Human Encounters

Introduction to Intercultural Communication

by Oyvind Dahl (Author)
Monographs XII, 298 Pages

Table Of Content

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This book provides an introduction to intercultural communication and while it is intended for undergraduate students, it is useful for anyone seeking an overview of this rapidly developing field.

The field of intercultural communication may be helpful for studying international, national and domestic relations. But what does intercultural mean today? Cultures are constantly changing and cannot be summarized or defined as easily as before. Cultures cannot just be put into boxes and one of the consequences of globalization is that many previously recognized boundaries have little importance. Great mobility and technical inventions such as the internet have broken down obstacles of distance and have facilitated connections across the globe at an increasing speed. As a consequence, cultural, technical, economic and political mind-sets influence human encounters throughout the world. Communication does involve crossing borders, but which borders? In recent years, a new direction has developed within the field of intercultural communication called critical intercultural communication research (Holliday, Hyde and Kullman 2010; Nakayama and Halualani 2010; Piller 2011). As a result, researchers now place greater emphasis on the following points:

(a)Intercultural communication must be perceived in a critical historical context. It is not a discipline in itself, but other disciplines can shed light on the field: philosophy, psychology, religious studies, linguistics, sociology, social anthropology, information science and other sciences.

(b)All communication is in some way intercultural. Communication takes place between different parties who activate their unique intercultural frames of reference either domestically or internationally. Identity is a key word, but identity is dependent on the circumstances and on the interlocutors.

(c)The notion of culture in terms of national cultures must be critically scrutinized. All nations are influenced by different trends ←ix | x→and composed of different people who each relate to different cultural modes of interpretation.

(d)Culture cannot be reduced to an essence (core) or to something we have. Culture must be understood as much more dynamic, as something we do. Through acts of communication, we construct and reconstruct culture.

(e)Methodologically, more recent means of analysis have come into play. Examples include semiotics (the study of signs), hermeneutics (interpretation) and discourse analysis (the study of texts and social practices), not merely studying the process of communication.

(f)Power is central to the study of communication. It is a mayor challenge to map where the centres of power are situated in acts of communication.

In this book, I have discussed several of the challenges raised by the study of critical communication research, but I have not “tied myself to the mast”. Many of the points listed above can be discussed using different approaches. My attitude is that we need both the classical descriptive (essentialist) understanding of culture and the more modern dynamic (constructivist) approach.

The book has a European or even North-European point of departure. However, many cases are drawn from the rich international field and students from all over the world will benefit from the discussions included here. I maintain that the book is an introductory text and as such I have included well-known themes within the field like verbal and nonverbal communication, process analysis and the study of world views. Since European societies are increasingly becoming multicultural societies, I have also explored migratory processes, the construction of identity, the understanding of time, conflict management, and the use of power in communication. Underlying all these themes is the wish to understand and be understood.

The textbook is written for undergraduate students. It is intended that after studying this book the reader should, among other things,

attain a broad knowledge of central themes, theories, issues, processes, tools and methods within the field;

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be able to apply academic knowledge and relevant research to practical and theoretical problems, as well as making analytic choices;

be able to plan and accomplish varied tasks and projects, alone or as a participant in a group and in accordance with ethical requirements and guidelines.

This book intends to meet these requirements. My aim is to inspire students to adopt habits of self-reflection and engagement when facing the many intercultural challenges that exist today. The book challenges students to see people and contexts, not just in terms of academic and professional needs, but also in relation to their own ways of living. In order to assist students who wish to deepen their study of specific themes, I have included many citations of other works in addition to references to relevant literature in the field. When quoting from sources not written in English, I am responsible for these translations.

I have worked in this field for more than thirty years and in 1986 published the book Encounters between Cultures, the first of its kind in Norway, with a special emphasis on intercultural communication. Gradually, I became more convinced that cultures do not communicate, but people do. Cultures are abstractions; people are flesh and blood with aspirations, values, reflections, and emotions. When the book was reissued in 2001, and in 2013 in Norwegian, in 2016 in English, it was re-titled Human Encounters. I have retained the title for this new edition, though it is completely revised and rewritten compared to previous books, and one can find some of the same themes, illustrations, and models.

I wish to express my gratitude to my colleagues Tomas Sundnes Drønen, Kjetil Fretheim, and Marianne Skjortnes who published a Festschrift for my seventieth birthday titled Forståelses gylne øyeblikk (The Golden Moments of Understanding) and to the readers of the manuscript such as Iben Jensen, Stein Erik Ohna, Solveig Omland, Svein Strand, Diane Oatley, James Brian Oliver, and Ian Copestake who proofread the manuscript. My dear Marianne has shown patience seeing my back in front of the computer. Thank you for your encouragement and support. Finally, I wish to acknowledge the work of the publisher in realizing this project.

The author
Øyvind Dahl

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The benevolent interpreter

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Understanding in a Global World

A pharmaceutical company wants to launch their brand of headache pills on the North African market, and the company marketing team was certain that the comic strip in Figure 1 would adequately communicate the effectiveness of the pills. The first image shows a man suffering from a headache. In the next, he takes the pills. In the final image he feels wonderful and no longer has a headache.

Figure 1The comic strip that caused a headache!

It seemed that the marketing scheme would have every reason to succeed and large posters were designed, printed and distributed. However, the company had forgotten one detail. The written culture was Arabic, a language that is read from right to left. And this also applies to comic strips!

This example illustrates how badly things can go when we have not taken the time to familiarize ourselves with how people with different cultural frames of reference interpret images and signs. It is also worth noting that such interpretation is usually carried out unconsciously. Those ←1 | 2→with an Arab perspective will automatically read from right to left, with the same immediacy that a European reader would read from left to right. Through our upbringing, education and training in a particular society, we are equipped with a number of assumptions and interpretive keys that we take for granted. As a rule we don’t think about them and thus use them on a daily basis to understand and make ourselves understood in our surroundings.

In this book we will focus on communication, how we understand and misunderstand one another, the types of preconceived expectations we have when we meet other people and how we acquire new understanding.

To understand and be understood

To understand each other and understand why we think and act as we do – even if one of us comes from Edinburgh, another from Istanbul, a third from Punjab in Pakistan and the fourth from Houston, Texas – has become more and more necessary. It is also important to see that cultures are not necessarily a matter of geographical distinctions. An electronics engineer from India and an electronics engineer from Scotland, who work for the same international company, have in many respects more in common than a lawyer from Delhi and a fisherman from Kerala State in India. But of course, the lawyer and the fisherman have many experiences in common, in that their children attend Indian schools, they pay taxes and speak Indian languages even though their languages are different − Hindi in Delhi and Malayalam in Kerala. In Norway a Malaysian immigrant may have difficulties understanding the Norwegian tradition of walking in the mountains. A Norwegian Malaysian spoke of how strange she found it that Norwegians seemed to enjoy working up a sweat and tiring themselves out while trekking in the mountains. In Malaysia “to go for a walk” meant walking through the city in one’s nicest clothes and meeting with people (Long 1992: 5, 13). An Irish pub in Berlin is not only full of Irishmen, but also attracts Germans.

Communication also has historical and social dimensions. Preschool children live in a world that is miles away from the environment in which ←2 | 3→their grandparents grew up. But it looks as if the grandchildren and grandparents “understand” each other superbly, nonetheless. Danish lower secondary schoolchildren with parents from Turkey or from Hirtshals also find a way of interacting which enables them to “understand” one another. What does it imply to understand and be understood? What do the different cultural frames of reference mean for intercultural communication?

Even when there are a great many differences, it often proves to be the case that most people can learn to understand each other. It is luckily not necessary to be the same in order to be able to communicate. When we meet other people who speak other languages, are of another religious faith and have other ways of doing things, we are also obliged to question our own ways of thinking and our own ways of doing things. This type of challenge is part of what is most fascinating about intercultural communication – a concept that is used when we compare ways of communicating across cultural divides.

Each and every true understanding is by nature oriented towards finding an acceptable interpretation of life phenomena. This can only occur through interaction between people. Understanding is created in a social setting, through dialogue and cooperation between people. Seeking understanding in a conversation implies an endeavour to find the most adequate terms to cover what you are trying to say. The better my interpretations coincide with your ideas, the better we understand each other. To understand is like when two wires suddenly acquire contact so sparks fly. “A-ha, now I understand what you mean, what your intention is!” Or: “Now we have both reached a new understanding. With the help of imagination and creativity we have actually established a new, mutual understanding – we are of the same mind regarding how this phenomenon is to be interpreted!” (For the time being, in that all standpoints can be changed or discarded in the next round …)

A possible outcome of this type of communication is also of course something that is known as a mismatch; the meanings ascribed do not fit, we don’t understand each other. We don’t attribute the same meaning to a statement, a text or an action. Sometimes we need to realize that there are differences in meaning. If we are aware of this possibility, a mismatch of meaning need not lead to a breakdown in communication. Luckily, we can still collaborate on a matter, even if we disagree about many things. It is ←3 | 4→precisely the diversity of possible meanings that makes life rich and exciting to live, as there’s always something new to discover. Besides, if there were no differences in meaning, we would have no need for communication!

What can complicate matters is that we are not always aware of the fact that we attribute different meanings to the same “signs”. We perhaps use the same words, but connect different meanings to the concepts. A well-known example is the Swede who asked a Norwegian cab driver to drive him to et roligt ställe − which in Swedish means a fun place. The cabby drove him to a peaceful park that was adjacent to a graveyard, because in Norwegian the word rolig means quiet.

Understanding, lack of understanding and misunderstanding

Drawing on the experience of learning new languages, in this section we will address three aspects in further detail: understanding, lack of understanding and misunderstanding. What is it that happens when we can say that we understand, when we don’t understand, are lacking in understanding or misunderstand?

Understanding is to connect the unknown to what is known. Let me take an example from Madagascar (where I have personally spent many years): if I ask you what the word maso means, you can only shake your head. You don’t understand it. If I tell you that it means “eye”, you have suddenly understood the new word. What has happened is that you connect the unknown to the known and you have thereby understood. Connecting new signs (words, language, body language, actions) with a corresponding sign from one’s own experience provides the key to understanding. But understanding is not only a matter of recognizing individual signs. Imagine that I also tell you that the word andro means “day”. You have then learned two words in Malagasy: maso and andro. If I then put them together, as they do in Madagascar, then I have a new word: masoandro. What can it mean? What is “eye-day”? Or “the day’s eye”?

