In the recent IATEFL/TESOL joint web conference, I hosted a panel discussion where I polled the 120-strong audience with the question ‘When teaching speaking skills, do you raise awareness of the different discourse styles in different cultures?’ and over 60% said ‘yes’. When asked ‘Do you encourage teacher trainees to incorporate intercultural communication in their training?’, again more than 60% said yes.
But what exactly do we understand by ‘culture’?
I’ve heard several teachers saying to me, ‘You can’t teach English without teaching the English culture’ and then proceed to tell me about their lessons on the British royal family, classrooms decorated with union jacks, cut-outs of English men with bowler hats, and pictures of fish and chips and English breakfasts. (See here for my blogpost on teaching English versus teaching English culture)
Simply featuring different festivals/costumes/dishes/holidays/customs from different parts of the world seems to give some coursebook publishers licence to claim that they sufficiently address the topic of cross-cultural communication.
Many students and clients who come into intercultural training sessions expect to be presented with lists of dos and don’ts, and easily-digestible tidbits of information like “Red is the colour of good luck in China”, “In Korea, remember to face away from the person of a higher status as you sip your drink”, and “In Spain, order your food simply by saying ‘Paella, please’ and not ‘Please may I have a paella’ because the Spanish are more direct than the English.’”
I used to work for a boss who would repeatedly reassure me that he liked employing Chinese people (with specific reference to me being part of this abstract group in his head) because “Chinese people are good workers”. It was supposed to be a compliment but I couldn’t help but feel my identity and whole being reduced to the generalisations he had of an entire race.
Yes, I do have Chinese blood running through my veins. But I was born and bred in Singapore hanging out with both friends who spoke English and friends who spoke Mandarin Chinese as their first language of choice. I have lived most of my adult life in the UK, am married to an Irishman, have a daughter who is German by birth, and have close friends and colleagues from different parts of the world who have influenced me greatly.
Perhaps this need to categorise things into neat, easy-to-label boxes is human nature. Maybe it’s convenient for teachers and publishers to claim that it is our students who want this ‘easy’ take on intercultural training. Or arguably, bite-size cultural nuggets that easily fit into class quizzes are just easier to teach.
Then there are teachers who would dig a bit deeper and explore the cultural dimensions laid out by the likes of Hofstede (1993) and Trompenaars & Hampden-Turner (1989), describing certain cultures as having higher power distances, being less able to avoid uncertainty, having tendencies towards individualism or communitarianism, etc.
It is certainly enlightening to explore the social-psychological aspects that could affect the way we perceive things, but these cultural dimensions somehow still present the concept of culture as something that is fixed, static and assigned to an entire people of a country or community.
Undoubtedly, there are certain things that we should be aware of when communicating internationally, but these things should not be based on an assumption that there is universal homogeneity and unity amongst everyone in a particular culture.
Culture is a fluid, creative social force which binds different groupings and different aspects of behaviour in different ways (Holliday et al, 2010). It goes beyond national stereotypes and essentialism, and instead is shaped by micro- and macro-contexts and the complexity of the different identities we wish to portray at different times.
Intercultural communication is in fact ‘a complex, ongoing process that cannot be reduced to expedient labels and convenient dichotomies’. (Kumaravadivelu, 2008)
However, this view of ‘culture’ as a dynamic, fluid and constantly-changing construct is not as easily dealt with on courses and in course materials. Choosing to do away with this rhetoric and the potential confusion it might cause the layperson, Bob Dignen, author of Communication for International Business (2013), opts for the term ‘diversity management’ instead.
Diversity management is about the recognition of individual differences, may they be due to differences in race, nationality, socio-economic status, physical abilities, gender, age, religious and/or political beliefs, etc. Diversity management is about “acquiring the necessary knowledge and dynamic skills to manage such differences appropriately and effectively. It is also about developing a creative mind-set to see things from different angles without rigid judgement.” (Ting-Toomey and Chung, 2005)
In that sense, diversity management goes beyond typical intercultural awareness and embraces different people from different backgrounds with different identities, different views, and different beliefs. Rather than reducing behaviour that is different to a simple cultural cause (“He spoke this way to you because people from x country are very abrupt. That’s just the way they are.”), it requires the individual (student or client) to actively listen, understand and consider the various factors that could influence diverse behaviour and/or cause conflict or misunderstanding. It also requires the individual to be proactive and take responsibility for their role in an interaction.
So what does teaching ‘culture’ and ‘intercultural skills’ really involve?
It involves the use of case studies and critical incidents to allow discussion and examination of the many different factors that drive the way we choose to communicate and the decisions we make. It explores the issues of identity, power, and discourse. It encourages self-reflection and critical thinking. It hones interpersonal skills, adaptation and accommodation skills, collaboration skills and conflict management skills. It celebrates the complexities and how diversities influence each interaction we have.
And it’s anything but ‘easy’.
Dignen, B. with I. McMaster. (2013) Communication for International Business: the secrets of excellent interpersonal skills. London: Collins.
Holliday, A., M. Hyde, and J. Kullman. (2010) Intercultural Communication. New York: Routledge.
Hofstede, G. (1993) Cultures and Organizations: The software of the mind. USA: McGraw-Hill.
Kumaravadivelu, B. (2008) Cultural Globalization in Language Education. Yale: Yale University Press.
Ting-Toomey, S. and L.C. Chung (2005) Understanding intercultural communication. Los Angeles: Roxbury Publishing Company.
Trompenaars, F. and C. Hampden-Turner (1989) Riding the Waves of Culture: Understanding diversity in global business. USA: McGraw-Hill.