A nation’s culture resides in the hearts and souls of its people,” said Mahatma Gandhi. It is the culture of a people that gives them a sense of belonging, identity and pride of who they are. Culture is an integral part of a people and cannot be separated from them. Being passed from one generation to another, culture is indelible in the hearts and souls of its perpetrators. The centrality of culture has a number of effects in shaping the opinion, style and character of a people. It is to this effect that various groups of people have their own way of doing things that uniquely defines them. This paper, therefore, investigates the role of culture in communication looking into the influence of culture in the way of communication and interaction with other people. It further addresses the cultural-based barriers to effective communication.
Communication is critical and holds a central position in the society if development, mutual understanding and harmony are to be achieved. Effective communication refers to the appropriate encoding and decoding of a message. It sometimes involves a feedback or a call of action. It is due to this fact then that proper channels of communication with limited barriers have to be identified and embraced. The question of how culture affects communication is wide open and can be seen from the primary elements that denote a certain culture. First, language is the primary predictor of one’s culture. There are thousands of ethnic groups across the world with each one of them having their own unique language that is different from the other. Although some languages may share some of the words, in most cases, the shared words are found to have different meanings in different languages. At this point then, it is clear that the primary factor that defines a person’s way of communication is the verbal native language of the individual.
On the other hand, the language of a people does not only entail the spoken words alone but non-verbal communication also plays an important role in communication. This is a rich source of conflict in cross-cultural communication. How do these conflicts arise? The use of some non-verbal cues common in various cultures differs from one ethnic group to the other. A gesture could have more than one meaning depending on the culture in which it is used. It is in this respect that understanding of the culture of the audience is inevitable before using some gestures that would hinder effective communication. For example during the Apartheid rule in South Africa, the whites, being the masters of the blacks, demanded respect from their subjects and commanded that they be recognized with such titles as “boss” or “sir”. The same always spark conflicts between the whites and the blacks who were ignorant about learning the culture of other people. It is due to this reason that even to date some white employers find that most of their African employees do not look them to the eyes. According to Africans, this is a show of respect but to the whites it means that they are dishonest or hiding something.
Recently there has been a proliferation in immigration of people. Some relocate to the new areas as refugees, diplomats or even employees. According to Young Kim’s Cross-Cultural Adaptation, the people who migrate to new areas meet a different group of people and thus to them, the idea of doing business as usual loses its relevance.
Additionally, this is not only limited to the long term stayers but also the short term sojourners must create good rapport between them and the host environment to be able to carry out their day to day transactions. It is to this effect that they unlearn some of their cultural practices that hinder effective communication with their new environment and confront cultural predicaments with a view of attaining an environment where there is successful encoding and decoding of information. People who find it hard or are otherwise ignorant to learn other people’s culture, have always found themselves in the swigs of cross-cultural conflicts. This is because they always view the world around them through the lens of their culture, little do they know that some of the beliefs they highly uphold in their culture could be abominations in other people’s culture. These people fail to realize that one man’s meat is another one’s poison.
Culture also causes an individual to have certain assumptions, opinions, views, habits and expectations that are exclusive and typical for people they share the same culture. According to Stella Ting- Toomey in the book “Communicating across Cultures,” cultures hold various assumptions, values, expectations, habits, non-verbal and verbal cues for interactions. It is the incompatibility of the values, processes, norms and goals among different cultural groups that results to conflicts. The book further provides that most of the daily conflicts experienced across the world trace their cause from cultural miscommunication. While cultural differences may be given a cold shoulder looking like it is a trivial matter, it does not deny the fact that these differences result to more negative impacts that could have been prevented by simply rectifying the differences before things blew out of proportion. In countable parts of the world, cultural differences have had as major negative impacts as bloodshed, war and assassinations. As a result, the issue of cultural differences is a contentious issue and needs to be addressed if harmony has to be restored among different groups of people.
The upbringing and the culture of a person are integral in defining the personal space of an individual. According to Edward Hall’s theory of proxemics, human beings exist in an invisible personal space. Despite the differences, Hall believed that all cultures are founded on a common biology. He demonstrates the same using animals. He gives the example of animals that demarcate their territory using their urine. He argues that people use fences walls and furniture to achieve the same purpose. Just as animals will feel uncomfortable when their territory is intruded and will respond either by fight or flight, similarly, human beings will also experience the same discomfort and will try to guard their personal space. According to Jandt’s Non-Verbal Communication, the magnitude of the personal space every individual would want from others highly depends on their culture, upbringing, situation and relationship with other people. Again it can be seen that culture plays a role in the determination of the personal space an individual would expect from others. Just to cite an example, some communities accept when people talk to others while touching them while others dislike it when people address them in the same manner. When people thus fail to understand the expectation of the other people of a particular culture, it always results to cultural conflicts.
The influence of culture is not only limited to communication and interaction with people but goes beyond to shape a person’s preferences. In the corporate world, for example, culture has had great impact in predicting the positions some people will go for based on their cultural background. As seen in the European Management Journal, the identity of an individual’s culture is critical in providing the first impression of the person. In other words, one would paint the picture of a person given no additional information about the person save for their culture. Research has it that culture has much influence in the beliefs, behavior and perceptions of an individual. For instance, in employment some people are motivated when they are appreciated and promoted up the ranks. This is, however, from the individualism point of view. Other people are motivated when they receive no promotions but collectively as a group work together to achieve better results. Thus promoting one of the members destabilizes the closed-knit of the members causing them to withhold their efforts and consequently, poor results are achieved. This is, however, applicable in countries that hold and embrace the culture of collectivism.
In other words, their culture becomes the standard of reference neglecting the view of other people’s culture. This tendency to make judgments based on a people’s culture is a common phenomenon among human beings and always results to conflicts when carelessly handled. A person in another culture is much considered an alien not by the color of their skin but by the failure of their actions to conform to the host’s culture. While culture defines a person’s way of living giving the person identity and a sense of belonging, it can be a great hindrance to effective communication. Since every culture has their way of communication especially when it comes to non-verbal communication, failure to understand some of the gestures, body language and expressions used results to miscommunication. The effects of miscommunication depend on the magnitude of the deviation in the two cultures.
For instance, a certain gesture in a given culture could refer to a taboo or an insult to another, yet to another it means no harm. When these gestures are used in the presence of the former, they will get irritated and may react in a violent manner. Again the feeling that one’s culture is superior to the other person’s may hinder effective communication. Such people who hold onto such ideologies neglect anything told to them by people from the other culture because they have already formed an attitude. This does not only lead to miscommunication but it also leads to retaliation by the culture that has been demeaned causing cultural conflicts that are always detrimental to the society. Cultural differences have also taken part in hindering dissemination of knowledge. Knowledge is spread through communication. When this communication is impaired, it therefore implies that the transmission of knowledge from one culture to another is also impaired.
In conclusion the desire to understand other people’s culture should be in the heart of every person. Unless people embrace the fact that no culture is superior to others, the cross-cultural conflicts would continue. One’s culture is no much important if they are not at peace with their neighbors. In fact, one gains a lot from a close relationship with a neighbor than from a culture. It is due to this reason that this paper calls for everyone to treat each culture with the respect it deserves. It calls for people to drop their cultural egocentric practices and promote harmony and mutual understanding among themselves and other cultures. Instead of sitting to castigate one’s culture, the most beneficial thing is to look for what one can learn and benefit from the cultural diversity on the face of the earth. This comes with a change of mentality, opinions and beliefs held towards a particular culture. Till then the diversity will remain an impediment towards the achievement of the goals for a single culture. However, what these cultures fail to understand is that no one is an island, and at one point we require each other. This is the call of mankind.
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