How Are Intercultural Communicators Produced?
Humans are predisposed to behave in certain ways. Our predispositions are composed of our needs, values, beliefs (thinking and reasoning patterns), and attitudes. They help determine our relationship to the ideas being discussed and the people discussing them. These predispositions constitute our personal orientation system. They tell us what is good or bad, right or wrong, and more or less control our behavior in society.
During the first period of our lives, parents, communities, and societies unconsciously impart our ways of being and of perceiving reality. These predispositions are learned, and learned within the framework of a specific culture. They are culturally imposed and vary from culture to culture. Understanding the composition of the predispositions in foreign cultures should go a long way in being better intercultural communicators.
Needs fall into two major classes, primary and secondary. The primary needs are inborn, universal, and ineradicable. Life depends upon their satisfaction, and everyone everywhere shares the same set of these physiological needs for oxygen, food, water, rest, waste elimination, exercise, and sexual activity. They are related to self-preservation, and they take precedence over all other needs.
The psychological needs are secondary in our lives. They become important when our primary needs have been met. The secondary class consists of hundreds of needs that are learned or acquired as a result of our social development and are representative of the culture in which we grow up. We need to acquire possessions and property, to collect, repair, clean and preserve things, to arrange, organize and put things in order, to achieve and be recognized for achieving, to attract attention, to control others, to admire and follow others, to join groups, form friendships and live with other people, among many other secondary needs.
Values serve as the governing framework for our needs. They tell us what is good or bad, right or wrong, true or false, positive or negative, and prescribe how we should act. Each of us has a unique set of values, but there are also values called cultural values that permeate in a society. They originate usually within the larger principles or laws that govern a society. These principles make known to the society's members what should and should not be done.
One culture's values are apt to differ from another's. Let's take sexual equality for instance. Male supremacy is the pillar in the value system of some cultures. The concept of sexual equality is an individualistic idea without much support in those cultures. In other cultures, sexual equality is favored. What one culture deems important, another may not.
Values are not always primary in importance. They are either primary, secondary, tertiary, or of no value. Primary values are the most important and are worth guarding at all costs. For Americans, democracy is such a value. It should be preserved and Americans have fought in the past to preserve it. In other parts of the world, democracy is not as important. In some countries as in Africa and Asia, it is of either secondary or tertiary importance.
A value is positive, negative, or neutral (no value). For Americans, sexual equality is positive, inequality is negative. For Muslims, the opposite may hold true.
( Individuality : the individual is important, should be heard, and should stand up for own rights. Western, primary; Blacks, secondary; Eastern, tertiary; Muslims, no value; Africans, not listed. )
( Modesty : humble, unassuming, not forward. Eastern, primary; Blacks, Africans, Muslims, secondary; Western, no value. )
We are not born with attitudes. They begin to form soon after we are old enough to begin to comprehend the world around us. We learn to respond favorably or unfavorably toward objects, people and ideas. We may think favorably about Americans and unfavorably about Russians. We may think favorably about German cars and be against Chinese autos.
Attitudes are founded on our beliefs, guided by our values and motivated by our needs. They are part of the behavior predispositions that run our lives. A variety of attitudes exist. For intercultural communicators, ethnocentrism, stereotypes and prejudice are very important. They affect communication across cultures directly and broadly.
Prejudice originally meant a precedent, a judgment based on previous experience and decisions. Since its conception, prejudice, like most words, underwent a series of changes until it acquired its present interpretation. Now prejudice bears the meaning of a judgment that has an emotional flavor and is based on inconclusive or hasty examination of the facts.
Prejudice, a negative feeling based upon faulty and inflexible generalizations, is frequently the cause for violence, even death. Prejudices can be both positive and negative. But prejudices are normally faulty because they represent generalizations without basis in facts. Rather, the generalizations are apt to be a mix of hearsay and selective memories.
Not all generalizations about people are expressions of prejudice. Many are mere misconceptions caused by a lack of knowledge. In the light of proper information, they will vanish. Prejudices are not like that. Prejudices are not reversed when exposed to new knowledge. They are permanent, fixed, and unalterable, even in the face of contradictory evidence.
