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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.