You will probably guess a number of things until I disclose that it means “sun”. But it is a fantastic word for sun! “The day’s eye” looks down on you when the sun is shining. I have also learned that the same construction exists in Malaysia and Indonesia. There the word for sun is matahari, where ←4 | 5→mata is eye and hari is day. But then we have achieved an even higher level of understanding. We realize that the languages Malagasy and Malaysian or Indonesian are related. We have understood more than the individual parts and have gained an understanding of connections. We can see the connections easily if we compare European languages: Sol (Norwegian), sun (English), sonne (German), soleil (French), sol (Spanish), solntze (Russian) and sunce (Bosnian) clearly have the same origin in European languages, while the origins of surya (Hindu) and suraj (Urdu) are not so far off. As is common knowledge, Indian and European languages belong to the Indo-European language family, while Malagasy, Indonesian, Malaysian, Maori (New Zealand) and many Pacific Island languages belong to the Austronesian language family. In this manner we can continue building new layers of understanding on several levels by comparing words and expressions. We go from the parts to a larger whole and from the whole back to the parts and gradually acquire greater insight. It is this circling process – whereby we add new knowledge to our existing understanding – which is called the hermeneutic circle, which we will study in further depth in the chapter about hermeneutics – the study of interpretation.

A lack of understanding arises when we have no terms to connect the new word to. A recent Pakistani immigrant in Norway can have problems understanding what sankthansfest would imply, essentially because the terms refer to things that are as yet unknown to the person in question. He has no references from his own language or cultural experience regarding the subject matter of the conversation. You can explain, in so many words, what a St. Hans party is, (sankthansfest) about Midsummer Night’s Eve, about children’s games and barbecues, but the best solution is to take the new arrival to such a party. Then he will be able to connect the new term to an experience.

Along the same lines, many of us will have problems when the same Pakistani individual says that he is going to celebrate eid al-fitr. Now we are the ones having problems of reference. The Pakistani man can use a lot of words to explain that it is the celebration of the end of the Ramadan month of fasting. For a period of one month, orthodox Muslims are not allowed to eat or drink from sunrise to sunset; nor should they swallow their own saliva. But when the month of fasting has come to an end, the eid al-fitr celebration begins with prayers and ends with a lavish feast. This ←5 | 6→is Christmas Eve for Muslims. The problem with a lack of understanding is accordingly that we do not have references to connect new terms to. But this is, as we have seen, not an unbridgeable gap. We can, for example, take part in the celebration of eid al-fitr. In that way, we can learn about the universes of others and arrive at a new understanding.

Misunderstanding arises when we make a connection but to the wrong reference. I was once a lecturer on a course for people from different parts of the world. I asked the question: What is Norway famous for abroad? One participant from South America raised her hand and said, “Skiing”. I pictured the gold medal winners from the Winter Olympics at Lillehammer in 1994 and nodded in confirmation. I asked the question again, and this time she said, “Biking”. This puzzled me, and I made cycling movements and asked if she meant bicycling. No, “biking”, she said, not “bike”. All of a sudden I realized that because her native language was Spanish, there was no difference between the sounds “v” and “b”. I heard “biking”, but what she meant was “Viking”! I had misunderstood because I had connected what she had said with cycling instead of the Vikings …

Golden moments

What shall we say when we don’t understand? I call such situations “golden moments”. It is when you understand that you don’t understand that you can acquire new knowledge. Then you can ask new questions, you can find something out that you didn’t know about or understand previously. You can ask and dig. Golden moments open up new understanding. Don’t despair if you don’t understand; it is such moments that awaken curiosity and the desire for knowledge (Drønen et al. 2011).

But if you don’t understand that you don’t understand, then you have a problem.

Different categorizations

Since different people describe experience differently and structure the world (categorize it) in different ways, the way meaning is assigned can vary from one society to the next. We shall see many examples of that ←6 | 7→in this book. Let me take an episode I experienced myself, when I was a mentor for student teachers at a teacher’s college in Madagascar. It took place during an arithmetic class at a primary school.

Teacher (draws a house and four cows on the blackboard): “Solve the following problem by doing the calculation in your heads. Four cows walk by the house. How many legs [Malagasy: tóngotra] then walk past the house?”

Student (raises his hand and is encouraged to answer): “Eight!”

Teacher (smiles enthusiastically): “Terrific! The answer is correct!”

I was an observer and did not want to interrupt the class, but had to have a talk with the teacher afterwards. I had a problem: Isn’t mathematics international? Cows do have four legs? If so, then 4 × 4 = 16. The explanation was as follows: in many places in Madagascar the front legs of the cow are called tánana (arms) and the back legs tóngotra (legs). Just like people, cows also have two arms and two legs. The answer “eight legs” is thus correct. The categories of “arm” and “leg” in the Malagasy language and European languages are clearly different. While “leg” means both front leg and back leg in European languages, in Malagasy tánana means not only “front legs”, but is also the word used for both “arm” and “hand”. Fingers are called rantsan-tánana (hand twigs).

Such differences in categorizations can often create problems when we move from one language to another, something we will return to in the chapter about language. Meanings are connected to how we structure the world – our categories – and how we sort out our experiences. We interpret our surroundings differently, so the same symbols and actions can have different meanings for different people.

Men and women also represent different areas of experience. In a couple each person brings with them invisible cultural baggage from their respective homes. In many cases, “combining two houses into one” can create big communication problems. It is not for nothing that most counselling for couples has “communication” as the first lesson. It is about communicating, about putting oneself in the other’s situation and background and trying to understand how he or she thinks, the kind of meaning the other assigns to the signs, symbols or events for which I also have my own ←7 | 8→“meanings”. It is just as much a social process as a cognitive – mental – process. This is because meaning is established, as we have seen, in social relations. In this sense we are apprentices every single day as the world must be constantly rediscovered. A sign, a sound, a statement or an action is without meaning until the people involved attribute these with meaning. Communication – a relation in community – first comes about for us when the other also connects meaning (not necessarily the same meaning) to signs, sounds, statements or actions.

To communicate is to negotiate about meaning

The ability to use symbols, interpret the world, and instil one’s surroundings with meaning is common to all human beings. But the meanings are not created in a vacuum. Assigning meaning to signs, symbols and actions takes place in interaction with other people, and as such, meaning is not plucked out of thin air. A “negotiation” is taking place at all times about meaning in the ongoing conversations (discourses) in a given society. People in a social community establish approximate consensuses about what things shall mean. Such meaning formation takes place throughout the entire socialization process, in other words, throughout the course of one’s upbringing as one gathers new experiences in interaction with one’s peers and like-minded others, with young and old, with friends and strangers. The cultural frame of reference constitutes a learning forum throughout the entire course of a lifetime. As long as communication takes place within the established frame of reference, people can assign approximately the same meaning to the same events – and communication can take place with relative ease.

From birth we learn the difference between feelings of security and anxiety; we absorb impulses about cold and heat and learn to attribute these with significance. In association with parents, siblings and peers, we learn what is ugly and pretty, right and wrong, what can and cannot be said, what meaning people, nature and our surroundings have for us. We are taught to sense selectively; in other words, we see what we have been taught to ←8 | 9→see and listen to what we’ve been taught to hear. We learn to classify, in the sense of putting concrete and abstract things into words – in short, to attribute “meaning” to the world around us. The meaning remains in our heads and is recreated in interpersonal relationships, in actions and discussions, but it is not in writing, not on hard discs and not in bits and bobs.

An individual’s statements (words) or several words in a series (texts) have no meaning in and of themselves. If I say “argh”, “mummy”, “kruatscherk”, “help” or “I’d like four double nuts and bolts connectors”, the words only have meaning to the extent that others react to them, when they interpret or misinterpret them, accept or reject them, act or fail to act in response to them. The social psychologist Kenneth Gergen (1994) has pointed out that a key condition for our being able to learn to attribute meaning to words and forms of expression is that the different possibilities for meaning are confirmed or disproved through subsequent actions. Isolated statements start to acquire meaning when another or others “adapt” in relation to them – in other words, they introduce a type of action (linguistic or not) subsequent to the statement. The follow-up can be something as simple as a confirmation of the original statement. “Yes, right.” It can also take the form of an action – such as by looking in another direction when one hears the exclamation “Look!” Or the follow-up can expand the statement in one way or another by responding with one or more words, by nodding or making other signs of contact.

In order for words, expressions and actions to have meaning for me during the phase when I am developing “the self”, it is therefore necessary that somebody follow up on my statement or action and give it a function within a relation between us. “To communicate is thus to be granted the privilege of meaning by others”, Gergen claims (1994: 265). If, on the contrary, the other or others do not treat my statements as communication, if they don’t follow up on what I have presented, my statements become meaningless, they are reduced to nonsense – drivel. For the most part, each and every type of statement can be meaningful, or the opposite can be true: it can be understood as nonsense. It is thus in the interaction between people that meaning emerges. It is like a life-long ping-pong game where meanings can be narrowed down, specified, expanded upon or discarded as “pure hogwash”. Meaning is a collaborative product – which is ←9 | 10→constantly negotiated over. We construct our own meaning and gradually build up an understanding of reality.

If you, for example, should ask me, “Have you decided what you want to do with the car?” I could react by staring at you in bewilderment and in that way demonstrate that your statement has no meaning for me. Or I can attribute different meanings to the question by offering different answers such as “I’ll take it” or “I’m going to park near the grey house” or “It’s going to be washed tomorrow” or “What business is it of yours?” Another possibility is to answer by laughing – or by walking away – or asking what you actually mean, or I can start howling and throw myself onto the floor.

My reaction to your question contributes to the meaning you choose, from among many possible meanings. Through my follow-up or lack of follow-up, I limit or preclude the possibilities for other meanings. At all times we both have opportunities to follow up with new questions or further specifications. Meanings are therefore, in a way, always temporary. They can always receive further follow up, in actions or in words.

Unexpected situations can easily arise when the frames of reference change. Here are a couple of examples.

Many foreigners in Norway find Norwegians to be cold and unapproachable. This receives the ultimate confirmation when they board a bus in Norway. First of all, the Norwegian passengers will seek to find seats all to themselves. Second of all, approximately twenty expressionless, deeply serious masks will make it abundantly clear that nobody wants contact. If somebody starts to talk a little bit loudly, it is most likely somebody who is drunk or somebody talking on a mobile phone. Anyone who has taken the bus in southern Europe, on the other hand, knows that people there are more open and jovial under similar circumstances.

