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Culture And Communication

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Culture has a powerful impact on communication. Some of the components of a person’s culture are derived from ethnicity, religious beliefs, social affiliations, political positions, nationality, race, work environment, peer group, and gender. As an example, observe the style of the late Texas governor, Ann Richards. She used folk wisdom, concrete examples, and stories as the basis for her political ideology. One of her favorite lines was “Tell it so my Mama in Waco can understand it.”

The way we communicate often reflects our cultural backgrounds. Research shows that many Caucasian males, for example, prefer direct communication and a competitive style of interaction. Hispanic or Latino males often reject the competitive style favoring a more expressive and elegant form of communication.

I recently taught on an Indian reservation in Warm Springs, Oregon. Several different tribes were represented in my audience, including Navajo and Lakota. Many Native American cultures discourage the competitive style of interaction. They prefer cooperation when discussing important matters. I also learned while teaching the Native Americans that they believe direct eye contact is a sign of disrespect. In some Asian and Native American cultures, publicly proving that someone else is wrong is considered a serious insult.

There is less research on Caucasian and Asian American women and their styles of communication. In general, they prefer a collaborative type of communication. They also use personal anecdotes and experiences alongside their concrete examples of evidence.

Think about how your culture influences your style of communication.

At the same time, always remember that real communication takes place between individuals, not cultures. Cultural orientation helps us understand and often predict behavior, but it is not infallible. For example, many of us call one another by our first names. Most of the rest of the world does not follow this habit, however. There are also many U.S. citizens who prefer formality, using titles and last names. This does not make them any less like U.S. citizens; it just makes them individuals. Because we communicate with people, we need to be cautious about stereotyping one another based on culture. Cultural orientation simply helps us predict how people in certain cultures will speak and act.

Last year I taught a seminar entitled, “Effective Communication in a Global Team Environment” to an audience of German and American associates. Typically, when I teach Germans, I know to be formal when addressing them. But during this seminar, they asked me to call them by their first names. My German students are very familiar with North American customs and were probably attempting to make their American associates more comfortable.

One of my most memorable teaching experiences was in Prague, the Czech Republic. If you have ever attended one of my seminars, you know they are very interactive and lively. But for some reason, my class of 40 students was extremely quiet and reserved. During a break, one of my Czech students offered some insight. She reminded me that the Czech Republic was under communist rule until 1989. The “Velvet Revolution” removed the USSR-backed Communists from power. Playwright, essayist, poet, dissident and politician Václav Havel was elected the country’s president. Even though the Czech Republic is now a democracy, my students had grown up under communist rule. Hence, in my classes they were very quiet…so as to not say the wrong thing. Some habits are very hard to break, especially when your life may be at stake.

I studied in Eastern Europe during my sophomore year in college. I visited East Berlin and Checkpoint Charlie several times. I learned to never take freedom for granted.

Our cultural backgrounds and interactions with persons from other cultures can have a lifetime influence on us. I am grateful for the experiences and knowledge that I have acquired living and working all over the world.


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