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Sherwood Fleming on Intercultural Communication

We build our futures together, in the words we exchange today.

Redefining Intercultural Communication

Non-Western Perspectives on Human Communication: Implications for Theory and Practice [Paperback] [2002] (Author) Min-Sun Kim -

Even though I have studied and applied many communication models over the years with the intention of helping my clients solve their communication challenges, I am always open to learning new models, both for myself and for them. I begin learning a new model with two questions in mind: How will using this model improve how I communicate? How will this model improve how my clients communicate?


From learning many different models I know that every perspective on human communication reveals new possibilities. However, I also know blind spots remain within each one. I define blind spots as what we can’t see about how we speak and listen. How our cultures speak through us and how we listen with cultural ears are both intercultural blind spots that we all share. The most insidious blind spot is to believe that you have no blind spots. Since I encourage my clients to become aware of their own blind spots, it would be hypocritical of me if I was not willing to do the same.


This was the attitude I brought to a recent reading of Non-Western Perspectives on Human Communication: Implications for Theory and Practice (SAGE Publications, 2002). I was hoping that author Min-Sun Kim, a professor in the Department of Speech at the University of Hawaii, could reveal to me some of the blind spots of my Western communication model. Indeed, the thesis of her book is that prevalent communication theories are concealing more about human communication than they reveal.


Conducted as they have been by primarily Americans and Europeans during the last century, they have defined the norms of human communication as “communication approach over avoidance, confrontation over withdrawal in conflict, talk over silence, independence over conformity, boastful self-disclosure over negative self-disclosure,” to name just a few in a rather lengthy list.


A chapter is devoted to each of these, citing studies and revealing the limitations of the researchers’ methodologies. The author indicates that she expected her book to be controversial and her intention is clearly stated: “Our ultimate goal must be nothing less than a thorough redefinition of personhood and human nature. Reaching this objective will have a profound effect on the further evolution of our (U.S.A.) culture and on our understanding of human communication.” While the book’s target audience is researchers in the field of human communication, what relevance does it have for the rest of us?


The Prevalent Labels in Intercultural Communication


For those interested in the topic of intercultural communication on a theoretical level, this book provides a thorough overview of the two most prevalent labels used in intercultural communication studies: individualistic cultures and collectivistic cultures. In this book these labels are not just presented as abstract theories but are brought to life as ways of being, seeing and doing. After all, our cultures have been embodied and play out in all our interactions, every minute of every day. Indeed, none of us see ourselves as being individualistic or collectivistic. Each of us, she writes, are simply “practices, habits, and customs that appear as subjectively natural ways of acting and interacting with others.”


Then, just like a surprise twist in a mystery novel, the last part of the book challenges those very labels themselves. The author cites recent researchers in the field of communication who claim that it is not an either-or proposition at all but that instead all human beings and cultures blend collectivism and individualism. Her conclusion is that, “If individualism and collectivism coexist in both the cultural and individual levels, then it is critical that future hypotheses involve very precise predictions regarding the linkages between the various aspects of individualism-collectivism and individual’s behaviour.” The author states that such approaches are “only now beginning to emerge, to be conceptualized, and to be integrated into the human communication literature” and rightly calls this a paradigm shift.


A Paradigm Shift for Those Involved in the Intercultural Field


For those of us working as consultants and educators within the intercultural field, what does such a paradigm shift mean? It will require us to invent new ways of speaking about intercultural issues with our clients. While we can all readily agree that perpetuating cultural stereotypes is inappropriate, perhaps the time has come to agree that perpetuating labels of entire cultures that are proving not only inaccurate but misleading is equally inappropriate. By staying open to new perspectives that challenge our own, we will be able to help our clients in ways that we could not have anticipated.


For those managing intercultural teams, or for those who work within intercultural business contexts, such a paradigm shift means that you may have more blind spots than you are willing to admit.


Practically speaking, for all of us in the intercultural field — researchers, professors, intercultural consultants, intercultural communication trainers, global mobility managers, and employees of international companies — it can appear easier to apply a label to explain something or someone that we do not understand. We may then honestly believe that there is no need to look again or to inquire further. However, the most logical approach, as the author implies, is not necessarily the best in terms of building better human relationships. How can we find a blend like the one that she is advocating; one that offers a “more truly universal understanding of human communication behaviour.” It will take more effort than some of us are willing to invest but all any of us stand to lose is our blind spots.


