Becoming the Master: Intercultural Communication

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When people ask what I’ve studied previously and what I’m studying now I often get a “what’s that?” or “why on earth?” or “why didn’t you learn a useful language like French?” or “is a liberal arts degree really worth the debt?”

It seems I have developed a good habit of choosing subjects that take some explaining. Unlike history or English literature or medicine, there isn’t a quick (and accurate) answer to the question “what is Intercultural Communication?”

A large part of the beginning of the term was based around the question, and is one that we keep coming back to. In most disciplines there’s a sense of “what are we actually doing here? where is the border of our field and other fields?” But with Intercultural Communication (IC) studies, the definitions feel even more slippery, partly because it has such an interdisciplinary basis.

This is on of the main reasons I chose this MA course. The field covers various aspects of cultural studies, linguistics, sociolinguistics, translation, communication studies, anthropology, critical theory, literature, film, discourse analysis, and topics such as globalization, cosmopolitanism, English as a global language, immigration, diaspora, postcolonialism, to name a few.

Currently, I’m writing essays on Tok Pisin, a pidgin variety of English spoken in Papua New Guinea, and on a collection of poetry by a collective of women asylum seekers in Manchester. Next semester I’ll taking modules called “Border Crossings: Cultures of Diaspora” and “Ethnic Minorities and Religious Identities in Britain”.

For a short answer when describing what I study, I normally say: “It’s a bit like international relations, but instead of nations and politics its about cultures and people.” Which is more or less true.

More accurately, it involves understanding and problematising the interactions between people in light of their cultural background. It is not “the study of how cultures communicate”, because cultures do not communicate with each other. People communicate, with all their cultural associations and identities.

Although it seems to be something of a given, this is one of the core aspects which I have taken from the Masters so far. Sometimes we imagine that cultures interact, as these amorphous, abstract entities colliding in the ether. But it is between people that cultures meet. Similiarity and difference become apparent in interpersonal interactions.

Defining culture is also key, which is a more complicated task than I can summarise here. The definitions are many and have their uses in different contexts.

Here I will draw attention to the fact that culture (and language) operate as a kind of closed system. The linguist Deborah Tannen examines this in the context of New York Jewish conversational style, where she highlights the fact that New York Jewish ways of communicating appear rude to the outsider. Speakers will repeatedly introduce topics, extrapolate personal traits about each other from the conversation, speak with rapid pace, and make outbursts during another speaker’s turn.

Tannen observes that this is typical of New York Jewish conversation. It is only from an outside perspective that it appears rude. A system makes sense from within, but from the outside appears opaque. You get this feeling when you go abroad or to a new city and people have a way of doing things that doesn’t make sense to you, but still seems to work.

As I see it, IC is centrally concerned with the idea of sympathy. We are quick to judge people by our British ideals for behavious. We easily condemn the foreigner who jumps the queue, or assume that the person who doesn’t look us in the eye is lying, or curse a rowdy group in a restaurant. We all too easily attribute these behaviours to flaws in personality, rather than realising that people of different cultures are reading from different scripts.

Politeness is simply coherence with the accepted behaviour of a dominant group. It is naive to think that people know national customs and choose to openly flout them. More likely, their behaviours are part of another system which is obscured to us.

In fact, how can we assume that even those who we consider typically “British” are aware of all the intracacies of culture? There are many within the closed system of our culture who are unable to meet our communicative standards. Still we assume that each person “knows the rules”, and we attribute their behaviour to their personality rather than to wider circumstances and group memberships.

We cannot know what informs a person’s behaviour, and it is dangerous to assume that we can. The people around us are reading from any number of cultural and social scripts different from your own: cultures of family and nation, workplace norms, professional practices, ethnic customs, disability.

Sympathy in Intercultural Communication comes from the recognition that there is much we do not know about the people with whom we interact. We should be careful not to unduly penalise those who seem not to fit in the prevailing culture.

My particular interest at the moment is on the ways that culture is a site of struggle. Intercultural Communication has often been presented as a utopian pursuit, where people all get on with each other, freely exchanging ideas and cuisine and language, working together to overcome communicative difficulties.

Of course, these days we’re under no illusions about the fractures in European and American multicultural society. We are witnessing a world in which increasing interaction and globalisation does not create a more harmonious global society. If anything, globalisation seems to have stoked many pre-existing tensions and anxieties as exemplified by the 2016 EU referendum.

It becomes important to study not just cultures in their ideal form, but the ways that group relations and representations of culture affect people on an individual level. These power dynamics form the backdrop to all social and cultural interactions, and it is essential to critique these dynamics. Unquestioned power manifests itself in the many inequalities of modern society.

This Critical Intercultural Communication seeks to understand the “power forces that touch our encounters, relationships, and everyday lives”, as the academics Halualani and Nakayama put it.

I find with much academia that you can rather quickly arrive at a point where you’re looking around and asking yourself, “so, what’s the point?” Understanding power seems to be one of the more useful pursuits within the academy.

There is an urgency around many of these issues, such as increasing numbers of asylum seekers in the UK and the European migrant crisis, and these are the areas I would like to study further.


References:

Halualani, R. T., Nakayama, T. K. (2010). Critical Intercultural Communication Studies: At a Crossroads. In R. T. Halualani, T. K. Nakayama (Eds.), The Handbook of Critical Intercultural Communication (pp. 1-16). Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Tannen, D. (1981). New York Jewish conversational style. International Journal of the Sociology of Language, 30, pp. 133-149.