Prejudice is found in all cultures and it stems from a natural tendency to prejudge. This tendency lies in our normal inclination to organize the world around us into categories, the content of which represents a simplification of the world we perceive.
( Usually our categories are rational and closely related to what we perceive, but occasionally we are irrational and our categories lack a factual grounding. It is easy to confuse these irrational categorizations, or generalizations, as being rational even though they may be derived from hearsay, fantasy, or emotional reactions to what we perceive. This normal human capacity to form and to justify irrational and erroneous pre-judgments makes prejudice possible. )
Beliefs are judgments about what is true or probable. They are the hundreds of thousands of statements that we make about ourselves and the world around us. They involve our internal system of logic, a system with pronounced variations across cultures such as American way of reasoning (thinking inductively), European way of deductive thinking and Asian way of reasoning process, which is not logical and analytical (non-Aristotelian in nature), but more intuitive and meditative, stressing introspective and contemplation.
The way we think is very dependent upon our culture. One way of looking at this issue is to suppose that the way you develop your method of thinking is similar to the way you develop certain muscles in your body. If you jogged six kilometers every day for a year, your calves and thighs would certainly get stronger and larger. If you did fifty push-ups every day for a year, your chest and arms would be developed. Patterns of thinking develop like muscles do. Those you don't use become weaker and you are less able to use them. Patterns of thinking are determined by what you practice repeatedly, which is strongly influenced by your culture in many ways.
The following is, I hope, an insightful contrast between Korean and American patterns of thinking. I shall begin with a look at the disparity between American and Korean education systems.
In Korea, the traditional goal of education is to transmit the wisdom of the past. Continuity is emphasized. The student is expected to work hard, not to question, and to be able to repeat back the knowledge she or he has learned. There is only one right way to do something and nothing else is allowed. The process is basically one-way. The teacher presents the information and the student passively receives it. The classroom is disciplined and orderly. Asking questions is seen as a challenge to the teacher's authority or as an admission of your own ignorance.
Students who have gone through traditional Korean education become very good at what they have practiced for thousands of hours. As a result, Koreans' patterns of thinking are well developed for memorizing and retaining large amounts of information. Disciplines in concentrating, working hard, not complaining, paying attention to fine detail, and accepting and respecting the wisdom of authority figures are all developed through their educational experience. Education is practical, providing the reading, writing and mathematical skills students need to succeed in the world. This is more or less true in other Asian countries.
American students experience a very different format of education. When American parents are asked what they want their child to gain from school they would often respond, "I want my child to be able to think for himself." Or they would say, "I want my child to learn to make good decisions, to stand up for what he believes in and to be able to deal effectively with the challenges of modern day living."
The teacher encourages students to discuss and debate issues, to learn how to solve problems and to create their own answers to questions posed. Americans prefer learning through personal discovery and problem-solving rather than memorizing facts presented to them by authority figures. The emphasis is on learning how to think independently, how to analyze logically, and how to problem-solve creatively. The teacher views questions from students as learning opportunities, rather than as challenges to his authority. The ideal American classroom is a seemingly chaotic environment, with lots of different activities going on and children learning independently and at their own pace. Discussion, debate, and questions are common. The teacher's job is to promote creativity, individual initiative, and responsibility. His role is that of a catalyst, to get students to think, rather than that of a conveyor of knowledge.
The successful results of American education are adults who are good at, and comfortable with, analyzing problems. They are skilled at being creative, debating and disagreeing with colleagues, and combining information to arrive at a new solution. They become competent in estimating the possibilities for success or failure in any given course of action, strong in weighing options and risks.
