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)