I have had the experience of being a guest at a wedding in Africa. The food – rice and fatty meat – was served by the hostess who did not join us at the table, but instead made sure that all of the guests had enough to eat. The guests ate ravenously and were not concerned about the fact that some of the food spilled over the edge of the plates and down onto the table. This was perceived as a sign of abundance and prosperity. The meal was eaten to the accompaniment of a lot of sounds: slurping and lip smacking, belching and sounds made by the tongue-sucking food remnants from between the ←10 | 11→teeth. All of these sounds were clear signs to the hostess that the food was delicious. In this context, there was no mistaking the meaning: all praise to the hostess! For a Norwegian this type of conduct at a wedding dinner would be highly unusual. If I had eaten a meal in the same way at a Norwegian wedding, the messiness and all of the noises made while eating and the slurping would be taken as signs of a poor upbringing and bad manners. However, my (virtually) silent eating at the African wedding could easily be interpreted as a lack of appreciation: “He didn’t like the food.”

The meanings attributed to bus rides and dining customs in a given culture are clear enough. It is when “cultures meet”, when actions are suddenly interpreted from other frames of references that misunderstandings arise. When “cultures” are highly divergent, the misunderstandings are clear and conspicuous. But the same thing can also occur when the communicating parties are, culturally speaking, in proximity. People are always different, and signs, words and actions will always be interpreted according to the point of view of the individual. The events are assigned meaning by people, and such meanings do not leap from one head to another.

A problem in this context is that a number of our values and norms are stored over the course of a long process of socialization, thereby becoming unconscious. The American anthropologist Edward T. Hall (1959, 1966, 1976), who is considered to be one of the pioneers in the field, has written in-depth studies about the silent language – language without words. This is a matter of body language, unconscious reflexes, the use of time and space and the use of context. We react to signs and signals through a kind of reflex movement or to employ a modern image: as long as we are operating within our own cultural frame of reference, we can “function on autopilot”. We can let go of the steering wheel and move according to incorporated routines. But as soon as we meet with an unfamiliar environment, such as a new place of work or a new country, we must switch over to using manual controls. That is much more demanding, but also challenging and educational.

In this chapter we have looked at how we form the meanings that constitute our understanding of reality. The term culture has been an underlying theme for the entire discussion and so now it is time to take a closer look at what we mean by that word.

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Hostess and student – both are polite

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Culture: Something We Have or Something We Do?

A woman invited guests to her home. One of the guests was an Asian student. After the first serving the dishes were passed around again with an invitation that everyone should help themselves. The student accepted, said thanks and helped himself. The same offer was repeated three or four times. The Asian student helped himself every time and ate. The hostess thought that the student was quite greedy, but according to her norms of politeness she had to offer him food again and again. No one should go hungry from her house. The result was quite embarrassing. The student finally fell on the floor and threw up.

What had happened? Language was not the problem. The student realized that the hostess invited him to eat by her “Please, help yourself”, and she understood his polite acceptance by “Yes, thank you”. However, as the illustration above shows, the reactions of the other person were quite different. Both of them were polite but conformed to their respective cultural codes. According to the hostess’ code of politeness she should encourage her guests to eat. The student had learned that refusal was impolite. In his homeland, the common rule was that the hostess distributed the already prepared plate ready to eat. Both attributed different meanings to the action. In many places it is expected that the hostess serves what she thinks the guest would prefer. However, the free selection of drinks and food may cause confusion to the guest.

Different cultural frames of reference provide different ways of perceiving certain events, as demonstrated in the case just described. In this chapter we will focus on the importance of culture in relation to communication. We shall see that we can consider culture both as something we have and as something we do.

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What is culture?

Since the theme of the book is intercultural communication, we must have a sense of what is meant by the term. Inter signifies “between”, the term therefore should mean communication between cultures. But, as we have seen, cultures do not communicate, people do. So, what is the significance of the term intercultural communication? In order to give an answer to this question, we must first discuss the concept of culture.

The word culture is based on the Latin nouns cultura, which accounted for the cultivation of the earth, and cultus, which accounted for the cultivation of the gods. Therefore, culture represents a human activity, which on the one hand entails a processing of nature – a refining – and on the other hand an activity of the mind. Both these meanings are included in the many different ways of using the word.

In this book, the way groups of people live and which cognitive frames of reference they refer to is what we mean when we use the term culture. Subcultures denote subsets of broader groups. A soccer team can be seen as a subculture of school culture which is a subculture of youth culture.

But culture can be understood in many other ways. Here we will focus on what I, for convenience, call the descriptive concept of culture and the dynamic concept of culture. Facing the complex world we live in, I think we need both these concepts of culture. Theoretically they are in opposition to each other, but faced with practical realities they complement each other.

Descriptive concept of culture

The Norwegian anthropologist Arne Martin Klausen defines what he calls a descriptive concept of culture:

ideas, values, rules, norms, codes and symbols that a person receives from the previous generation, and which one seeks to transmit – usually slightly transformed – to the next generation. (1992: 27)

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In the same tradition, Professor Hylland Eriksen defines culture as

abilities, notions and forms of behaviour persons have acquired as members of society. (2001: 3)

A descriptive cultural approach emphasizes that culture is historically anchored, that tradition is an essential part of culture and that we learn culture in a society. Everything we learn settles in our consciousness, functioning as cognitive frames of reference – “cultural codes in the back of our mind” – frames of interpretation that help us act the way we do (Dahl 2001: 57). These “codes” are often tacit knowledge, unconsciously taken-for-granted. We act automatically without reflecting on the frames of reference we utilize. The word codes is here intentionally used in the plural form because we may have several cultural codes in our minds at the same time and we may adjust these codes in the light of specific challenges.

It may be helpful to note the distinction between normative and descriptive cultural understanding. A normative (norm = rule, scale) cultural concept assumes that there is a yardstick, for example, for artistic quality and human forms of life. In order to evaluate good and bad culture, high culture and lack of culture, we must have a standard of values. In the past, the cultural elite often set the standards of what was good and “decent”. Opera and classical music, for example, was regarded as high culture, while jazz and pop music were low culture. Modern media and mass communication have questioned this attitude. If we characterize the cultural forms preferred by others as a “lack of culture”, we make normative judgements. We may question whether neutral value measures exist for both opera and soap opera. Is it possible to create a generally accepted yardstick of different forms of life, as was done previously, where you put “primitive”, “uncultured” peoples at the bottom and the educated and “civilized” people, a category which of course Europeans belong to, at the top?

A static cultural concept describes what actually exists, whether you like it or not. For many social sciences, this has become the norm: one should not pass judgements on cultural activities, but describe what people ←15 | 16→have produced and maintained without prejudice. Knowledge and beliefs, moral and aesthetic values, verbal and nonverbal language, artefacts (art, tools), all human activities and skills should be considered without prejudgements. “Culture must be understood on its own premises” was the slogan of cultural relativists who considered that all cultures or patterns of culture were of equal value. As a result, no common value yardstick can be set for every community.

Between the two world wars anthropologists developed a functionalist understanding of society whereby they argued that all human performance had a function that could be described and contribute to maintain a particular culture. Culture was seen as a more or less homogenous entity. Everyone in the same group belonged to the same culture but with different roles and rights based on various functions in the community. Rituals contributed to the maintenance of various functions as peoples’ actions were determined by their culture. Human performance could be explained by the culture of which they were a part.

A static cultural understanding can cover several levels. Some elements are visible and some are invisible, some are conscious and some are unconscious. Visible cultural forms include clothing, food, jewellery, ornaments, religious customs and visible behaviour. But researchers often want to penetrate behind the visible. What lies underneath the visible manifestations of culture? What is the cultural content behind these cultural expressions? Which are the meanings people ascribe to forms of expression? Why do they dress like they do? Why don’t people in India greet with handshakes? Why do they put together both palms of their hands? Why are casteless people called “untouchables”? Could it be that greeting customs have something to do with ritual purity in Hinduism? By studying communication we aim to look behind the forms of expression in order to understand actions. But that means that we have to place ourselves in the shoes of others, trying to understand values, norms, ways of thinking, religion and priorities, things that are not readily visible. There is a common denominator to all these cultural aspects, namely the concept of meaning. However, meanings are also interpretations (Figure 2).

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Figure 2Visible cultural forms of expression and invisible cultural content (meaning).

An example is the Scottish kilt. It’s a form of dress, but it also expresses deeper meanings not immediately visible to an outsider. It might indicate belonging, tradition, good handwork, quality and history related to a particular kilt. The colours and pattern of the tartan are characteristic of a particular clan or a particular district. The kilt may also tell a personal story. Is it an heirloom from former generations? Perhaps the mother of the owner made it? Was the kilt a gift for a particular occasion? A Pakistani coming to Scotland will hardly understand the full range of meaning that the Scots attach to a kilt. And vice versa, a Scot will not know the meanings attached to a national costume from the Swat valley in Pakistan.

Similarly, a Frenchman watching a veiled Muslim woman may see associations with subordination, oppression of women and lack of freedom. In contrast, a man from a Muslim culture will probably have quite different associations such as modesty, decency and respect. The external cultural forms can thus be “read” very differently through different cultural glasses. The “pattern of meaning” or “fabric of meaning”, as the American ←17 | 18→anthropologist Clifford Geertz called it, depends on the eyes of the observer (Geertz 1973: 89, 145).

The static concept of culture has been one of the most powerful concepts in history. With this seemingly objective term the others, such as indigenous people, could be described in terms of the viewer’s own position and his own ideas about culture (ethnocentric description).

Today, researchers of anthropology have various cultural backgrounds. A Maori researcher from New Zealand, Linda Tuhiwai Smith, in the following quote offers an idea of what it was like to be the person described by the so-called scientists.

One of the supposed characteristics of primitive peoples was that we could not use our minds or intellects. We could not invent things, we could not create institutions or history, we could not imagine, we could not produce anything of value, we did not know how to use land and other resources from the natural world, we did not practice “arts” of civilization. By lacking such virtues we disqualified ourselves, not just from civilization but from humanity itself. In other words we were not “fully human”; some of us were not even considered partially human (Smith 1999: 25).

Linda Tuhiwai Smith documents how she felt being characterized as part of a people who “could not use our minds or intellects”, who “did not know how to use land” and as someone who was “not even considered partially human”. What she writes is an example of what anthropologist James Clifford calls “writing back”: those who have been described, retaliate against those who have described them (2010). Today, no one doubts that the Maori use their minds, especially when considering how, unlike other cultures, they adapted to the environment and avoided overfishing.

