Adapted from “Stumbling Blocks in Intercultural Communication” by LaRay M. Barna, featured in Basic Concepts of Intercultural Communication, edited by Milton J. Bennett (1998). This article originally appeared in the AFS Intercultural Link news magazine’s volume 4, issues 2&3. Read or download the entire issue here.
The desire to get to know more about another culture is often stated as a reason for a family or school to host a foreign exchange student. Why travel when another culture can come to you?
While this may be a good motivation for host families and schools, many people don’t realize the potential for frustration and misunderstandings intercultural encounters may bring if they are not approached with the right attitude and preparation. Good intentions, the use of what one considers to be a friendly approach, and even the possibility of mutual benefits might not be sufficient for successful intercultural communication.
Thankfully, LaRay M. Barna singles out six potential challenges, or stumbling blocks, that may get in the way of a positive exchange experience. Although it is not easy, being aware of these six stumbling blocks is certainly the first step in avoiding them. AFS staff and volunteers use this knowledge to assist and prepare our host families and schools to develop proactive coping strategies and take a constructive approach toward their upcoming encounters – and inevitable challenges! – with sojourners from different cultures.
1. ASSUMPTION OF SIMILARITIES
One answer to the question of why misunderstandings occur is that many people naively assume that certain similarities exist among all people of the world; they expect that simply being human makes everyone alike. Unfortunately, vastly different values, beliefs, and attitudes that vary from culture to culture are often overlooked. Saying that “people are people” is a common trap, even when it reduces the discomfort of dealing with difference.
The assumption of similarity does not often extend to the expectation of a common verbal language, but it does interfere with decoding nonverbal symbols, signs and signals. A person’s cultural upbringing determines whether or not an emotion will be displayed or suppressed, as well as on which occasion and to what degree. The situations that bring about an emotional feeling also differ from culture to culture, as humans are in many ways dependent on their culture.
Since there seem to be no or very few universals that can be used as a basis for automatic understanding, we need to treat each encounter as an individual case. Only with the assumption of differences can reactions and interpretations be adjusted to fit reality. Without this assumption of differences, one is likely to misread signs and symbols and wrongly judge the scene.
Many people who prepare for intercultural encounters might only gather information about the customs of the other country and learn a bit of the language. Behaviors and attitudes of its people are sometimes researched, but often from a secondhand source. However, information gained this way is general, rarely sufficient and may or may not be applicable to a specific situation. Also, knowing “what to expect” often blinds the observers to all but what confirms their preconception. Any contradictory evidence that does filter through the screens of preconception is likely to be treated as an exception and thus discounted. A better approach is to form a framework for on-site observations. It is even more important to develop an investigative, nonjudgmental attitude, along with a high tolerance for ambiguity.
2. LANGUAGE DIFFERENCES
Vocabulary, syntax, idioms, slang, and dialects can all cause difficulty in understanding people from other places, but the person struggling with a different language is at least aware of these challenges. A worse language problem is clinging to just one meaning of a word or phrase in a new language, regardless of connotation or context. Even simple words like “yes” and “no” can cause misunderstandings. In some cultures, it is polite to refuse the first or second offer of a refreshment, and many sojourners have gone to bed hungry because they never got a third offer. Being aware that these differences exist and having an open conversation about them can help overcome these unwanted misunderstandings. Discussing the differences in connotations and adjusting to the other’s communication style will be useful to get to know each other well.
3. NONVERBAL MISINTERPRETATION
People from different cultures inhabit different sensory realities. They see, hear, feel, and smell only that which has some meaning or importance for them. They focus on whatever fits into their personal world of recognition and then interpret it through their own culture’s frame of reference. The misinterpretation of observable nonverbal signs and symbols such as gestures, postures, and other body movements is a definite communication barrier. However, it is possible to learn the meanings of these messages, usually in informal rather than formal ways. It is more difficult to understand the unspoken codes of the other culture that are less obvious, such as the handling of time and spatial relationships and subtle signs of respect or formality. It is useful to know that a student who often sleeps in is not being rude on purpose, but may rather have a different sense of time orientation. Rather than taking offense or simply giving up, it is good to bring up the behaviors which seem odd and see what different values stand behind them. Sharing your cultural norms and learning about those of the sojourner will help you better understand and cope with different nonverbal styles.
