Exploring Intercultural Communication: Language in Action

This post was contributed by Professor Zhù Huá, of Birkbeck’s Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication. Professor Huá’s book, Exploring Intercultural Communication: Language in Action, is published by Routledge.

In a recent episode of Downton Abbey, Mr Carson, the butler of the house and a master of etiquette, met the black jazz singer Ross for the first time. Overcome by Ross’s skin colour, he struggled with words. All he could come up with was ‘Have you considered visiting Africa?’

Those days of social and cultural compartmentalization of different racial groups are long gone.  We meet, interact and build relationships with ‘others’ who may look different, speak different language(s) or are guided by different values from ‘us’, either by choice or by chance in various social spaces, due to a bundle of processes including globalisation and technological advances. Intercultural Communication Studies, pioneered by the American Anthropologist, Edward Hall, in the 1950s to research the cultures of the ’enemies’ of the US at that time, are primarily interested in understanding how people from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds interact with each other, and what impact such interactions have on group relations, as well as individuals’ identities, attitudes and behaviours.

Intercultural communication naturally entails the use of language and language is key to understanding culture. When you offer tea to a visitor and she says ‘no, thank you’, how do you know that she is not just being polite or ‘indirect’? After all, in some parts of the world such as East Asia, declining first before accepting someone’s offer is the preferred norm of behaviour. When a student remains ‘quiet’ and ‘passive’ in the classroom, how much can we attribute non-participation to the cultural factor and can we assume active participation means success?  We all seem to know students who are quiet in the classroom but produce excellent course work!

Going to the commercial side of things, does it surprise you that Häagen-Daz ice cream is not Danish, but made in Minneapolis, US? Why is ‘Frenchness’ commodified and displayed for sale through popular books  ‘French women do not get fat’, ‘French women do not sleep alone’ and ‘French parents do not give in’?  What led to the closure of Tesco branches in the Unites States and China? When you travel to a new place, how do you think of the general advice offered by some tourist websites and guidebooks on culturally specific etiquette, customs, practices and national character? Are they helpful or do they merely reinforce cultural stereotypes? I have come across a website offering advice on touring in China. It says ‘Chinese people are inherently shy and modest. They do not display emotion and feelings in public and find speaking bluntly unnerving.’  For a cultural insider, these comments seem very foreign.

Yet, sometimes culture is blamed when it should not be. Last December, a news story appeared in many English language newspapers.  It was alleged that the newly appointed Swedish ambassador to Iran, Peter Tejler, insulted the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad by ‘exposing the soles of his shoes’ when he was sitting with his legs crossed during a formal meeting. The Atlantic Wire has gone one step further and invited an expert from the University of West Florida to explain that it was a taboo in the Muslim culture to show the sole of a shoe, because soles are ‘considered dirty, closest to the ground, closer to the devil and farther away from God’. However, a number of Iranian students and scholars I talked to following the incident found the news headline bewildering, to say the least. They attested that similar to many other cultures, it was nothing unusual to sit with legs crossed in their home culture and whether exposing soles or not was not a problem at all. With their help, I traced back to the Arabic newspaper, Asriran, where the news first appeared. It turned out that the Swedish diplomatic was frowned upon not because he exposed the sole of his shoe, but because he breached a diplomatic etiquette by sitting too comfortably and crossing legs in a formal diplomatic meeting.

Exploring Intercultural CommunicationIntercultural communication permeates our everyday life in many different and complex ways. In the book, Exploring Intercultural Communication: Language in Action (published by Routledge, 2014), I use a ‘back to front’ structure, starting with the practical concerns of intercultural communication in five sites – language classroom, workplace, business, family and studying/travelling abroad. I then focus on the question ‘how to communicate effectively and appropriately in intercultural interactions’. In the third part, I go behind the questions of what and how and examine key theories, models and methodological considerations in the study of intercultural communication.  The main message of the book, I believe, is that intercultural communication provides an analytical lens to differences we see and experience in our daily social interactions with other people who may look different from us, speak a different language, or speak the same language in a different way.

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