Essentialist cultural understanding: Culture is something we have

Descriptive “static” cultural understanding is often called essentialist, but it is obviously not quite the same. Here we define it as follows:

An essentialist culture has an essence, a core that expresses homogeneity and particularity in a certain culture, for example, skills, behaviours, and conceptions that are seen as characteristic of this particular culture. (Dahl 2013: 38)

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But as we see from the examples above, this description of the essence is not necessarily objective and value-neutral. One cannot assume that all people of a certain culture share values, rules and norms – the so-called essence.

Within the literature on intercultural communication one will find lots of references to an essentialist understanding of culture. The Dutch researcher Geert Hofstede defines culture as “the collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one human group from another” (1980: 21). With such a seemingly objective definition it makes sense to talk about cultural differences. Some researchers use dramatic terms such as cultural collisions (Lewis 2006). I believe that such concepts are poorly suited to describe what really happens in cultural encounters. Much of the functionalist scientific literature tends toward such essentialist descriptions and describes culture as something people have, or that one belongs to this culture. For instance, people living in France belong to French culture because they live in France. They share a common history, language, they celebrate the revolution of 1789 on the 14th of July and they cheer their sporting heroes and pay taxes to the French authorities. Basically, they have a common core – an essence. However, such a static understanding of culture is not without problems, as we shall see later in this chapter.

Dynamic cultural understanding: Culture is something we do

The descriptive and essentialist understanding of culture has become increasingly problematic due to globalization. Many anthropologists criticize the descriptive approach for two reasons:

First, cultures are never “pure” limited homogeneous units. Professor Hylland Eriksen contends that the most common cultural phenomenon in today’s world is that of creolization – a mixing of cultures. In his paper “The lost cultural archipelago” he says:

Culture or cultures, if one prefers, are not indivisible packages of etiquette that one either has or does not have. People are cultural hybrids (Eriksen 1994: 14).

Second, anthropologists and communication researchers have become increasingly critical of the notion that any coherent concept of culture ←19 | 20→can adequately describe modern, complex societies. Norwegian anthropologist, Fredrik Barth, talks about the need to “re-conceptualize” culture (1994: 120). His view is that culture is distributed within a population; each element is the common property of some people but not of others. For this reason, it should be of interest to study how different cultural elements are distributed among individuals who share a particular cultural background. Such actors are always and necessarily “positioned,” which means that individuals are in particular contexts, participate in particular communication processes and are involved in particular cultural interactions. According to Barth, no account of “the native’s point of view” can have a general validity. Different “positions” lead people to “interpret and share their experiences and get a grip on their own and other’s lives” (Barth 1994: 120).

Danish researcher Iben Jensen introduces a “postcultural” perspective on intercultural communication. She defines culture as multiple practices that are performed and negotiated in different social relations. Communication is one of many different practices and can be analysed as practice. Actions and sayings, routines, body movements, materials and technology are practices intersected by power axes such as economy, gender, age, position, relationship, etc. (Jensen 2011: 48).

This modern approach opens up a much more dynamic understanding of culture than the descriptive understanding described above. According to this constructivist approach culture is not something people “have” but something people “do” in specific interactions with other people.

The British scientist Adrian Holliday contends that essentialism is a form of reductionism (Holliday 2010: 1). When a certain behaviour is described as typical for one culture – understood as a homogeneous essence – the cultural variability is reduced. However, people are not cultural replicas; they create culture in human encounters. What we have described as cultures may float, change and mix with others and interact with one another, independent of national or other borders which cannot themselves be precisely determined. Borders are diffuse.

A Norwegian student can sit on the tram in Oslo chatting with his Australian friend in Sydney or a Brazilian friend in Rio de Janeiro. They have developed their own ←20 | 21→chat language and their own jargon. They like the same hip-hop music, watch the same (American) movies, drink the same Coca-Cola and eat the same burgers at McDonald’s wherever they go in the world. To which culture do these youngsters belong?

The same day the Australian may surf the waves of Cronulla beach, the Norwegian may go skiing in Nordmarka or visit his grandmother who does not know the slightest thing about cell phones. Do the grandmother and the student share a culture? Or is it the student and his friend in Sydney that share one? What do cultural borders mean in this case? Can one “belong to” different “cultures” at the same time? Or is culture the meaning one attaches to certain events in certain situations? (Dahl 2013: 40)

If we understand culture the way Barth does, these students share some elements of culture; while family members share other elements, friends share different ones again, etc. Situation and context are decisive.

The anthropologist Clifford Geertz is a spokesman for the interpretive cultural approach and his book The Interpretation of Cultures has been very influential. He argues that people attribute meaning to all human activity and it is the pattern of meaning, which is constantly formed and reconceived by people communicating with each other, we call culture (1973: 5, 89). But Geertz has also been criticized as some argue that the anthropologist’s interpretation remains subjective, but is often described as objective. How can we be sure that Geertz’s “interpretation of ‘text’ ” (he used the word text about culture) is the right one? “There is only the constructed understanding of the constructed native’s constructed point of view”, according to Vincent Crapanzano (2010: 74).

The anthropologist James Clifford says that culture “is not an object to be described, neither is it a unified corpus of symbols and meanings that can be definitively interpreted. Culture is contested, temporal, and emergent” (2010: 19). Professor Hylland Eriksen argues that strictly separate static cultures without intersections and common features do not exist in the real world. Norwegians and immigrants generally agree on how to make a living; in this respect, they share a common culture, although they may be culturally different in other respects.

Cultures are “the ever-changing common meanings that are established and changed when people do something together” (Eriksen 1998: 25).

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Obviously, skills, behaviours and perceptions do not change every time people do something together, but this statement represents a shift in perception of culture from something that has an objectively identifiable existence to one in which culture is something that is subjectively constructed in human societies.

Phenomenological approach

The Danish communication researcher Marita Svane goes further still when she states that culture must be understood and interpreted as something the individual is and does (2004: 380). Her approach builds on phenomenology, whereby a phenomenon is what appears for a person, what is perceived by the senses. In phenomenological investigations the attention is then directed towards the world as it is perceived by the observer.

In a phenomenological approach, culture becomes a frame of interpretation that is linked to each individual. The individual creates his or her interpretations based on this frame of interpretation and acts accordingly. Several individuals may share this frame of reference by creating intersubjective agreements – they belong to the same community of interpretation, one which will promote common understanding in day-to-day affairs.

We shall return to such frames of interpretation in Chapter 6 on hermeneutic analysis. But we can already conclude that this approach allows for a much more dynamic understanding of culture and communication. We can thus define the dynamic understanding of culture as follows:

In a dynamic cultural understanding, culture is not something people have, but something individuals in particular situations make relevant in social games that involve other people. (Dahl 2013: 42)

A lot of complex factors come into play: personal experience, others’ experiences, situations, one’s own and others’ goals, interaction, social relationships, constellations of power, etc. Such an understanding of culture is necessarily dynamic as we need to observe the actual situation and then evaluate different interpretations, meanings, attitudes and values in the interaction. When young people listen to each other’s music and discuss ←22 | 23→what they like and what they do not like, when they load special hits and share these with each other, they contribute to the definition of what is supposed to be the music culture among young people. This not only applies to the culture of music, but to fashion, trends and to verbal and physical behaviour. In this sense, culture is always under “negotiation” between people who are interacting with each other. “The last word is never said” (Dahl 2013: 88).

Culture as a verb

This should not be interpreted as meaning that a person can be a culture “in himself or herself”. People share different cultural elements with each other and, depending on situation and status, choose which elements to bring into play in a particular encounter or event. We all carry with us cultural repertoires and activate different parts of these during different encounters or events. In this way we may contend that people are “carriers of culture” (Båtnes 2012). German sociolinguist Ingrid Piller draws similar conclusions from B. Street’s exhortation to treat culture as a verb – as something we do (Piller 2011: 84). If culture is understood as a verb, the concept changes from a delimited object to a process. The essentialist and static approach treats culture as something people have and belong to. The dynamic or process-related approach is constructivist – it treats culture as something people do, perform or construct, most often in interaction with others. Instead of focusing on constraints of interaction, the process of interaction then becomes the centre of interest.

With a constructivist understanding of culture it is probably more correct to use the plural form “cultures”. Intercultural communication is cultures in interaction. However, cultures do not communicate: people do. People carry with them sets of cultural values and clues to understanding, which are mobilized when people interact. Relations between the participants, their respective power relations and the context surrounding the actual situation will determine which elements of our cultural repertoire are relevant. The case of international youth culture described above illustrates the difficulty of putting people into cultural boxes.

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Different labels: Dynamic approach

These different labels may be rather confusing and so I use the expression “dynamic cultural understanding” as a unifying concept for process-oriented and constructivist cultural approaches.

The term is also used in a constructionist way. The difference between constructivist (Berger and Luckmann 1980) and constructionist is (Gergen 1994) – in brief – is that the latter concept places greater emphasis on the social environment. People do not construct culture in a vacuum, but in interaction with other people (Dahl 2006: 15).

Researchers, who use the dynamic cultural understanding, generally agree on the following:

People have different points of departure and different traditions. Historical differences may give rise to divergent and opposing interests.

Culture is complex and always changing. Cultures cannot be regarded as fixed entities, but rather as several joint activities that one shares with some people, but not with others.

Perceptions and rules may be contradictory, mixed and ambiguous. Rules must be interpreted (as indeed they will be interpreted) from different vantage points.

People have different positions of power. Norms and rules that apply for one group in the centre or an elite group, may not apply for others on the periphery.

Culture is not something one has, but something one does. Cultures are arenas where competing concepts meet and interact with one another. New solutions may be negotiated and may gain ground.

Actions and the behaviour of individual people cannot be predicted accurately. However, one may investigate which cultural elements people find relevant in a given situation.

To simplify further, one may contend that dynamic cultural understanding pays attention to how we interpret the situations we constantly face and how we choose to act. My own options are frequently influenced by how others in my environment interpret a situation (Jensen 2013). We may agree that everyone who carries a Swedish passport is Swedish, but there are many ways of acting as a Swede.

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Summing up different understandings of culture

A parallel to this discussion about culture is the realm of language. We all have individual ways of expressing ourselves. However, we meet on common ground and contribute to a common understanding of sounds and body language. Nevertheless, linguistic codes and pronunciation are constantly changing.

The following simplified table is an attempt to sum up different approaches to culture.

