The following article is a great, comprehensive overview of the fundamentals of good intercultural communication, told through a series of thought-provoking quotes. I've curated a preview of some of my favorites below, but like the article's title suggests, if you want to level up your intercultural communication skills, I highly recommend you head over to the original article and read some of the analysis under the quotes. It's great insight into how to be a better communicator in general.
Feel free to leave a comment if you checked out the article and found a quote you loved that I didn't share here!
Rettig, T. (2017, November 03). 28 Quotes That Will Level Up Your Intercultural Communication Skills. Retrieved from https://medium.com/intercultural-mindset/28-quotes-that-will-level-up-your-intercultural-communication-skills-57790f649d97
In any professional setting that involves working with the public, such as working in a hospital with different patients every day, intercultural communication can play a crucial role. Not every professional has the ability to communicate in multiple languages, and with modern technology it is now easier than ever to transcend a language barrier in order to make sure the professional can do their job and the patient can receive the treatment they need. I was able to talk to my dad, John Miklos, an Occupational Therapist with a career spanning the last 20 years, and find out how he communicates with his patients when they may not share the same language.
What does the hospital do to ensure that patients who do not speak English are able to be communicated with and treated properly?
JM: Now, they rely on a virtual translation system, and that has worked very well in my experience, I have used it twice so far.
How does the virtual translator technology work?
JM: We go through the security department, we call security to request the translation system, and we are given a mobile computer that we set up in front of the patient and ourselves (the therapist) and through this system we can facetime/skype a remote interpretor for the duration of the treatment. The interpretor greets us each in the appropriate language, and then we proceed with the instruction process for specific treatments. So, I will address the patient directly, and the interpreter will translate what I am saying so the patient can follow. The patient will then either perform based on the instructions or respond, which the interpreter will translate back to me.
How do the patients seem to respond to this technology?
JM: They seem to really appreciate the chance to be able to communicate effectively. The interpreters were all very pleasant and great to work with.
How did you communicate with patients who do not speak English before this newer technology was available?
JM: Before this technology, in my experience it would just depend on who we had available, if someone on the hospital staff could speak the language and was available. This can still be the case sometimes, if we have someone in-person who could act as an interpreter. There are definitely some situations where the virtual service may be more appropriate due to trust and confidentiality in an evaluation or interview where you might be asking more personal questions about the patient and their home life.
In this spoken-word style essay, entitled "Broken English," Jamila Lyiscott narrates what it is like to speak three variations of the same language, depending on formal and informal situations, with her family, friends, or colleagues. She brings attention to the subjectivity of being "articulate," how the different contexts that we find ourselves in dictate the norms and rules of our communication. Our individual cultural upbringings shape the way we utilize language and make it our own. Lyiscott also makes mention of the often complicated and tragic history behind a culture, in this case, her African heritage, and how we become truly "articulate" when we take ownership of our personal history.
So, to improve your intercultural communication skills, I recommend you take a few minutes to watch this brief but poignant TED presentation. Afterwards, take a few moments to think about your own background, your upbringing, your family's history. Maybe you can trace your lineage to Native Americans, maybe your grandfather was an immigrant, or your parents. Maybe you were born in a different country and had to learn a second language; maybe you've lived in a metaphorical bubble, exposed to mostly the same comfortable cultural norms all your life. Whatever your background may be, consider all the different contexts in which you communicate, and all the different languages or slang or intonations that you use, and where these originate. You have a unique accent that is all your own, and there's no use trying to neutralize it in pursuit of perfect articulation. Once you have noted and embraced your own history, realize that every other person you meet has an equally complicated set of influences. With this understanding and empathy, you can be "articulate."
Dr. Ndinzi Masagara, a French language professor at Youngstown State, is well-experienced in communicating in different cultural contexts. Born in Rwanda and growing up in Congo, he was raised in a completely different cultural environment than most of his students here in Ohio, and he tries to teach a more global perspective of life in his classes. I enjoyed the chance to gather his thoughts on the topic of intercultural communication, below is my transcript of our conversation.
Question: As a French instructor at an American University, what is one lesson you always try to impress upon your students as they learn about a new language and culture?
Dr. Masagara: I want them to become more aware of the complexities of their own, first language. In doing so, that they actually discover that there is more in common than differences. Therefore, if they come in contact with another language, they shouldn't be afraid to try, because it is still a human language.
Q: Do you have an example that comes to mind of a major "culture shock" or cultural difference that you have experienced in your life?
