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Cultural Patterns Impact Interpersonal Communication in Nicaragua and the United States COMM 3604 Amy Hirabayshi

Everyone learns to communicate. It is a necessity of human interaction. While everyone must learn this valuable skill, not everyone communicates in the same way. It is ones culture that determines how to communicate appropriately. These differences can either bring people together or drive them apart. Over Spring Break, I was immersed in the Nicaraguan culture throughout my stay in Nicaragua. There, local people do not share the same methods of communication that we do here in the United States. This is because of the differences between Nicaraguan and American culture, which is derived from variation in geographic location, history, language, religion, economic status, and population. These cultural disparities directly influence Nicaraguan and American communication based on Hofstedes predictors of power distance, individualism versus collectivism, masculinity versus femininity, and uncertainty avoidance. As well, differences in the two cultures parallel differences in Halls concept of high and low power distance in the form of covert versus overt messages, importance of group identity, and orientation to time. These differences in intercultural communication have significantly altered the way I approach my communication with the Nicaraguan people. Nicaragua is located in the tropical zone of Central America between Honduras and Costa Rica. It is the largest country with the largest body of water in Central America, but it is also the poorest Central American country, and the second poorest nation in the Western hemisphere (Nicaragua, 2013). Native Nicaraguans speak a dialect of Spanish that is unique to the country. According to the World Fact Book, there are over fife million, seven hundred thousand citizens. As well, in Nicaragua, life expectancy averages around seventy-one years. Over eighty percent of the population identifies themselves as Christians (Pew, 2010). The Republic of Nicaragua, as it is officially titled, has a long history of political, social and environmental turmoil since the thirties (Pearson, 2013). Wealth is unequally distributed. The

country is known for its widespread poverty and unemployment, and high teenage pregnancy rates. The United States of America is located in a temperate zone of North America with some tropic and arctic regions between Canada and Mexico. According to the World Fact Book (2013), the United States does not have an official language, but over eighty percent of its citizens speak English. As well, there are over three hundred and sixteen million United States residents. The life expectancy in the United States of America is seventy-eight and one half years (United, 2013). Over seventy-five percent of the population call themselves Christian (Pew, 2010). The United States is a fairly new country with a lot of history. It has grown and developed into a major world power. The economy is the largest and strongest in the world, but wealth is not perfectly distributed. Though poverty, unemployment and teenage pregnancy are all common issues in America, the extent to the problems are not nearly as bad as they are in Nicaragua. Problems in the government and economy have influenced Nicaraguas power distance within the population. The country is known for having very high power distance, meaning there is an unequal distribution of power throughout the society(Gilman, 2011). Volcanic eruptions and hurricanes have also impacted this problem by displacing thousands of people, pushing them into extreme poverty, thus increasing the distance between the most powerful and the least powerful (Nicaragua, 2013). One community in Managua, called Nueva Vida, is a prime example of this occurrence. In 1998, Hurricane Mitch forced hundreds of families to flee from their homes (ORPHANetwork, 2013). The Nicaraguan government temporarily placed them in an open field in a place called Nueva Vida, promising to someday rebuild their former community. However, due to political uprisings and problems in their economy, the government was never able to fulfill its promise, leaving hundreds to starve in this hot, dry location. The

poverty-struck community still remains today. The difference between the residents of Nueva Vida and the residence of the countrys capital, Managua, is astounding. Unlike Nicaragua, the United States is known for having relatively low power distance compared to the rest of the world (Hofstede, 2013). This does not mean all who live in the United States has the same amount of money and entitlement, but the Constitution is written so that all should have the same opportunity for power. Throughout the country, most people are able to afford a refrigerator with a selection of food, a closet full of clothes, and a car to drive from one place to another. In Nicaragua, this is not the case. Some of the major cities in Nicaragua, such as Managua and Leon, have similar opportunities for luxury, and therefore power. But the fact that so many communities are starving causes the distance in power to be more extreme than the power distance in America. Like most other countries in Central America, Nicaragua has a very collectivist culture, meaning they value their in-group relations (Gilman, 2011). This is evident in their strong familial bonds and the pride for their community. The Nicaraguan people value relationships between people, because that is what they have. It does not matter if you live in a nice, two bedroom house, or in a tin shack with dirt floors, all have the opportunity to interact with one another. As well, because so many Nicaraguans live in relative or extreme poverty, individuals rely on others to band together and survive, giving value to the idea of collectivism. When I was in Nicaragua, I worked in a feeding center where one family opened their small home to upwards of two hundred children so the children could eat. Three devoted women took on the task of cooking for these children. It is their sense of allegiance to their community that pushes them to play this role.