( Most American managers are at ease dealing with the theoretical and the philosophical. They have been encouraged to ask "Why?" and have been rewarded for coming up with their own answers. However, Americans are most comfortable thinking from the small to the large, from the specific to the general. When Americans think of a project, task or problem, they generally break it down into its component parts and build from the ground up. )
Facts are important to Americans. They have been taught to believe that there is always information that supports an argument and makes a case. Using facts is generally considered the best way to make a point. Facts make opinions valid, accurate or truthful; conversely, the absence of factual verification makes opinions invalid, inaccurate and false. Many Koreans are surprised at the amount of facts, and especially the amount of numbers and statistics American managers use in their daily conversations. For example, a Korean manager might say, "She's out of the country for a short time." His American colleague is likely to say, "This is a short trip. She'll be away for six days. She makes this trip three or four times a year. Forty percent of her time..."
( Americans tend to believe that most events have a discoverable cause. Things don't just happen, but are the result of something. They try to express their ideas showing clear cause and effect. This means the line of reasoning is linear and logical (like a ruler or tape measure: "A" follows "B" and leads to "C") and is supported by observable facts or data. On the whole, facts and logic are more highly valued than intuition in business. Americans usually are uncomfortable with thinking which they describe as "fuzzy"-not focusing on the task, rambling, or bringing in points not directly relevant to the issue at hand. )
If you ask most Americans to memorize and retain a large amount of information, you will generally find they are uncomfortable with the task. The thinking muscles, or patterns of thinking required, just aren't highly developed in this area for most Americans. It's not that Americans can't memorize, but rather that their experience doesn't prepare them well for such a task. It is out of their comfort zone. Similarly, if you ask Koreans to participate in brainstorming sessions, they often appear uncomfortable and perhaps not very confident. It is out of their comfort zone.
At the center of a culture's belief system is a core of relatively stable and permanent beliefs. We can refer to this core as a culture's "world view." The world view is a system of beliefs about the nature of the universe and our role in it. The world view tells us how the culture believes things got to be as they are. It gives directions to our lives.
An American mother may say to her three-year old son who is misbehaving in public, "Don't act like that. Good boys should behave in public." The Korean mother, equally concerned, might say something like, "Don't act like that. People will say you are a naughty boy. What will they think of our family?" The American mother appeals to a set of rules or standards that her youngster should follow. The Korean mother appeals to the embarrassment that might some to the family from the youngster's poor public behavior.
People who study cultures around the world note that there are two different ways societies attempt to control behavior. They have been labeled 'shame' and 'guilt.' Those cultures with a group-based orientation (Korea, Japan, and China) favor 'shame' as the main way to control the way people behavior. Those societies with an individual-based orientation (Canada, the U.S.A., and Europe) tend to rely more on 'guilt' as the main means of control.
In a group-based culture, you always are seen as a representative of your group family, company, school, etc. If you do good deeds and are well-received by others, your group gains "face," i.e. status, prestige, and honor. If you do things that go against society's rules, your group suffers a loss of face with you. Because the power of the group is so strong, and because individuals are so connected to the groups to which they belong, people in shame-based cultures go out of their way not to do things that may bring social disapproval to themselves or to their group. Public shame is something to be avoided at all costs. Fear of public shame, humiliation, or embarrassment becomes a strong motivator that discourages people from breaking society's rules.
In an individual-based culture-where the power of groups is weaker-a different model of social control evolved. Western societies developed the idea that there are certain God-given and societal laws that everyone should follow. This idea has its roots in Judaism and Christianity and was reinforced by the Industrial Revolution. The Ten Commandments ("Thou shalt not steal"; "Thou shalt not kill"; etc.) provide a good example of this kind of thinking.
Standards of behavior are taught to children by their parents and other family members, by religious institutions, and by the schools they attend. As children learn and adopt such standards for themselves, they develop what Americans (and other Westerners) refer to as "conscience." This means knowing what is "right" to do and feeling that they should do it, even if no one is around to see. If they violate one of these divine laws or societal rules, Americans are taught that they should feel bad or guilty. Guilt is the feeling that one has done something wrong, that one has gone against a rule or standard. It is a feeling that one is not a good or worthwhile person because one hasn't lived up to one's own or to society's standards.
The wrtier is a member of the Board of Trustees of the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies and advisor of the World Communication Association.