Table 1 Descriptive (static) and the dynamic concept of culture

Descriptive (static) essentialist culture

Dynamic-constructivist culture

Culture is something one has

Culture is something one does

Culture is fixed and can be delimited

Culture is created in open interaction

Common values for everyone in the group

Different values for different members

People are governed by culture

People negotiate culture

Culture (values, rules, norms, etc.) can explain why people act as they do

Other factors (status, context, power, etc.) can explain why people act as they do

People’s actions can be predicted

People’s actions cannot be predicted

Social anthropologist Marianne Gullestad says that it is impossible to avoid essential generalizations, even if the purpose is to show how problematic such generalizations may be (2002: 53, 134). Evidence indicates that we need both a descriptive (static) and a dynamic cultural approach for the study of human encounters and in this book we use different methods of analysis. Context will determine whether we use descriptive, essentialist cultural approaches or more complex, constructivist cultural approaches.

We need descriptive essentialist approaches to culture:

When we are searching for traits that are common to people with similar cultural backgrounds

When we try to explain people’s behaviour and acts in terms of their culture

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When we want to compare cultures

When we describe cultural differences

We need dynamic-constructivist approaches to culture:

When we want to observe how culture is created in the course of interaction

When we observe individual actors communicating with each other

When such factors as gender, age, education, power and the situation itself may be important

When we want to understand how people behave

Cultural dimensions

One of the most influential functionalist authors, the Dutch researcher Geert Hofstede defines culture as “the collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one human group from another” (1980: 21).

Although we all are individually exposed to different cultural influences at different levels – family, social group, geographical region and training – Hofstede argues that most national residents account for some common (essentialist) values that are more visible to someone who comes from outside than for one who lives within the community. Hofstede therefore tried to find criteria that make it possible to compare different cultural trends in different countries. After a comprehensive study of the impact of different attitudes in the IBM Group in over fifty countries, he defined four main criteria which he called “cultural dimensions”. Later he added a fifth dimension on long and short orientations of time, but in order to understand his project it is sufficient to consider these four criteria as they are often referred to in the literature:

1.Power distance indicates the extent to which members of a society accept that power in institutions and organizations is unequally distributed.

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2.Uncertainty avoidance indicates the extent to which members of a society feel threatened by uncertain situations and therefore try to avoid them by determining fixed rules and not tolerating deviant ideas and behaviour.

3.Individualism-collectivism suggests the extent to which people are concerned about themselves and their immediate family – that is individual-centred – as opposed to public-centred, which implies strong loyalty to a dense social network.

4.Masculinity-femininity suggests the extent to which the dominant values in society are “masculine”, that is, characterized by assertiveness and a preoccupation about material things and money and not abut care, environment and quality of life.

The results of Hofstede’s empirical studies have contributed greatly to the discussion on cultural differences and to illustrate their application in Table 2.2 we refer to indexes for each country on a scale of 1–100:

Table 2 Cultural indices

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These specific cases are included to underline some significant differences. For instance, the tendency to avoid uncertainty is, according to Hofstede, very strong in Japan which has led to a highly regulated and conformist society. Individualism is relatively weak. The collective group is of importance both in family life and in business. The masculine, “hard” values are high above average in Japan, while far below in Norway. According to this study Norway should combine strong individualism with “soft” feminine values. Hofstede’s research demonstrates a strong correlation between the acceptance of power and collectivism. Furthermore, he found a correlation between individualism and wealth. The United States scored high on individualism, therefore it is expected that most initiatives may be explained by self-interest. Low uncertainty control and a relatively high masculinity dimension indicates that achievement is an important motivational factor in the US.

A compatriot of Hofstede, Fons Trompenaars, has identified seven cultural dimensions: (1) Universalism versus particularism (acceptability of rules), (2) collectivism versus individualism (group-individual), (3) affective versus neutral (how feelings are expressed), (4) specific versus diffuse (degree of involvement), (5) Achieved versus ascribed status, (6) sequential versus synchronic (how we structure time) and (7) acting against or with the environment (how we relate to nature) (2012).

The British linguist Richard D. Lewis categorizes three types of cultures: Linear-active (LA), Multi-active (MA) and Reactive (RA) (Lewis 2006). Briefly, LAs are task-oriented, skilled planners who do one thing at a time, within a prescribed schedule. LAs are efficient and cool. Germans, British, Dutch and Norwegians fall within this category. MAs are oriented towards people, talkative and concerned with mutual relations and demonstrate human warmth. They are not concerned with fixed time tables and can improvise quickly. Portugal, the Mediterranean countries and Latin America are all representatives of this category. RAs are introverted, prefer to listen and map other’s position before presenting their own views. They are polite and are happy to compromise. Japan, China, Korea, Thailand and Vietnam tend toward this category.

Most countries are, according to Lewis, somewhere in the area between the three extremes. He emphasizes that most people are more or less hybrids, ←28 | 29→mixing elements from the furthest points of the triangle. Nevertheless, this is an essentialist, descriptive model (Figure 3).

Figure 3Lewis’s LMR-triangle. (Published with permission of © Culture Active Limited 2012).

Such cultural analyses, and indeed Hofstede’s publications, have been very influential, particularly in the business world. Many businessmen search for cultural characteristics to be able to predict the outcome of cultural transactions. But a growing number of researchers have raised strong criticism of such approaches (Piller 2011: 79 f.; Søderberg 1999: 145). Here are some of their viewpoints:

1.Measurements of four, five or seven “cultural dimensions” in business are transferred to cultural parameters of an entire nation. ←29 | 30→This is an impermissible generalization. Many companies represent organizational cultures and management structures that create other dividing lines than national cultures do.

2.The creation of lists of characteristics that apply to all nations is reductionist and a banalization of nations. How can these characteristics apply to all countries where we find a number of different cultures also in the essentialist sense?

3.Using quantitative measures for each country, is a very inadequate way to describe cultures. Cultures cannot be compared to a computer. Culture is not “mental programming of the mind”. Such standardized questionnaires risk projecting the researcher’s own values on people.

Globalization and creolization (hybrid cultures) have contributed to the dissolution of traditional, static national cultures and favour a more complex and dynamic understanding of cultures. Cultures are constantly created in interaction between people both at work and in private life and the fact that people continuously construct their own social reality is becoming more important than identifying generalized static cultural dimensions.

Explanations of communication outcomes in national stereotypes such as those by Hofstede, Trompenaars, Lewis, Hall (high and low context; Chapter 4) and many other writers on intercultural communication may lead to simple generalizations. It is an essentialist approach. Analysing specific communication processes by taking into consideration other parameters such as situation, position, context, purpose and power can, in contrast, lead to a much more constructive understanding of particular cases of communication.

Cultural frames of reference

In our discussion of communication in the next chapter, we shall often refer to cultural frames of reference. Whether we use a static essentialist ←30 | 31→approach or a dynamic-constructivist approach will be clear from the context. In some cases communication between individuals is described so we may then refer to individual cultural frames of reference. In other cases communication between collectives is described and so we may then refer to more general keys of interpretation, such as stereotypes and prejudices.

From a more detailed discussion of individual encounters we will elaborate on impacts on society at large – showing how individual frames of reference contribute to shared frames of reference for larger groups. When individual frames of reference are gradually adopted by the larger community we may extract general essentialist characteristics. A constructivist approach does not therefore necessarily contradict an essentialist approach. It is more a question of the level of analysis.

In the next chapter we introduce some of the tools we need to discuss human encounters further.

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“Do you understand?” “Yes, yes!”

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Communication Is Creating Something Together

The teacher on the previous page teaches Norwegian to immigrant students. The new concept being introduced is “fly”. When asked if they understand this concept they all answer affirmatively “Yes!” “Yes!” Everyone understands, but the bubbles show that they have understood different things. The English-speaking student identifies the teacher’s words “fly” with the insect in English termed “fly”. The person who speaks Norwegian, Swedish or Danish, understands “airplane”. Others have perceived various flying creatures or objects, while one believes that the movement means “flying”. Everyone has understood something.

Most of us have experienced situations where we have not managed to make ourselves understood. Sometimes we may feel anxious that the other person has not understood us and sometimes even feel that the other person might not want to understand. In such cases the situation may seem desperate.

There are also situations where we more or less consciously express ourselves in a vague and imprecise way to give the other person an opportunity to supplement what we say. It may be grounded in our own feeling of insecurity or it could be that we would like to invite the other person to express his or her opinion, which we in turn may comment on or add to accordingly. Conversation strategies can be quite complex.

The term communication is itself ambiguous. It may mean various things such as roads and railways, radio and television, phones, the internet and face-to-face communication. In this book, we will focus on human face-to-face communication, the use of language – verbal communication or body language – nonverbal communication.

The term communication originates from the Latin word communis, which is found in English words such as “common”, “communion” or “community”. Communication creates commonness or community – but not ←33 | 34→necessarily agreement. Roads and railways connect people and create community, as does the telephone, e-mail, SMS and all other means of communication. Building bridges is a strong metaphor for communication that connects people who would otherwise remain separated.

In this chapter human communication will be discussed. We shall see why and how different frames of reference have consequences for the outcome of communication and examine how stereotypes and prejudices influence communication processes. But first we need to define some key terms of communication and present some communication theories expressed through different models. This chapter will give us the tools to be used in the subsequent chapters where we will discuss different methods of analysis for communication.

Communication models

A model is a simplified representation of a context that is often much more complex. By studying communication models, we may apprehend many important aspects of communication (Windahl and McQuail 1979). Different models disclose some aspects about reality, but none of them tell us everything. However, despite this models can give us an insight into the processes of communication.

The classic model of communication process

The classic model of communication shows us the basic elements of communication processes. The immediate purpose of communication is to convey messages from a sender to a receiver. Therefore, there is a linear aspect of communication directly from sender to receiver, such as from teacher to student in a classroom. But communication may also occur unconsciously or unintentionally.

For simplicity’s sake, communication between two individuals is presented first. The communicators do something together: they behave in a ←34 | 35→certain way, exchange information or transmit signals (signs or sequences of signs) – often with the intention of evoking particular reactions in others. For our purpose we first present a simple model that clearly shows the linear aspect of communication and which will give us the opportunity to introduce several key concepts of the process of communication (Figure 4).

Figure 4The classic model of communication process.

The model shows a sender transmitting signs or sequences of signs to a receiver or recipient. (Sequences of signs in the following will be included in the term sign.) The sender encodes the intended message into signs. By decoding the signs, the recipient receives a message. The receiver provides feedback, which in turn must be interpreted by the sender. The messages may be disturbed by noise. We can now examine the various elements.

The sender is the one who sends the signs. The sender can also be called source or communicator. Before sending signs, the sender must encode what he or she wants to transmit into a sign to be sent. We act as senders in a variety of situations. Interlocutors convey signs using facial expressions, gestures, dress and behaviour. The transmission may be conscious or unconscious, with or without intent.

