As technical writers we often conduct a piece of communication for a given reader or specific audience, but how often do you think about the primary reader’s culture? Would you change the communication if your audience has a different cultural threshold?
Challenges to Effective Communication
The main barrier in verbal communication is the language, so it’s important, as with all technical writing, to be clear and concise and avoid idioms that could cause misinterpretation of the message or even be offensive to another person.
These misconceptions or offenses usually occur in nonverbal communication because even though there are emblematic gestures (gesture of peace, thumb up, etc.) these can mean different things in different cultures and we don’t inherently know the connotation. Another important issue is personal space. In Latin American it is common for conversation to happen with a fairly short distance between people, unlike North American culture, where personal space is of greater importance. A good way to politely establish a comfortable space is with a handshake.
Another important factor to consider when implementing effective communication within the organization (internal communication) is that employees must have a clear vision/respect for the way the organization works, a clear description of each job position and what is expected of each employee. To accomplish this, the most important thing is to first ensure that senior managers adequately understand the project goals and expectations. This creates unity and consistency among team members. Similarly it is crucial to 1) train all employees consistently regardless of rank or hierarchical level, 2) encourage teamwork and pride in the outcome of a project, and 3) organize regular staff meetings to enhance communication.
Unfortunately, many people live in the misconception that they are empathetic with other cultures when the reality is very different. To better understand our own personal outlook, we must ask ourselves if we’ve used any of these phrases lately or (ever):
- “People from ____________ country are…”
- “It has nothing to do with a cultural issue.”
- “It’s really hard to work with _____________ people because….”
By engaging in or stating our own generalizations of people from a country, race or religion, we actively perpetuate or create stereotypes. These are generally extremely negative, and restrict our ability to relate to any individuals outside our own culture.
Technical writers must be mindful that being ignorant of others’ customs, values, and habits leads to poor communication and a lack of sensitivity. This causes negative reactions, and even worse, negative consequences. One way to begin understanding our own cultural profile, take Harvard Business Review’s questionnaire “What’s Your Cultural Profile?“
Remember these five important things about culture:
- It is learned. Geert Hofstede views culture as consisting of mental programs, calling it softwares of the mind, meaning each person “carries within him or herself patterns of thinking, feeling, and potential acting which were learned throughout their lifetime.” Similarly, Peter Senge argues that mental models lock individuals and groups into a specific perception about the world. Like a computer, we are programmed to act or behave in certain ways. The conscious and unconscious learning we undergo, over time, turns into beliefs that we consider to be valid. We then teach each other that these beliefs are cultural norms, and they are then expressed in our daily lives as behaviors and actions.
- It is shared. Although you may think of yourself as an individual, you share beliefs, rituals, ceremonies, traditions, and assumptions with people who grew up or live in similar cultural backgrounds. It is easier for you to relate to someone who has shared value systems and ways of doing things than someone who does not share the same values. The patterns of culture bind us together and enable us to get along with each other.
- It is dynamic. Culture is dynamic and thus complex. Culture is fluid rather than static, which means that culture changes every day, in subtle and tangible ways. Because humans communicate and express their cultural systems in a variety of ways, it can be hard to pinpoint exactly what cultural dynamics are at play. It is important to pay attention to the cultural context of a communication to understand the depths of its dynamic properties.
- It is systemic. In systems theory, systems are interrelated interconnected parts that create a whole. There are patterns of behavior, deeply rooted structural systems, which are beneath the waterline. What we see at the top of the iceberg are the behaviors; we do not see what contributes to those behaviors. To address the system, one must be able to address the underlining patterns. These patterns, because they are deeply embedded in the system, will take up significant effort, time, and resources. Changes to the system are slow and gradual; visible changes may not appear until months, or even years, later.
- It is symbolic. Symbols are both verbal and nonverbal in form within cultural systems, and they have a unique way of linking human beings to each other. Humans create meaning between symbols and what they represent; as a result, different interpretations of a symbol can occur in different cultural contexts.
Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity
In good intercultural communication, understanding depends on the ability to perceive, react and accept differences and similarities. The developmental model of intercultural sensitivity by Milton J. Bennett explains this in six stages–three of them ethnocentric, and three of them ethnorelative in Figure 2.6:
The first stage defines ethnocentrism as the attitude or point of view by which the world is analyzed according to the parameters of our own culture. It often involves the belief that one’s own ethnic group is the most important, or that some or all aspects of our culture are superior to those of other cultures. The stages of ethnocentrism are:
- Denial: recognizing cultural differences perceived by the naked eye (schedules, holidays, food, dress, etc.) but denying deeper intrinsic differences.
- Defense: criticizing other cultures with negative or derogatory terms as a result of feeling threatened, which leads to negative stereotypes, prejudices and discriminatory attitudes.
- Minimization: thinking that values and behavior are universal principles and are equal to one’s own.
The second stage is ethnorelativism, a learned skill, where a person consciously recognizes values and behaviors as a cultural matter rather than a universal one. The stages of ethno-relativism are:
- Acceptance: recognizing that cultural differences must be respected in order to improve interactions We may not agree with a specific cultural practice or difference but we respect a co-worker’s values.
- Adaptation: to be able to change a cultural outlook or behavior, which improves understanding and communication in different cultural contexts.
- Integration: an effort to integrate different cultural elements and feel comfortable with multi-cultural situations.
The concept of developing intercultural sensitivity reflects that our perception is flexible, and we all have the ability to reformulate our sensitivity according to new experiences.
- “7 Examples of Unconscious Bias in Job Descriptions” a website/blog that provides examples of unconscious biases in written job descriptions.
- “Common Cultural Characteristics” from Business Communication for Success discusses the concept of common cultural characteristics with several examples.
- “Divergent Cultural Characteristics” from Business Communication for Success discusses divergent cultural characteristics with several examples of such characteristics in the culture(s) you identify with.
- “What is Cultural Sensitivity” an overview of cultural sensitivity from Redshoemovement.com.
CHAPTER ATTRIBUTION INFORMATION
"Understanding Culture." Technical Writing. [License: CC BY 4.0] Estrada, Montserrat Fonesca. "Cultural Sensitivity in the Workplace." Penn State Extension. 7 May, 2015. (used with permission)