Among Cultures
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Among Cultures

The Challenge of Communication

Bradford 'J' Hall, Patricia O. Covarrubias, Kristin A. Kirschbaum

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eBook - ePub

Among Cultures

The Challenge of Communication

Bradford 'J' Hall, Patricia O. Covarrubias, Kristin A. Kirschbaum

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Through its unique approach of using narratives and stories to convey theories and concepts, this text, now in its fourth edition, gives students a foundational knowledge in intercultural communication that is imperative for understanding and navigating our increasingly complex human interactions.

This edition continues with an interpretive approach to intercultural communication that is dedicated to providing resources to understand and explain how our own and other cultural systems are reasonable and valuable. New to this edition are increased explorations of immigration, intersectionality, and privilege. For greater flexibility, it introduces a series of mini chapters on topics such as globalization (including discussion of the impact of new media and popular culture), education, and the role of culture in family communication, health communication, environmental communication and multicultural leadership. Each chapter again closes with a summary, reflection questions, and suggestions for activities available for students' own review or as potential class exercises.

The book is an ideal companion for introductory or upper-level undergraduate courses in intercultural communication.

Online resources include self-tests, enrichment activities, reflection questions, recommendations for addition readings for students, lecture slides, chapter objectives, supplemental readings, sample discussion and test questions, and additional classroom activities for instructors. Please visit

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CHAPTER 1What Is Meant by Intercultural Communication?

DOI: 10.4324/9781003107453-1
The humidity was so high the air had become almost visible. Sally squinted down the street at the mirages glistening off the empty road. Sighing, she turned back and studied the patient faces of the half dozen or so people waiting for the bus. Their faces, settled in matching expressions, betrayed none of the impatience that Sally herself felt. She was hot and sweaty.
Sally thought of her friends back in California.
“Women don’t sweat,” Karen had always said in a mocking tone, “they glow!”
Well, Sally was certainly glowing now. She had been in Western Senegal for three weeks and despite the heat and unpredictability of public transportation, she had been thoroughly enjoying her stay. Things had been happening so fast that she had hardly had time to think. Her Wolof hosts were extremely gracious, catering as best they could to her every need, but she still often found herself feeling ill at ease.
“At times I wish they weren’t quite so helpful,” she mused and secretly studied the faces of the Wolof around her, searching for traces of the smiles that came so readily to her host family. It was then she noticed the woman sitting on the small bus stop bench, her hands folded carefully on her lap. Sally shifted uncomfortably on her tired feet.
“If that woman were to slide just a little bit either way,” she thought, “I could sit down and ease the pressure on this little toe of mine.”
Gathering her courage, Sally approached the woman. She knew she didn’t speak Wolof perfectly, but her many years of work on the language had allowed her to feel fairly confident in her ability to handle most simple conversations.
She tried to catch the woman’s eye and smile as she said in the most polite Wolof she could muster, “Excuse me, please, would you mind sliding over just a bit so that I can sit down?”
The woman, seeming a bit startled, looked at Sally without any of the customary friendliness she had come to expect in her short stay in this beautiful land. Indeed, Sally felt just a bit like some unsavory specimen under observation, but the woman did slide over. Sally nodded politely and sat down. She was just wondering what sort of conversation she might strike up that would ease the awkwardness she felt after making her request of the woman next to her, when she heard the now familiar rumble of a very used double-decker bus.
“Perfect timing,” she chuckled to herself and started to move with the rest toward the spot where the bus would stop.
True to most of her bus rides since arriving, the bus was already carrying what seemed to be a full load of passengers. As she waited to find her way into the bus, a Wolof fellow, whom she had noticed standing right behind the bench when she had asked the woman if she would slide over, leaned toward her and said, “You know, that’s not the way we do things around here.”
Surprised, she followed the flow of the people into the bus and then turned around to ask just what the fellow had in mind. However, he was nowhere in sight. Obviously, he had gone to the upper deck of the bus upon entering.
“Oh, well,” she sighed, “I wonder what that was all about?”1
Figure 1.1 Two women (one Black, one white) sitting close together on seat at a bus stop.
Source: Miguel Gandert


What Sally did not realize at that moment is that it was all about culture. We will come back to the incident above, but before doing so we want to explain what we mean when we use the word culture.
Culture has been defined in hundreds of ways over the years.2 Each of these definitions highlights different aspects of culture, and many of the definitions even conflict with each other. The risk with so many definitions is that the definition of culture becomes so broad that it means everything, which results in it meaning nothing for practical purposes. It is important to begin our study of culture and its impact on communication by giving a few specific guidelines regarding just what is and is not being discussed when the word culture is used in this text.
Stop for just a moment and ask yourself, “How would I define culture to a friend interested in my study of intercultural communication?” Would you tell your friend that it has to do with values? Traditions? Food? Race? Nationality? Going to the opera? Although we believe all of these are related to culture, the last three could be misleading in terms of what culture means in this book.
If we tell our friends that we are going to do something cultured, chances are they will picture us going to the theatre or a museum, for example. This use of the term culture often leads to notions of high culture and low culture. High culture includes such things as going to the ballet or other activities often associated with relative wealth and social sophistication. Low culture deals with the common activities of people from a lower economic level. In this book there is no concern for distinguishing between high or low culture, or some idea of people being more or less cultured. So, although attending an opera is doing something of cultural significance, so is meeting friends at the bowling alley, playing soccer, or waiting for a bus with a group of strangers.
Perhaps an even more difficult distinction is that culture is not equivalent to race, ethnicity, or nationality, even though we often use these types of labels in discussing different cultures. We will use them in this book. For a variety of reasons these differences in group memberships often parallel at least some cultural differences. However, simple group membership (based on birth, occupation, and so forth) is not really what we are dealing with. A colleague shared this experience:
In my interviewing class I had been using an instrument called The Dove Test, created by a Watts social worker named Adrian Dove, to illustrate the impact of environment on what people know. Mr. Dove had generated about twenty questions that lower-class Blacks living in Watts could answer, but most other people could not. On the day before I intended to use the test, I discovered that I had misplaced the answers. So I hurried over to the office of the only African American graduate student in the program, Bailey Baker, and asked him to help me generate the correct answers. With a sly smile on his face, he asked me why I thought he would know them.3
Simply because Mr. Baker is “Black” does not mean that culturally he is the same as all others that may be said to be members of the “Black race.” Two people may be quite culturally distinct even though they may be said to belong to the same race or have citizenship in the same country. On the other hand, two individuals who are neither from the same country nor race may, in fact, be culturally similar. This is often due in part to a shared membership in other types of communities, such as religious or professional communities. So the question is, “What are we dealing with when we consider the notion of culture?”
Culture is defined for our discussion as a historically shared system of symbolic resources through which we make our world meaningful. To help bring this definition alive, we will explain and give an example of each of the key terms in the definition.


