Cultural Aspects of Communication

"Deep cultural undercurrents structure life in subtle but highly consistent ways that are not consciously formulated. Like the invisible jet streams in the skies that determine the course of a storm, these hidden currents shape our lives; yet their influence is only beginning to be identified. "
-Edward T. Hall

In a general sense, culture is a conglomerate of values, beliefs, symbols and behavior that we have inherited from our closest group(s) of influence. It is therefore acquired rather than innate. It partially defines us because we have the ability to evolve away from our original influences. Some of our cultural influences are visible, but since most are burried in our subconscious, we are usually unaware of their existence. The display of traditions and customs is just the tip of the iceberg, because our culture shapes the most inner dimensions of our personality.

People are strongly influenced by their culture and usually promote it unknowingly. When individuals meet, cultures meet. Many believe that the closer the cultures, the easier the understanding; the further apart, the greater the possibility of miscommunication.

There have been many attempts at trying to understand the impact of culture on communication. Often times the focus has been on observing and analyzing what happens when subjects from different cultural backgrounds communicate. Some studies have tried to determine if cultural influences have any impact on exchange and mutual understanding, if individuals are aware of their own cultural influences, if the cultural gap between them has the potential to lead to division, miscommunication and conflict, and if so, what are the ways to reduce that breach.

There is an abundance of scientific literature dedicated to shedding light on the relationship between culture and communication, and to answering the questions above. In fact, it is so substantial that it can easily convince one of the importance of paying attention to it. Though interestingly, one will notice that it still doesn't solicit much interest among the population. We should be concerned, considering the ever increasing volume of intercultural exchanges brought about by the internet and the overall impact of globalization. And sadly, opportunities to introduce the notion to the public are recurrently missed to the detriment of intercultural respect and understanding.

To give an example, it would be pertinent to familiarize more government leaders, representatives and spokespersons with the intricate art of intercultural communication. Within the context of international relations, before meeting with their foreign counterparts (in a neutral location or their own country), our representatives usually have the opportunity to be briefed by advisors on certain dos and don’ts. But so many forget to worry about the use of some words, ideas and symbols, which may not translate well in the other culture, or may deeply offend and antagonize the foreign audience.

We can remember the commotion created by the use of the word "crusade" in early pre-Iraq war speeches by President Bush. The word reverberated in the Arab world as a declaration of war on all Muslims. In the Arab culture, the word "crusade" is strongly frowned upon because it recalls the barbarous military campaign lead over hundreds of years by leaders of the Catholic Church to recapture Jerusalem and the “Holy Land” from Muslim rule. This slip damaged the President’s image so severely that we can only imagine the kind of time, work and money put into trying to redress it, and to regain the trust of Muslims around the world.

Culture matters. It matters for good human relations, for clear communication, for successful negotiations, for mutual understanding, for respect and for peace. In the pursuit of reducing further “clashes of civilizations” – as elaborated by Samuel Huntington- we should begin by clarifying that it is the culture of those civilizations that clash rather than these organized societies themselves. And those collisions often occur because of a poor choice of words, an inappropriate use of an idea, what we could call a "blind intercultural communication" exchange.

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