Encoding is an internal activity in which the sender creates an expression, a verbal or nonverbal sign (or sequence of signs) that makes transmission possible. The sign must be put into a code system that allows transmission from sender to receiver. This is called encoding.

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A sign or sequences of signs are the items transmitted verbally or nonverbally (words, sounds, visual impulses, images, body language, behaviour, etc.). In this book I distinguish between a sign or sequences of signs that are sent, and message which is the received sign interpreted by the recipient. I call it message when the recipient has attached meaning to the incoming sign (or sequence of signs). Received signs are not necessarily meaningful to the recipient. What we submit, must be interpreted by the other interlocutor and it is not evident that he or she attaches the same meaning to the sign that was intended by the sender. This is why we differentiate between what is sent (signs) and what is received (message).

Meaning is not embedded in the sign itself, but in the sender’s or receiver’s interpretation of the sign, the opinion he or she attributes to the sign.

Message is a sign or sequence of signs that is attributed meaning.

The recipient or receiver is the person who receives the message. He or she will interpret the signs, that is, attribute meaning, try to understand what the signs means.

Decoding is an internal activity in which the recipient ascribes meaning to the received sign. He or she gives it a content based on his or her understanding or perspective. The act of interpretation involves utilizing previous experience, knowledge of language and context (environment of the communication).

Feedback is the immediate response from the receiver. The sender and receiver swap roles: receiver becomes sender and the sender becomes receiver. The signs submitted must be interpreted by the receiver. Feedback helps the communicator adjust his or her sending of signs to the needs of the receiver.

Noise is the disruptive element in communication. Noise may be a disturbing sound, as is usually expressed by the term. However, in communication theory, the term noise also means other items that may affect the process. If the temperature in the room is felt to be too high or too low it may disturb communication. Likewise, if the person who communicates speaks too fast or too low, exhibits strange manners or is wearing odd clothing, the attention of the listener is deviated. If the listener has experienced some troubles before he arrived at the scene of the communication ←36 | 37→he may also be absentminded and distracted. In communication theory noise is everything that disturbs the communication.

Codes are the systems into which signs are organized. These systems contain rules for what meaning is to be attributed to the signs and how they should be understood in relation to each other. Such coding systems are culture specific. A prerequisite for meaningful communication is that the two interlocutors have knowledge of each other’s code, for example, that they speak the same language, know the same signs and interpret signals in the same way. It is precisely this assumption that often fails in intercultural communication – which we will soon return to.

Signal is an intended sign, that is, a sign that the sender has an intention to send. It has a purpose. When, for instance, you are waving at someone, it is a signal sent with the intention of attracting the attention of the other person.

Symptom is a non-intentional sign such as blushing. Such signs are not sent on purpose. Mental and physical conditions at the moment – anger, joy, pain and cold – may cause symptoms that are not necessarily intended as signs.

Channel is the instrument that conveys the message. The channel may be organic (ear, eyes, skin, tongue and nose) or physical (air in the classroom, telephone wire and radio), direct (face to face) or indirect (with intermediaries, interpreters, radio, TV and video). When talking by phone or communicating by media such as Facebook, e-mails or text messages, we use an indirect channel, based on electronic communication.

The purpose of communication is often to convey a message or meaning from sender to receiver. But, as has already been demonstrated, the meaning has no independent existence outside the individuals involved – the respective sender and receiver. The sender can only communicate signs that the receiver must interpret, that is, ascribe meaning to. Messages can be sent, but not meanings. The recipient attributes meaning to the received sign based on the information conveyed and their previous experience.

The classic models of communication have been criticized by some researchers (Piller 2011; Svennevig 2009) as the models tend to overestimate the sender and also the power of the media and to underestimate the ←37 | 38→recipient’s ability to consciously or unconsciously sort and ignore parts of the message. In other words, the influence of the recipient’s own cultural background has often been underestimated.

Meaning and understanding

The usual (classic) communication model shows the importance of the distinction between sign and message. These four statements will be discussed in the following:

1.Signs (and sequences of signs) can be sent, but not meanings.

2.People ascribe meaning to the signs (interpretation).

3.Communication is negotiating meanings, not only sending them.

4.Meanings do not leap from head to head.

We are involved in different communicative circumstances everyday: we meet people with whom we talk to face to face, using mobile phones or on the internet. We send signs and signals, made up by sequences of signs. We receive messages in the form of sounds, words, facial expressions, hand movements (gestures), body movements, text messages, MMS, e-mails, photos and the like.

All these collections of signs must be interpreted, but the interpretation may be right or wrong. We can for example assign a meaning to a facial expression, a gesture or an emoticon (emoticon, smiley ☺) that may not have been intended by the sender. Being senders we have meanings in our mind, and we try to convey these meanings to others by using signs. But how can we know what kind of meaning the recipient receives in his or her mind?

A thought experiment may illuminate the case: imagine that it is possible to observe the other person’s mind. The bubbles in Figure 5 depict the thoughts of sender and receiver respectively. In this way we “see” what the interlocutors see through their “inner eye”. For convenience, we call the sender “she” and the recipient “he”.

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Figure 5What is the intended meaning of the sender and what is the understanding of the receiver? (Adapted from Adler and Towne 1989: 259).

The picture of her dog is in the mind of the sender all the time. She knows exactly what she is talking about, providing clarifications step by step at the request of the receiver. The receiver, on his side, asks good questions ←39 | 40→and gradually the image he creates in his mind becomes more in line with what the sender really meant. Eventually the recipient does not ask any more questions because he thinks that he has understood what the dog looks like. The sender on her side will not add more explanations because she also believes that the recipient has understood. When they leave each other, they have different pictures in their mind and both think that the other has understood.

The case illustrates the four points mentioned above. The sender transmits signs, but it is the receiver who attaches meaning to what is being received. If they obtain identical meanings in their minds, they must negotiate over what the statements might mean. In daily life this happens all the time. In a conversation we usually agree on what words, phrases, language, body language should mean and thus attribute meanings to the signs. Communication is negotiating meanings, not only sending them. In summary we can conclude that “meanings do not leap from head to head”.

In some cases we do not want to be precise. In the case above, I may be satisfied knowing that the other person has a dog. I may not be interested in what breed of dog it is and have no questions about colours and the like. However, in some cases it is important to be precise. If the dog has gone astray it is important to know what one should look for when searching for it.

Another example that requires longer “negotiations of meanings” occurs if you need to rent a flat or a studio. In such cases it is important that the landlord and tenant interpret the contract the same way. Otherwise conflicts may readily occur because the parties have different interpretations of the same text. In some cases we want to be precise in communication, in other cases we choose consciously or unconsciously to be imprecise, thus leaving room for different interpretations.

Stereotypes: Putting people into boxes

Heaven is

where the police are British

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the chefs are French

the lovers Italian

the mechanics German

and it’s all organized by the Swiss

Hell is

where the police are German

the chefs are British

the lovers Swiss

the mechanics French

and it’s all organized by the Italians

In these statements groups of people are given certain characteristics – they are “put into boxes”. There may be some truth in the statements, but they are probably not true when we meet individuals. However, we often use such simplistic/superficial statements characterizing other people. We hear that Muslims are oppressors of women, Danes are pleasant, nurses are helpful, women are bad drivers and politicians are liars. We call such general statements stereotypes.

Stereotypes are categories of people or groups of people who share some common features.

Originally “stereotype” was the term for lead types used in printing presses. Such lead types were used over and over again, and this is also what happens through the categorization of people. When a characteristic is repeated long enough it obtains a certain level of authority even though it may not be true or only contain an element of truth.

The American journalist Walter Lippmann who introduced the concept in social sciences, calls stereotypes “pictures in our mind” (1997 [1922]). His main thesis is that we usually get our beliefs about other people through sources other than direct experience. If we hear statements about other people repeated several times, we tend to believe that they are correct. Stereotypical perceptions are rarely changed even when we meet people from the characterized group. Often we observe what we are programmed to see and we ignore other features that do not correspond to the stereotype.

Stereotypes are therefore assumptions of a social group or its members. They are often simple generalizations about groups of people who have some features in common and are often acquired via intermediaries and ←41 | 42→not as first-hand observations. “I’ve never met Muslim terrorists, but I have heard that someone has said …” Stereotypical perceptions tend to be fixed and be perceived as true and immutable and thereby become self-fulfilling prophecies. Therefore, they are often resistant to change.

For these reasons, stereotypes often have negative connotations. But in order to master a complex world we need and use stereotypes. Communication researchers have argued that stereotypes are essential for thinking and communication (Brislin 1981; Dahl 1995; Gudykunst 2003). We categorize everything around us: furniture, cars, houses, plants and animals. When the elements being categorized are people, we refer to the categorization process as stereotyping. Categorization simplifies everyday life. Stereotypes can be both useful and harmful – depending on how we use them. Instead of rejecting stereotypes as a whole and thinking that we can do without them, it is better to analyse them and find out how we can consciously become aware of them. For example, it may be necessary to change our stereotypes when we get more insight into the groups we categorize.

Categorizations of social groups are not necessarily more inaccurate, more biased or wrong than other types of categorizations that we adhere to. Visiting the supermarket, we assume that “cashiers are honest people”, even though it may not always be the case. But such stereotypes simplify everyday life. My stereotypes about nurses will probably make it easier for me as a patient to relate to many different nurses during a stay in hospital. The nurse on her side will probably have stereotypical perceptions of patients or specific groups of patients. Stereotypes about each other make it easier for both nurse and patient. (That the nurse is “she” is also a stereotype.)

Like other categorizations stereotypes may be helpful or harmful depending on how they are used. When stereotypes are used correctly, they can be helpful when we are faced with new challenges that must be dealt with there and then. For example, my stereotype that “Muslims do not eat pork and do not drink alcohol” may turn out useful when I am in an Arab country and will bring a present for my new business associate, Mr Ahmed. My stereotype helps me avoid silly mistakes. My “first best guess” is that I should not offer ham or a bottle of whiskey. However, it may be that when I have become acquainted with Ahmed, I know that he would appreciate a bottle of whiskey offered in a discrete manner. But in this case I no longer act according to my stereotypes: Ahmed has become ←42 | 43→an individual. He is no longer treated according to pre-set stereotypes, which describes groups of people.

Canadian organization researcher Nancy Adler (2008: 67) has made a statement showing that stereotypes become helpful when they are

consciously held. People should be aware they are describing a group norm rather than the characteristics of a specific individual.

descriptive rather than evaluative. The stereotype should describe what people from this group will probably be like and not evaluate the people as good or bad.

accurate. The stereotype should accurately describe the norm for the group to which the person belongs.

the first best guess about a group prior to acquiring information about the specific person or persons involved.

modified, based on continuing observation and experience with the actual people and situations.