The United States does not identify with Nicaraguas collectivist culture. Instead, Americans are more individualistic (Hofstede, 2013). Personal success is highly emphasized in the United States. Unlike in Nicaragua where group goals are set and group needs are met, Americans always put their needs first. They view opportunities in terms of how they will individually benefit. This is engrained in their culture at a very young age when they begin elementary school. Instead of having class report cards, students receive individual report cards with individualized grades that notate personal success and how they can individually improve. The United States is one of the most individualistic cultures in the world, if not the most individualistic country. Not only is central America known for its collectivist nature, it is know for being very feminine (Gilman, 2011). Nicaragua is an extremely feminine society because it values nurturance and social support. This cultural pattern coincides with collectivism because Nicaraguans identify with others so much so that they are willing to sacrifice themselves and take on needed societal roles in order to survive as a society. Citizens of Nicaragua are always willing to help each other because they value their relationships with one another. For example, when I was in Nicaragua, I learned that the government has focused less on international relational policy and more on internal social stability. Even those with power are striving to mend the social problems, instilling a sense of femininity through social compassion throughout the country. While Nicaragua is considered a feminine society according to Hofstedes cultural dimensions, the United States is perceived as being an extremely masculine society (Fine, 2013). This is because success is highly valued in American culture. Competition and achievement are emphasized as early as childhood, and are valued throughout ones lifetime. This coincides with

the United States low power distance. Because everyone has the same opportunity for success, the competition is high. All strive for the American dream, which can be earned through masculine and individualistic means. For this cultural dimension, Nicaragua and the United States are on opposing poles of the feminine-masculine spectra. They serve as perfect examples for their extremes. Similar to how Nicaragua and the United States identify on opposite masculine-feminine poles, they are also opposites in their uncertainty avoidance. Due to the instability and poverty throughout Nicaragua, this nation has high uncertainty avoidance (Gilman, 2011). Native Nicaraguans do not value the unfamiliar, but instead strive for security and stability through rules and structure. Even though they do not always follow those rules, they value their existence and the meaning behind the regulations. This is derived from mankinds need for survival. In order for Nicaragua to grow and become a strong and secure nation, they believe their country must be founded on structure. This is something the current government is trying to mend from its past political instability. An example of Nicaraguas high uncertainty avoidance is illustrated in the Limonal community in Leon. This community is located on a trash dump. The members of this community voluntarily live next to and work inside of the dump. They choose to live in Limonal because that is what they know. When I visited this community, a woman told me she chose to live there because she did not know how to live anywhere else (Personal communication, March 14, 2013). Obviously, if this woman believed she could survive elsewhere, she would move for the sake of her family. But this woman has such high uncertainty avoidance, she opts to live in the Limonal trash dump community. On the other hand, the United States has low uncertainty avoidance (Hofstede, 2013). Americans have so much security, they have the luxury of appreciating the new and unfamiliar.

In the United States, innovation is highly desired in everything from technology to food. Americans pride themselves in leading the world in change, an idea that truly illustrates the United States low uncertainty avoidance. Both Microsoft and Facebook are innovations that are derived from Americas willingness to invent and try new things. This is directly related to the United States ability to try new innovative techniques because of its power and economy. The United States low uncertainty avoidance is also demonstrated in the diversity within the United States. Residents are tolerant of other background and cultures. Though the majority of Americans speak English, the United States chooses not to have an official language, thus allowing other to speak their native language, such as Spanish or Chinese. Americans also have the desire to travel and experience new places. Robert Halls concept of high and low context through covert and overt messages, ingroups and out-groups and orientation to time can also be used to define cultural patterns in Nicaragua and the United States. Nicaragua is known to be a high context society (Gilman, 2011). Nicaraguans utilize covert messages, meaning they do no speak directly, but instead utilize their communicative environment to express ideas and emotions. They rely heavily on nonverbal communication and body language. For example, when a Nicaraguan wants to tell someone else to come here, they will not outright say, come here. Instead they rapidly produce a noise from their mouth that sounds like the consonants t and s put together. They use this technique to get the persons attention. Then they make eye contact with that person, and will point with their eyes to the location they want them to come to. This is very characteristic of utilizing covert messages through high context communication. Unlike Nicaragua, the United States is known for its low context and very overt messages. Americans are very loud and very verbal. Though they do use body language to aid in

