Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Intercultural Communication

„A well-dressed Mexican pulled up in a taxi to the Palacio de Justicia in Lima, Peru. Armed guards were standing on the steps ascending to the building. The passenger paid and thanked the driver and opened the door of the cab, intent on the information he had come to get. As he leaned forward and put one foot on the pavement, a cold rifle muzzle jabbed him in the temple and jerked his attention to matters at hand. The Peruvian guard holding the rifle shot two harsh words at him. The Mexican reddened, emerged from the taxi, and drew himself erect. With a sweep at his arm, he retorted three words: „Qué! Nos conocemos?“ (What! Do we know each other?) With a half bow the guard lowered the rifle and courteously gestured the man up the steps, speaking in deferential tones. What happened here? What did the guard with the gun say that triggered this reaction from the Mexican? And what in the Mexican visitor’s behavior and those three Spanish words instantly changed the Peruvian guard's attitude and demeanor?“

This his how Tracy Novinger begins her „Intercultural Communication: A Practical Guide“ (University of Texas Press, Austin). Difficult to think of a more compelling way (I was reminded of a thriller) to introduce a tome on intercultural communication and, needless to say, she had my full attention:

„The Mexican visitor and the Peruvian guard participated in a communication exchange that was deeply embedded in the hierarchy and formality inherent in Mediterranean-based cultures. With the interrogation, „Qué quieres?“ (What do you want?), the guard had addressed the visitor with the familiar verb form in Spanish. The familiar form of address in most Spanish-speaking countries is used only with family members, close friends, former classmates, or children. The reflexive reaction of the man arriving was indignation, even though the circumstances were dangerous. His retort „Do we know each other?“ was a powerful cultural rebuke. The automatic response of the guard was to amend his discourtesy and reply in the formal style of address for the visitor to please go about his business. Fortunately for the Mexican visitor, this incident turned out well. He would have not responded in such a manner if he had stopped to think about the logic of challenging a gun with indignation and three Spanish words – but the point is that he did not think. Cultural conditioning controlled the behavior of both men, including he who held the gun and the apparent power. Neither men went through a conscious thought process.“

Think! is always good advice, and especially when dealing with members of other cultures. Yet it is hardly enough. „You are American soldiers! Think about it!“ Joseph Heller lets (in „Catch 22“) an officer address his subordinates and then comments: „They thought about it.“

Don’t get me wrong: Tracy Novinger does not argue that going „through a conscious thought process“ is enough in order to deal successfully with members of foreign cultures. I mainly quoted Joseph Heller because I love this quote. What Novinger does argue for is that „we must learn to speak a foreign culture in the same way we must learn to speak a foreign language.“ In other words, we must learn the art of nonverbal communication which is said to make up „two-thirds to three-fourths of our communication.“ And, how does one do that? By spending time with Tracy Novinger’s helpful book, for example.

Tracy Novinger
Intercultural Communication: A Practical Guide
University of Texas Press, Austin

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