Similarly, we may argue that stereotypes become harmful when they are

used unconsciously (subconscious stereotypes are difficult to modify or discard)

used normatively and not descriptively (a stereotype is used to evaluate the moral and intellectual standards of groups of people)

wrong (some stereotypes are directly misleading)

used without taking into account individual differences (stereotypes are specific group norms and not descriptions of an individual)

not open to modification even after new and deeper knowledge is acquired

Prejudices: “Frozen stereotypes”

The last point shows that stereotypes are closely related to what we call prejudices. Prejudices are “rigid” or “frozen” stereotypes. While stereotypes are positive or negative assumptions about groups of people, prejudices are “pre-judged” (mostly negative) attitudes towards a group of people. If we are prejudiced, we will hardly be willing to change our preconceived assumptions about the particular social group or a representative from ←43 | 44→the group, even if we are exposed to new information and gain new insight about the group.

If we prefer keeping our old maps even though the terrain proves to be different, we have frozen stereotypes or prejudices. It can make life easier for us, but it is hardly an attitude that promotes communication and interpersonal understanding. Some of the difference between stereotypes and prejudice is that while a stereotype is a belief or a perception that is constantly subject to modification, a prejudice is an attitude that opposes modification. Prejudices therefore have a negative connotation.

In his book Orientalism (1978) US-Palestinian historian Edward Said argues that Western researchers constructed an image of “the Orient” – from Morocco to the Middle East, China and Japan – on the basis of their more or less fantastical ideas about how this part of the world looked. The description is not based on how “Orientals” perceived themselves, but on ideas of the “Occidents” about this part of the world. The Occidents projected their own ideas onto “the other”. The fairy tale of Arabian Nights had more influence on how the West understood the Arabs than the reality experienced by the inhabitants themselves. The people living in the Orient were given oriental properties which formed an ideological basis that legitimized colonization. According to contemporary racial theories Orientals were retarded, degenerated, uncivilized and mentally handicapped and the white man regarded it almost as a duty to conquer them to bring them the best of what “Western civilization” could offer.

Many Arab countries, especially in the Middle East, have similar ideas about Western people: the collective term Western is expected to be equally valid whether one means Norway, France or California. The characterization “unbelievers” is easily generalized to all people of the West. Therefore the tendency of “Orientalism” applies also in a westward direction.

Edward Said argues that the central feature of orientalism is still in use – especially when it comes to descriptions of Muslims and/or Arabs. In the Western media, in popular literature, and among some researchers, orientalist descriptions and analyses are still produced. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War in 1989, Muslims have often been given the role of enemy. The discourse about immigrants in Europe also contains remnants of orientalism. Muslims are described as a group ←44 | 45→and various nuances of both religious and civil behaviour disappear. When Muslim conduct is characterized as medieval and oppressive to women, we are dangerously close to orientalism or “othering”, as we shall discuss in the next section.


Othering is a neologism (new word). Adrian Holliday is a strong exponent of critical intercultural communication and defines othering as follows:

By Othering we mean imagining someone as alien and different to “us” in such a way that “they” are excluded from “our” “normal”, “superior” and “civilized” group […] [Othering is] reducing the foreign Other to less than what they are. (2010: 2, 26)

It is by describing the alien “other” in this way that “our” group becomes more self-conscious and exclusive. Othering is a consequence of essentialism in which we reduce the other to an object. Stereotypes are easily used to create prejudices and biases that may infer othering by focusing on some selected features – an essence – and reducing the other to an object. Let us present a Norwegian case:

In Norway there is a congregation called Brunstad Christian Church. They have their convention centre in Brunstad in the county of Vestfold. Outsiders usually call them “Smith’s Friends” since Johan Oscar Smith (1871–1943) was the founder of the movement. Their children attend regular schools, but do not participate in excursions and events organized by the school. Instead, they organize internal leisure activities for children and young people. They attach great importance to literally interpretation of the Bible. Therefore, families often have seven to twelve children since birth control and abortion are not accepted in the church. Most women prefer long skirts, since it is stated in the Old Testament that women should not wear men’s clothes. Their hair is covered by headscarves, because the apostle Paul in the New Testament says that it is shame for women to cut their hair. The men, however, shall not let their hair grow. A woman, who has broken away from the church, says that when she was 13, her pants were stripped off; she had to wear long skirts. The congregation had a ceremony in which they burned all her pants on a campfire. It was the sign that she had definitely become “adult”. When she eventually resigned from the church, she was shunned by her own family and former friends in the church and did not have any relationship with them anymore.

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Such a description of another group can easily reduce the group’s real life into something exotic and alien. In this way we celebrate our own group as normal and proper, while “Smith’s Friends” are seen as bizarre and different. It should be said that some of the rules of haircutting and traditional clothing have been liberalized in recent years in BCC. But this group can be used as a case of “othering”. Another case of practising conservative religion and lifestyle is the Amish people in the United States. Chapter 6.

If someone does not behave according to the conventional group’s norms, we tend to say that he or she is an exception. We form stereotypical perceptions of the group and stereotypes can easily turn to prejudice that in turn may lead to othering. The challenge is to be able to observe oneself from an outside vantage point. If I had grown up in this congregation, how would I experience the mainstream society surrounding me?

The danger of culturism

Othering can easily lead to culturism, in which culture may be used to provide convenient explanations or as an accumulator of prejudices. There is every reason to warn against culture as an explanatory model in all cases as we then run the risk of culturism (Holliday et al. 2010: 26). Here we define cultural activism as follows:

When members of a group are reduced to actors following a fixed pattern of action predetermined by their culture, we call it culturism.

Culturism is a systematized othering that implies that people’s behaviour is determined by culture. Culture thus becomes a kind of label attached to the group. In most cases it signals reductionism. Instead of seeing the complex, composite image of diversity in culture, culture is reduced to single factors that are given great weight. Holliday has pointed out that culture is currently used in the same way as racism in the past, where skin colour determined people’s mental state, value and our attitudes toward them (2010: 27), as people were discriminated against because of racial ←46 | 47→characteristics: skin colour, physiognomy, etc. Also, sexism, discrimination on the grounds of gender, has been used as a reason to disparage and assert control over women. Culture can easily be abused in the same manner, downgrading others because of their cultural background. When culture is utilized as an easy explanation of the behaviour of others one fells into the trap of culturism.

Lots of residents in Europe are prejudiced with regard to immigrants – a term which itself covers a large and diverse group. If a Somali immigrant beats his wife, an easy explanation is to conclude that such intimidation is “part of his culture”, or to claim that the “abuse of women is common in Muslim cultures”. If a Norwegian commits the same abuse, it’s easier to assign him special traits: “He beats his wife because he has an unbalanced nature”, or “because he is a bully.” In the latter case we find that the rowdy Norwegian is an exception to our stereotypes about Norwegians, while in the case of the Somali the explanation alludes to the idea that such abuse is common, that is, the story refers to a rule, a commonly adopted stereotype, a prejudice. But such use of the concept of culture is reductionist since we only refer to a fraction of what we might call Muslim or Somali culture.

But the picture may be reversed. Immigrants may have stereotypes and prejudices about the Norwegian host culture and its behaviour that may affect possibilities for communication. Pakistani immigrants, who get their stereotypes from weekly magazines and television, can easily deduce that Norwegians are immoral and frivolous. People, who originate from cultures where virtuous women should be covered, may conclude, from reading such magazines, that Norwegian women are often “naked”, in other words, they are “whores”. Such perceptions may in turn set limits on how much interaction they want their children to have with Norwegian children. The contrast is even greater when they – naturally enough – compare the stereotypical Norwegian way with what is common in the community they come from, which is often based on slightly outdated stereotypes (Raja 2008). When in such a case one falls back on a simplified essentialist explanation, it is culturism (Figure 6).

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Figure 6Circle of essentialism: essentialism can lead to stereotypes, which can lead to prejudice, which can lead to othering, which can lead to culturism, which can lead to essentialism, etc.

Ethnocentrism, cultural relativism and empathy

According to a Chinese metaphor the fish is ignorant of the water when swimming. But the moment it leaps above the surface and splashes down again, it recognizes the existence of water. Similarly, we do not notice our own cultural environment before we meet strangers or go abroad. Then suddenly we become aware that we have different ways of doing things, other ways of saying things, other ways of responding. In short: we have other cultural codes built in. These codes are composed by different elements. Encountering other people entails that we face new challenges, we reinterpret and activate new elements of our ←48 | 49→cultural repertoire. In short: we reconstruct our social reality (Berger and Luckmann 1980).

Ethnocentrism involves considering oneself, one’s own values, or one’s own group conduct better than that of other and uses one’s own values as a yardstick for evaluating others.

The term ethnocentrism is composed of the Greek word ethnos “people” and the Latin centrum “centre”. It is a common belief in most cultures that their own culture is the best, most advanced, most natural and most correct. Our own values and norms seem to be the best ones. The flaw of others is that they are not “like us”.

We can find ethnocentric perceptions in most countries. For instance, the Chinese call their country “The Middle Kingdom” and other peoples are characterized as barbarians. The Chinese wise man Meng-tzu (Latin: Mencius) (372–289 bc) stated: “I have heard that one has taught barbarians Chinese culture. But I’ve never heard that one has learned culture from barbarians” (Henne 1978: 24). The Chinese sense of cultural superiority toward strangers is, as we know, very old. An ethnocentric approach to life also means that one uses one’s own culture as a yardstick for evaluating others. North Americans who measure other people’s intelligence by their proficiency in English, is an example of this type of ethnocentrism.

Somewhat simplified, one can say that the opposite of an ethnocentric attitude is a relativistic attitude. In the latter perspective everything is considered relatively, or as not universally valid. In relation to aliens one cannot apply so-called objective standards or the yardstick of one’s own life as every statement, action and phenomena must be understood in relation to the local context. The American anthropologist Clifford Geertz says that interpretative anthropology must make efforts to see aliens from “the actor’s point of view” (1973: 14). One needs empathy – the ability to empathize – to understand other people from within.

Developing empathy can be achieved using the “cultural immersion” model (Bennett 1979), an approach represented by a five-stage model by Dahl (2001: 224). The model can also serve as a model for cultural relativism as a method of research:

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1.Self-knowledge. The starting point is knowledge of own values and norms.

