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Human Encounters

Introduction to Intercultural Communication

Oyvind Dahl

This book gives a comprehensive introduction to intercultural communication. The reader is introduced to essential concepts in the field, different theories and methods of analysing communication, the importance of verbal and nonverbal languages for bringing about mutual understanding and, finally, the ethical challenges that arise.

The volume also has a practical aspect. The author discusses subjects such as handling encounters with people using foreign languages; incorporating different life styles and world views; the use of interpreters, non-familiar bodylanguage; different understandings of time; relocation in new settings; the use of power and how to deal with cultural conflicts generally.

Published as a general textbook in English for the first time following a very successful original edition in Norwegian, also translated to Russian and French, this richly-illustrated book offers a refreshing and engaging introduction to intercultural understanding

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CHAPTER 2 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.


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