At the core of this definition is the idea that a culture is a system. To help you get a better sense of how a system works, let us ask you to apply the mathematical system with which you are familiar to the following five problems:
  1. 1 + 1 = 2
  2. 7 + 5 = 12
  3. 11 + 3 = 2
  4. 6 + 3 = 9
  5. 8 + 9 = 5
Which of the five problems just noted are performed correctly? Most of you would probably agree that problems 1, 2, and 4 are correct and that problems 3 and 5 are wrong. Most of us gained the ability to differentiate between right and wrong with problems like these when we were quite young. However, if you were to change the system you used to look at these problems, you may realize that they are all equally true. Take a minute and look at the problems. Do you see the system that would make each of these equally true? It is a system with which we are sure you are very familiar and one you use virtually every day of your life. We’ll let you think about it for a moment before explaining what system we have in mind.
We are surrounded by systems. There is the legal system, the educational system, the solar system, and the parking system at your school, to name just a few. In fact, our bodies are systems made up of various other systems, like the immune system. In short, a system is any group of elements that are organized in such a way that the elements are able to do things they couldn’t do individually. Water and various minerals may be elements that make up the human body, but it is the way these elements are combined that gives the human body its form and ability to perform certain tasks. Although there are differences across each human body, there is enough of a consistent pattern in the way the elements are organized that we can recognize a human from a tree even though many of the basic elements are the same.
Another system is our timekeeping system. This system uses a base 12 (rather than the traditional base 10) and is commonly understood in reference to 12-hour clocks. For example, if it is 11:00 and Patricia says meet me in three hours, you know without thinking too much that she wants you to meet her at 2:00. Of course, if it is 1:00 and she says meet me in one hour, it will also be 2:00. It is this time system that we use every day that makes each of the five equations above equally true. Even though this is a common system and one easily understood, it is typically difficult to see at first if we are thinking in terms of the base-10 system we often use when we see addition and equal signs. If we had written 11:00 plus three hours equals 2:00, most people would have agreed that our equation was right to begin with.
This simple example using our time system illustrates two very important functions of any system. Systems serve to both (1) enable us to do things and (2) constrain us from doing things, whether that be finding a parking space, deciding what to eat, or deciding if something is either right or wrong. We need systems to share ideas as humans or coordinate our actions to accomplish virtually any social task. However, although systems make it possible to have meaningful interaction with other humans, they also constrain us from seeing or understanding some of the possibilities that exist for us and others.
Let’s return to the story of Sally that began this chapter. Sally was confused by the gentleman’s critique of her actions. In her mind, she had been as polite as possible. The difficulty arose from Sally’s assumption that there was just one system for making polite requests. The same may be said for the Wolof, who thought of Sally as rude rather than polite. In fact, there were two different systems for making polite requests operating in the opening story. The opening story is based on the experiences of Judith Irvine and prompted a discovery process that revealed some basic differences in the ways U.S. Americans4 and Wolof go about making such requests.5
First, Americans tend to word requests in such a way that they focus on whether the person being asked wants to do whatever is being requested. For the Wolof this focus on the personal whims or desires of the person being addressed seems strange. If some aspect outside of the request itself needs to be the focus, the Wolof would see the demands of the social situation as more appropriate. In the case described, the situation obviously required that the woman would slide over, so there was no reason to focus on the willingness of the person being asked to slide over.
Second, the Wolof are not as comfortable with talking to strangers as Americans and do not value talk as a way to get to know a stranger in the same degree as Americans. Thus, when Sally made her request in a way that ended with a question that seemed to invite further conversation, it seemed both awkward and strange to the Wolof woman and overly forward to the Wolof man.
Finally, in the Wolof community there is an informal norm that signals the type and importance of the request. Your typical, everyday sort of request is asked in a very simple format. The syntax, or sentence structure, tends to be short and straightforward. Requests that use elaborate sentence structure, such as the “Excuse me, please, would you mind
” used by Sally, are reserved for those requests that are very special and important to the requester. Thus, the woman looked at Sally strangely because here was this foreigner who seemed to be indicating a desire for conversation, while almost being insulting by acting like the woman’s sliding depended purely upon her good will when, in fact, it was obviously required in the situation. To top it off, she acted like this simple sliding over was some huge, important request. Perhaps she was thinking, “Foreigners, who knows what to expect from them.” Irvine’s rese...

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