2.Self-abandonment. Immersion necessarily means that one must leave one’s own positions and values behind.

3.Empathy. Once immersed in the other culture one must observe, listen and learn from the other’s assumptions, values and acts and, as far as possible, watch things as they appear from the “inside”.

4.Return. After the emphatic dive into the other culture, one should return to one’s own culture and restore one’s own identity.

5.Reflection. Experiences from this immersion may induce critical distance to one’s own culture and create openness toward the other’s culture.

Anthropologist Fredrik Barth asserts that discovering a new culture is “becoming like children again” (1991). However, a complete cultural relativistic attitude is probably impossible, because we will never arrive without preconditions towards another culture. Studying people will involve interaction and communication. It is better to be aware that we are carrying with us specific cultural frames of reference, moral values and attitudes than thinking that we are neutral “objective” astral bodies.


Meta-communication may be defined as communication about communication. The term can be used in two ways. In the same way as meta-theory is a scientific theory that has another theory as its study object, meta-communication may be understood as a study of a communication process seen from the outside – one can observe and comment upon a communication event from different theoretical angles without accessing the actual content in communication. The study report then becomes meta-communication – communication about communication.

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But the term meta-communication is often used about communication integrated in the process of communication. Communication researcher Gregory Bateson describes how he observed two infant monkeys who pretended they were fighting, while it was clear to both the infant monkeys and the human observer that they were just playing (2000: 179). Meta-communication took place between the animals while they were play-fighting, expressing the idea “This is fun”. Body language and intonation can be studied as meta-communication that accompanies verbal communication. The phrase “I’ll show you!” can, for instance, be perceived as friendly encouragement or hostile threat depending on intonation and body language. Cultural codes or frames of reference can also provide keys to how a particular communication should be interpreted.

Content communication and relational communication

When we communicate about a certain subject, a particular theme or a problem, we may call it content communication. Such communications may be predominantly verbal but supported by nonverbal communication. Simultaneously we can also communicate about our mutual relationship, which we call relational communication. It is also a form of meta-communication. Such communication is often nonverbal, for example, varying small facial features, different types of smile or no smile, seeking or avoiding eye contact and making small affirmative or hum sounds. Such responses will most effectively convey whether we are interested in deepening contact or if we want to withdraw. The relational aspect is linked to the manner by which we convey the content of communication, that is, the attitude by which we – verbally and nonverbally – address others, for example by showing interest, indifference, impatience, kindness or irritation.

Relational communication can of course also be conveyed verbally or in writing using expressions such as “good old friend”, “bastard”, “hug you” or “see you soon”. Mutual relations, which generally include more emotional relationships between communication partners, are incredibly important for our way of both sending and receiving signs and signals.

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Double communication: Speaking with two tongues

Communication is also behaviour and lifestyle. An episode from some development project in Africa illustrates the point: an aid worker who calls for austerity, but lives in conditions, which the people in that environment will perceive as abundance, will hardly be believed. His lifestyle and other behaviour communicate something different from what he says. This situation can be characterized as double communication.

It is also double communication when the expert claims that the people he works among have the right to participate in the project, while structures and premises for the entire project exclude any equitable participation. In practice the expert is the one who makes these determinations – by virtue of his organizational role in the project and by virtue of the money he has at his disposal. The whole organizational structure communicates who is superior and who is subordinate, that is, who sets the rules for interaction.

Similarly, we can say that a businessman is practising double communication when he proposes a free negotiation of a contract, while the motions suggested are not open to alternatives. There is no consistency between words and deeds.

Symmetry and asymmetry in the communication

The cases described above highlight an important point about communication. Such relationships may be symmetrical or asymmetrical. In symmetrical relationships, the parties practice an equal distribution of control, power and authority. Such relationship may typically occur between good friends or colleagues who in words and deeds show mutual respect for each other. Symmetry requires balance in a relationship and that participants treat each other as equals. Asymmetry is the opposite: whereby one partner has more power than the other and more control and authority than the other. The relationship may ←52 | 53→be felt to be more like a parent-child relationship, even between adults, where one of the partners is small, insecure, defiant, rebellious, while the other is big, confident, morally superior or authoritarian. One feels inferior, the other feels superior and this imbalance is experienced by both parties.

A well-known case is the relationship between therapist and patient. The relationship is determined through their respective roles. One is helper, the other needs and receives assistance. Every action involves an asymmetrical relationship. In such situations, it is important that the power of the strongest – which in itself is legitimate – is not being abused toward the weak part. The therapist should not take away responsibility from the patient as long as the person is able to mobilize his or her own resources (autonomy).

Cross-cultural and intercultural communication

Intercultural communication is communication between actors representing different cultural backgrounds. Studying communication between Poles and Malaysians, between Scots and the English or between doctor and patient, may be characterized as intercultural communication. However – as has been demonstrated – the study of such cases can be quite different whether we use descriptive or dynamic approaches.

Cross-cultural communication is communication across cultures. If the goal of the study is comparison of greeting customs in Japan, France and Russia, it may be reasonable to label such studies cross-cultural communication (Gudykunst and Kim 2003).

Most often, however, researchers of cross-cultural communication are also concerned with intercultural communication and, therefore, in many cases the terms tend to overlap. In this textbook we discuss both typical cases of intercultural communication – where communication takes place between two or more actors with different cultural frames of reference – and cross-cultural communication studies, where comparative aspects are essential.

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Intracultural and intercultural communication. Cultural distance

Two people who know each other well and who may have spent much of their childhood together, do not need many words to understand each other. It is perhaps possible to characterize this communication as intracultural communication – that is, communication within a particular culture in the essentialist sense. The term intra means “within”. (Not to be confused with inter, meaning “between”.) The term is not entirely unproblematic. Communications that are entirely intracultural probably do not exist in reality – because two individuals are usually bearers of different cultural backgrounds.

Two people who have very different backgrounds, such as a German and a Chinese person, are likely to have problems understanding each other. We can characterize this communication as intercultural communication. But it need not be nationality that creates distance. Communication about viruses on a computer between a computer scientist and a nurse, who are both German, can be problematic if one of them uses a lot of technical terms which the other is not familiar with. And an instruction manual is not always easy to understand for those who do not know the specific code language.

We can imagine a gradual transition from intracultural to intercultural communication along a scale (Figure 7 ).

Figure 7A gradual transition from intracultural to intercultural communication.

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This scale illustrates what we call cultural distance. If those who communicate have similar backgrounds, it can be said that the cultural distance between them is very small. If they have vastly different backgrounds, one may conclude that there is considerable cultural distance between them. But where is the borderline? What is inside and what is outside of a culture?

Whether I am talking with my sister, whom I know very well or with Aborigines from Australia, the mechanism of communication at work is technically the same. In both cases we interpret – and misinterpret – each other’s signals, body language, words, signs and behaviour. Both intracultural and intercultural communication studies are carried out in the same way and there is no sharp distinction between them or the way we analyse such cases of communication (Gudykunst and Kim 2003). All discussion about intercultural communication “boils down to” interpersonal communication. Therefore, in the subsequent chapters we will discuss intercultural communication under the heading “communication”.

Theory and practice: Models of analysis in communication

“Nothing is as practical as a good theory.” The slogan expresses the idea that theory is useful when trying to understand a phenomenon. A theory is an explanation of a phenomenon and theory and practice are often seen as opposites. However, in research work they are closely interlinked. Researchers may expose a theory for critical scrutiny and test it by practice, which may lead to the acceptance or rejection of the theory. Often we do the opposite. Some practice needs an acceptable explanation; a good theory will then be of great help.

Here is a case: a medical theory is applied to describe and explain the causes of health and illness, but the theory itself does not make people healthy. Only practical medical care will cure the patient. Theory and practice are thus associated with each other, but they can also be used independently. One can carry out research on disease and health without ←55 | 56→having a particular patient as object and one may cure a patient without having insight into all the theory that forms the basis for a treatment.

Theories may be understood as tools that can promote explanation and understanding. Another tool is models – they are simplistic representations of what the theories are attempting to describe. A good model focuses on some selected issues that are considered important for explaining a phenomenon. At the same time, it excludes some issues that are considered less significant. Models will thus never give an adequate representation of reality. Models can be compared with maps, as maps are simplifications, but at the same time useful tools. A well-designed model may help us achieve a quick visualization of some complex reality in the same way that maps do.

In the beginning of this chapter we introduced the classic model of communication. In order to explain complex phenomena such as communication, we also used other models that complement each other. Together they contribute to more comprehensive understanding of the complex phenomenon of communication.

A well-known image – or model of communication – is the bridge. A bridge connects two different riverbanks. Communication is a means of connecting – creating commonness across separation – whether by rail, roads, cell phones, television, other media or by meeting face to face. The opposite of building bridges is building walls. A wall divides parties from each other and leads to isolation. As such, isolation is the opposite of communication. Using these concepts, we have introduced two models: the bridge or the wall. They visualize something which is quite complex in reality. In the following chapters we will apply various theories, models and methods to analyse more complex cases of communication.

Analysis is the systematic examination of a phenomenon, a case, an object or a concept. One tries to figure out how phenomena or concepts are composed from various components, each of which can in turn be the object of new analyses until the desired accuracy or explanation is obtained.

The opposite of analysis is a synthesis. In a synthesis, one tries to join one or more constituents to obtain an overview or attain something new.

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In the following chapters we will study various analytical models. How can we analyse and explain such complex phenomena as communication? We shall present theories and models that focus on communication processes, semiotic models that emphasize how meanings are constructed based on signs and eventually hermeneutic models that show how we constantly develop our understanding.

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“Why didn’t you tell me?” “I told you!” What did they really say?

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Process Analysis: Building Bridges

A woman and a man are driving along in a car. They are approaching a petrol station. The following conversation takes place:

w: “Are you thirsty?”

m: “No!”

(Driving beyond the petrol station.)

w: “You did not stop!”


XII, 298
ISBN (Book)
Publication date
2021 (March)
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2021. XII, 298 pp., 44 fig. col., 18 fig. b/w, 3 tables.

Biographical notes

Oyvind Dahl (Author)

Øyvind Dahl is Norwegian but grew up in Madagascar, where he taught at a teacher training college for several years. He has worked around international development issues in different countries and is now Professor Emeritus at VID Specialized University in Stavanger, Norway. He helped establish the Centre for Intercultural Communication (SIK) at VID and Nordic Network for Intercultural Communication (NIC) together with professional partners from other Nordic countries. He has also been a board member of the Society for Intercultural Education, Training and Research in Europe (SIETAR- Europa).


Title: Human Encounters