Dr. M: A lot of cultural differences are not based on logic, but on habits. When I arrived here [in America], three months later, my father passed away. This was in the '80s, so communicating in Africa was very hard. Usually in my culture, in this type of situation, people come to you. But in the United States, they want to give you space. Space so that you can mourn. So I received postcards, and so on...I don't know how the word [got out], but some African students learned that I had lost my father, and then they were coming every evening. I just wonder how would I have survived, because I had just arrived. In terms of communication, in the United States, unless you are extremely close, you have to leave the other person time to mourn, so therefore, the best way to communicate is to send postcards, or letters, or messages. In the other culture, [in Africa] it has to be face-to-face communication, to be there, guessing the mood, "this person needs more attention or help," rather than assuming he needs to be left alone to take care of the loss by himself.
Q: What is one example of a miscommunication due to differences in background/culture that you still experience in daily interactions?
Dr. M: One thing is voice. On the phone, my kids always tell me this... When we talk, in some languages, compared to the American culture, one pitch can say "this person is angry," but you're not angry. So even after all these years, it's just one of those things. And I think also because of the telephone, you think "oh, I have to raise the intonation and pitch, so this person can understand me," because I am talking to somebody who is not used to interacting with a foreigner. It's almost like you are angry or threatening, but actually it is far from that. My kids say "Dad, they are going to think that you are angry." Really? So yeah, that is a good example.
Q: Do you think the internet and social media are generally improving connection and understanding between cultures, or just leading to further intercultural communication issues?
Dr. M: There's an issue there, because mass media tends to be more written than oral. Knowing what is happening in different countries and cultures, I think definitely, it helps. When it comes to communication interactions, because of videos, etc. from different cultures, it gains some universality...I think we are becoming more aware, we are capable of laughing or being angry with what is happening elsewhere because now we can actually see it and hear it. Before it was more what you read in the newspaper or what you see on TV. [Social media] shows the similarities, it shows that we are human beings regardless of where people are, the positive and negative sides of our species.
I don't know about you, but I've always found it funny how many little everyday vocabulary differences there can be even between countries that speak the same language. Here's a great Youtube video that gives examples of different names for the same things in American, British, and Australian cultures.
So, after watching this, if your friend from the UK comes to visit and says it would be fun to bake some biscuits, remember to clarify whether she means the American or British context of that treat.
(Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5OEehlggPp0 )
As mentioned in the previous post, cultural differences are not always easily recognizable right away, especially between similar cultures. However, an example that may come to mind more clearly would be the comparison of an Eastern vs. a Western country, as visualized in this series of simple illustrations entitled "East Meets West" by designer Yang Liu.
Liu moved from Beijing, China to Berlin, Germany at age 13 and started keeping notes and sketches of the many times her notions of ways of thinking and social customs were challenged. She writes,
“With my personal visual diary, I hope to help other people avoid some of the stumbling blocks to communication between cultures and make it easier for them to arrive at the essence of communication—the exchange between individuals—as far as possible without misunderstandings.”
Check out more examples of her striking designs in the following articles:
The Cultural Differences Between East and West, as Told in Pictograms
The cultural differences between East and West, according to one artist
You probably already have a basic understanding of what "intercultural communication" is, as an exchange of information between people of different cultures. But while it can apply to people communicating across the globe, it more often refers "to the wide range of communication issues that inevitably arise within an organization composed of individuals from a variety of religious, social, ethnic, and educational backgrounds" ("Intercultural Communication Law and Legal Definition"). While communication difficulties across different countries or continents are to be expected, often the most difficulties arise when needing to communicate with people of different backgrounds within one's own community or place of work.
It may seem simple enough; however, when accounting for all that is encompassed by the word "culture," the actual practice of recognizing and working through these differences is more complicated than it seems. Language, manners of speaking, listening, writing, and body language, as well as understood contexts, can all contribute to both obvious and subtle misunderstandings between people of different backgrounds. Therefore, it is very important to be open to learning and improving awareness of and empathy for different cultural expectations and norms.
Differences in culture are an important factor to consider when communicating in daily situations in-person, but also online in the age of social media and global connection. If you're looking to improve your knowledge and ability to handle these culture clashes as they arise in your interactions, check back soon for further resources and discussions.
Intercultural Communication Law and Legal Definition. (n.d.). Retrieved September 2, 2018, from https://definitions.uslegal.com/i/intercultural-communication/
Photo taken by me (C. Miklos)