Simplifying Intercultural Business Meetings

After a recent session a client told me that, “You’re a magician. I understand others better and feel much more comfortable using English during meetings, thanks to you.” While I appreciated his comment, the truth is that the magic my client experienced was due not to me but to the speech acts that form the central part of my training sessions. This is because speech acts are no less than the life savers that help us overcome the challenges of communicating interculturally.

Meetings are a good example of this. Dissatisfaction with meetings is nothing new. In my twenty years as a business communication coach and trainer in Canada and France, I have heard the same opinion expressed repeatedly: “Meetings are a waste of time.” However, within intercultural business contexts, when people use English as a foreign language, I often hear a different opinion: “Intercultural meetings in English are so difficult.” In the first case, people often blame others. In the second case, people typically blame themselves. My clients usually conclude that, “If I knew English better, meetings wouldn’t be so difficult.” But the truth is that even native English speakers find intercultural business meetings challenging.

As my clients discover, the confusion is not caused by the lack of vocabulary and grammar but from a more fundamental problem that is easily remedied but rarely explored -- the structure of meetings themselves. Is there an alternative to the topic-based agenda for meetings and the chronological manner in which meeting recaps are written? I believe there is.

First, what is common to most meetings? They include some or all of the following: an exchange of opinions; asking for or offering future actions to be taken; promising to take those actions; and sometimes declaring future directions. That is why I recommend that my clients structure their intercultural meetings based on the five speech acts common to all languages: opinions, requests, offers, promises and declarations.

Second, during most meetings the five speech acts are typically all jumbled together. But when speech acts are not clearly defined, people get lost. The metaphor I use is that people feel like they are swimming in a sea of words. Or as one of my seminar participants said more dramatically, “I feel like I am drowning in a sea of words,” before asking if I could save him. During intercultural meetings many experience that sinking feeling of being overwhelmed and wish someone would throw them a life saver ring.

Third, I also show my clients how to be clear and complete when using each speech act, or speech stream as I call it, to continue with my water metaphor. What I find repeatedly is that, regardless of our culture, most of us make incomplete requests and offers. We confuse declarations with promises. We do not know how to express our opinions simply and persuasively.

My intercultural communication seminars, and my first book Dance of Opinions, focus on how to master using speech acts in English clearly, concisely and confidently. That is important because they are the building blocks, not only of human communication, but more importantly of human coordination of action. While we have all been conditioned by our cultures to use speech streams in a certain way, we are not aware of it. Because of our lack of awareness, we do not know how to adapt speech acts effectively to intercultural business contexts such as meetings.

By becoming aware of how to use the universal language of speech acts more effectively, we can save ourselves -- and each other -- from the challenges inherent in intercultural business contexts. Speech acts are something we all know... but do not know that we know. Sometimes the best solution to a communication problem, such as ineffective meetings, is to go back to basics, as shown below.

Structuring Intercultural Meetings on Speech Acts

When speech acts form the structure, the agenda of a meeting can then look like this:

1. Declarations - vision for a possible future

2. Opinions - points of view of what is, and is not, the best course of action

3. Requests - who has to do what, by what time and by what standards

4. Offers - who has offered to do what, by what time and by what standards.

5. Promises - who has promised to do what, by what time and by what standards

Meeting recaps can also then be written by using this structure. The names of participants can be featured prominently, so they only have to read the parts that are relevant to them.

When my clients are not in a position to implement this kind of meeting structure, I recommend that they say simple sentences or phrases before a speech act to help guide their listeners. For example, they can say, “I have a request/offer,” or “Here is my promise/opinion/declaration.” When I work with intercultural teams I encourage everyone to use those introductory phrases and to structure team meetings in this way, which makes it easier to follow discussions in English.

Implementing such a speech act structure either directly or indirectly during intercultural meetings means that everyone is then navigating the sea of words in the same way. As a result, cultural differences float away as comprehension increases. And cries of “Man overboard!” become increasingly rare.

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