barriers of effective intercultural communication is key to succeeding in common matters. Being mindful of cultural differences can reduce these obstacles and minimize misunderstandings. Identification and education are the first and best methods of prevention. Learning about other cultures helps to weaken ethnocentric roadblocks while also shedding light on the accuracy of pre-held stereotypes. It also humanizes people who are different from yourself, and helps to remove prejudicial feelings. Personal awareness is also essential when communicating with others.