their communication, they do not solely rely on this method. Americans feel compelled to verbalize everything, from a greeting of hello to a description of exactly what they want to purchase at a store. Compared to Nicaragua, there are significantly less nonverbal symbols that are actively used without also verbally communicating. Throughout the world, Americans are known for talking very loudly and speaking a lot. It is looked down upon to withhold ones opinion from conversation. Questions are not considered rude, but instead are valued and highly appreciated. In school, students are even appointed higher grades for speaking up in class because it is perceived as the best way to participate in class. This overt language is very characteristics of stereotypical Americans. Similar to Hofstedes collectivism cultural dimension, in Nicaragua group affiliation is very important (Gilman, 2011). There is a great emphasis of in-group and out-groups, especially when referring to ones family and community. Responsibility to others is a highlighted value in Nicaraguan culture, reflecting high context. The family is the most important identification unit in Nicaragua. As well, religious identification is a popular way to categorize in-group members from out-group members. Unfortunately gangs are a problem in Nicaragua, but they are also a prime example of how strong in-group identification is in Nicaragua (U.S. 2013). Like many other Latin American countries, Nicaraguan gangs are big and violent. Wearing the colors and symbols of the gangs are huge indicators of friends or enemies. Though most of society is collectivist and friendly to all, allegiance is an important value that is instilled in Nicaraguans from a very early age. In the United States, Americans give less emphasis in-group and out-group affiliations, but they are still important in society (Lustig, 2013). Americans view their commitment to others as less of a lifelong responsibility, and more of a responsibility while convenient and beneficial

for their success. This does not mean there are no group affiliations, though. In the United States, pride in ones school and sports team is huge. Americans are proud to represent their group and be a part of a team. The meaning of their in-group affiliation is strong, but the commitment to the team is not as long lasting as it is in Nicaragua. As well, the strength of the in-group and outgroup identification is not nearly as strong and important as it is in Nicaragua. Time orientation is another way cultures can categorize their high and low context identification. Like many other warm climate nations, Nicaragua is known to utilize polychronic time (Fine, 2013). Nicaraguans view time as a part of life they must live with. They have a more lackadaisical approach to their timing, and being on time does not necessarily mean arriving at an exactly calculated point in time. Nicaraguans are laid back and will spread their attention over multiple points of focus. When I was in Nicaragua, our bus driver exemplified Nicaraguan polychronic time (M. Gomez, Personal communication, March 14, 2013).. For him, it was acceptable to take his time and arrive when he and his bus were ready to go. At first, this was difficult for the group I went with because we were all monochronic-time American who just wanted to go go go. Here is an excerpt from the conversation our group leader had with our bus driver: American: American approaches a Nicaraguan bus driver in Managua. Excuse me. Nicaraguan: He smiles. Buenos Dias! How are you today, sir. American: I had initially scheduled to be picked up at 7:00 AM this morning. It is now 7:23 and I am running behind. I need you to be on time tomorrow so I can be on time, too. Will you be able to do that for me? Nicaraguan: The bus driver is cutting the apple in his hand with a knife as he stands next to the bus listening. He smiles and nods in response to the Americans question. Yes.


American: Good! I am glad to hear that. Now can you please take this womans lacrosse stick? Nicaraguan: He stretches his hand towards the woman and with his palm facing down, he motions for her come over. While doing this, he makes the sound, ts ts ts ts ts ts. American: The woman hands him her lacrosse stick. Here you go. Nicaraguan: He wearily looks down at the lacrosse stick. Eh pleaseWhat is this? American: It is a lacrosse stick. You hold it over your shoulder like this. Do you want to try? Nicaraguan: He looks at the lacrosse stick and shakes his head. Em No thank you, maam.