4. PRECONCEPTIONS & STEREOTYPES
Stereotypes are overgeneralized, secondhand beliefs that provide conceptual bases from which we “make sense” of what goes on around us, whether or not this is accurate or fits the circumstances.
In an intercultural setting, their use increases our sense of security and is psychologically necessary to the degree that we cannot tolerate ambiguity or the sense of helplessness when we cannot understand or deal with other people and situations. Stereotypes interfere with our objective viewing of the world around us, and they are sustained by the tendency to perceive selectively only those pieces of new information that correspond to the image held, which is not easy to overcome. A simple way of not stereotyping is to avoid qualifying the behavior of one person as being representative for the entire culture, but instead being aware that it only the example you have encountered. Staying flexible and curious about new information about the members of one culture can help you make sense of complex intercultural situations.
5. TENDENCY TO (QUICKLY) EVALUATE
Another obstacle to the understanding between persons of differing cultures is the tendency to immediately evaluate and judge someone’s actions – and do so through our own cultural values lenses which we often assume is right, proper and natural – rather than try to comprehend completely the thoughts and feelings expressed by the other person or group. It is easy to avoid a communication breakdown by not immediately evaluating a behavior, especially in situations when deep feelings and emotions become involved. That is just the moment when we most need to pause, listen, and observe non-judgmentally.
6. HIGH ANXIETY
Facing new and challenging situations inevitably causes feelings of stress, anxiety, and even possible physical tension. As long as these feelings are moderate and accompanied by positive attitudes, they provide us with the necessary energy to meet these challenges. However, too much anxiety requires some form of relief, and this too often comes in the form of a defense mechanism, such as the skewing of perceptions, withdrawal or hostility. High anxiety, unlike the other five stumbling blocks, often underlies and compounds other misunderstandings.
Anxious feelings may exist in both parties involved in an intercultural dialogue. The host national can be uncomfortable when talking with a foreigner because (s)he cannot maintain the normal flow of verbal and nonverbal interaction. On top of language and perception barriers, the other person’s unknown knowledge, experience, and evaluation can feel threatening.
The sojourners often feel more threatened. They can feel strange and vulnerable, helpless to cope with messages that overwhelm them. Their own “normal” reactions are perceived as inappropriate. Their self-esteem is often undermined and a bad way to cope with that is to withdraw, overcompensate or become hostile. A more effective approach is to use the existing support structures within AFS, such as in-person meetings with counsellors and other volunteers who are properly trained on intercultural issues.
Being aware of these pitfalls can prevent many misunderstandings and create a productive intercultural environment for the sojourner and the host community. Achieving effective and appropriate intercultural communications – one of the 16 AFS Educational Goals – means building the internal capabilities to manage the key challenges of intercultural communication, including being comfortable with cultural differences and unfamiliarity, creating and maintaining relationships, and the overcoming the inevitable accompanying experiences of stress.
AFS volunteers and staff working with potential and future host families and schools can use these examples as a tool for increasing their intercultural competencies and better preparing all participants for an AFS experience. For instance, in the initial recruitment phase, AFS can check for pre-existing knowledge of the possible pitfalls of assuming cross-cultural similarities or using stereotypes as defense mechanisms. These can then be put into a clearer perspective, analyzed and avoided – or recognized and worked through.
Additionally, sharing this information with future host families and school counsellors upfront can be reassuring: greater awareness allows them to better anticipate where the possibilities for a communication breakdown and conflict lie, recognize intercultural miscommunications, and then use coping strategies to either avoid or work through these stumbling blocks for greater intercultural understanding.