This conversation does not only demonstrate Americans view of monochronic time and Nicaraguans view of polychromic time, it also emphasizes Nicaraguans use of covert messages, with the bus drivers hand gestures and sounds, and Americans use of direct, overt language. Additionally, it covers all four of Hofstedes dimensions. It demonstrates Nicaraguans sense of high power distance when the bus driver refers to the man and the woman as sir and maam. It also addresses the American individualistic culture because the American man refers to himself as I instead of referring to the entire group as we when talking to the bus driver. This conversation also illustrates Nicaraguas feminine culture when the bus driver greets the American with Buenos Dias! How are you today, sir? showing compassion for others. Finally, uncertainty avoidance is addressed when the Nicaraguan bus driver is reluctant to handle the unfamiliar lacrosse stick. In the United States, monochronic time orientation is the norm (Fine, 2013). Everyone is constantly moving from one event to another at a rapid speed. Americans spend less time spreading out their focus over multiple points, but instead concentrate their focus on one idea at a time. It is much harder for them to stray from their very detailed schedule. Going back to my


previous example, for our American group, it was extremely hard for us to have a flexible schedule. Everyone wanted to know exactly what was going on and when it was occurring. As well, it was emphasized that we be early. The earlier we were, the better. It was not until midweek that we realized it was pointless to have a monochronic approach to time in Nicaragua because everyone around us had a polychronic time orientation. For the remainder of our trip, we tried to assimilate to Nicaraguan culture and adopt this polychronic orientation to time. Learning about Hofstedes four cultural dimensions, as well as Halls patterns of group affiliation and orientation to time is vital to a full comprehension of cultural awareness. When I was in Nicaragua, understanding the high power distance within the society was imperative to understanding why some communities were so impoverished and why they need assistance. It was also important in understanding why the culture was so accepting of this power distance and why my group members and I were so shocked by the intensity of it all. As well, understanding the collectivist nature within the Nicaraguan community was useful in trying to respectfully assimilate to the culture of the region. If I went to Nicaragua and was focused on myself and my needs, like most Americans do in the United States, I would be disrespecting all of the citizens of Nicaragua. It was so wonderful to understand this before going to Nicaragua because the collectivist nature is an unspoken characteristic of the country. This also coincides with the feminine nature of Nicaragua. They do not tell you to be extra compassionate and concerned for others welfare, the Nicaraguans are that way and want you to be that way, too. The last thing I wanted to be stereotyped as while I was in Nicaragua was that loud, selfish American. The last of Hofstedes dimensions, uncertainty avoidance, was imperative for me when I visited the trash dump community in Limonal. Visiting this community was the climax of my trip, and it is still affecting me after weeks of having had returned. After seeing the life these people had, I could


not understand why the Nicaraguan people were not up in arms about it. I could not fathom ever wanting to live in a trash dump or live in a society where it was acceptable to do so. However, Hofstedes dimension of uncertainty avoidance clarified much of my questions as to why this was happening. It gave me a bit of relief and understanding, even though I still do not believe people should live in that sort of situation. Additionally, Halls concepts of in and out-group affiliation and orientation to time, especially in the case of our bus driver, also help clarify misunderstandings between Nicaraguans and Americans. These are some examples of was cultural patterns might lead to more competent intercultural communication, problems and misunderstandings, or both, such as the case with Limonal. Understanding why Nicaragua is the way it is through the four cultural dimensions is so vital for helping me appreciating the people and the community of this nation. Awareness of cultural values is pivotal for respecting everyone throughout the world. Nicaragua and the United States are both in the Western Hemisphere, but culturally, these two societies do not have much in common. In fact, the are fairly opposite in nature. Nicaragua has high power distance, high collectivism, high femininity, and high uncertainty avoidance. As well, Nicaragua is high context and utilizes a polychronic sense of time. Conversely, the United States has low power distance, high individualism, high masculinity, and low uncertainty avoidance. As well, Americans are low context and have a monochronic sense of time. Cultural awareness is imperative for being a citizen of the world. We all have a duty to respect others and be respected no matter where we come from or what culture we identify with. In order to do this, we must understand the differences in cultural patterns as described by Hofstede and Hall, and apply them to our interactions with our fellow citizens of the world.


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