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Intercultural Communication

Things to remember when you work with other cultures

Societies are becoming more and more exposed to individuals coming from different cultures for
various purposes, may it be business, educational or recreational. In the present global context where
transportation has made tourism an easy proposition for
recreation, people have become curious to know the
specialties in other cultures when it comes to healthcare and
medicine. Though cultures have their own uniqueness and the
individuals in those cultures could be proud of themselves
because of their second-to-none features, one need to keep in
mind that others too carry similar uniqueness along with them.
Hence, everyone in this world lives with his or her own
uniqueness that makes him or her different from the other.
In this case, every identity has its own dignity which seeks
respect from the other. Therefore, respecting difference is
the key to work with other cultures, or in other words, is the
foundation for intercultural harmony.

What is difference? Difference marks a point or a way in
which people become dissimilar. Building a relationship with
someone from a different community demands a degree of awareness of his or her cultural difference.
Culture is a complex concept because it involves many different definitions. Cultural differences are
made through the variations in the way of life, beliefs, traditions and laws between different countries,
religions, societies and people. Hence, under this globalized world, we all need to learn the language
that minimizes differences and improves integration. Knowing the art of establishing trust with
someone is the key to build a successful relationship.

What is culture? Culture refers to a group of community in which the members of that community
share common experience that determines the way they understand the world. The commonly shared
values include gender, race, origin, class or religion. Whether it is Asian, African or European from
any socio-cultural or religious or political category, you need to know the diversities of those whom
perhaps you know very little about. And in order to work with people from different cultural groups
effectively, you will need to build sturdy and caring relationships based on trust, understanding, and
shared goals.

Developing Intercultural Sensitivity: How can we
be sensitive to the cultural difference of another? It
all depends on how much we can tolerate the
difference. By tolerating the difference, we can
move on from denial to integration. Becoming aware
of your own culture, its values and norms is the first
step in learning about other people's culture. Always
think of yourself before you think of others and
judge them. When we think of culture broadly we
realize we all belong to many cultures at once. There
is something in us that was borrowed from
different cultures; it can be language, dress code,

Figure 1
Intercultural Communication (Handout) Department of Tourism Management
Sabaragamuwa University of Sri Lanka


food habit, mannerism, sexuality or even things that we are not conscious of. There is nothing
puritan or absolute that keeps a culture unmixed or intact.

Culture-Visible and Invisible: Culture is considered as an ice-burg, where there is a small visible
part and the rest is invisible for the naked eye. In a culture, what is normally visible is the body
language, gestures, the spoken word etc. but the hard body is what really shapes the identity of a
member of a community who shares the common values of that community. Always remember,
someones behavior is more than what you see.

In the invisible kernel, other than the values, beliefs or feelings, there are biases and prejudices.
Someones social dream is structured through the values of that hard centre of a culture. Therefore, to
have a better understanding about someone, the kernel (or the invisible) of his or her culture should be
seriously studied. This kind of profound study requires patience and tolerance. With time, you can
reach the deep structure below the surface. Simply have a look at the Figure 03.

One can see and touch the observable behavior of an individual and it does not take much time. But to
reach the second layer (just below the surface), and to recognize the features of someones culture
requires some amount of time. But right below the dark strait line in Figure 3 lays the deep structure
of a culture which formats the appearance. The deep structure can only be recognized through patters
and values that we use to communicate with others.

Figure 2
Diagram 01

Figure 3

Intercultural Communication (Handout) Department of Tourism Management
Sabaragamuwa University of Sri Lanka


There is always a difference in the way we
say things and the way we actually do
things in our real life situations. In the overt
super-structure there are goals, procedures,
policies and structures to get things done but
do we follow the same procedures and go
through the structures when we really want
to do certain things in the Third World? The
simple answer for many occasions would be

We have our own ways of doing things. We
are used to follow our own ways and means
to get things done. For example, we may
bribe a policeman to get rid of an offence. Such an event can be a terrible thing in some culture where
bribery is vehemently condemned, but in our part of the world people may not take it that seriously. In
another instance, the way a student pays respect to his or her teachers varies from culture to culture.
Sometimes, in the same culture, under different contexts, it can be different. Hence, to know the
actual way people respond to other, one has to enter the hidden kernel of individuals and the complex
social fabric of a culture. Have a look at Figure 5.

Figure 4

Intercultural Communication (Handout) Department of Tourism Management
Sabaragamuwa University of Sri Lanka


Figure 5

In this ice-berg model of culture, the hidden part consists of feelings. Even the norms and beliefs
belong to the visible part of behavior called thinking. That means we can think of something in
some way but we actually behave and respond in the way we feel based on our attitudes, values and
expectations. There can be differences in the way we think and act. Most of all, the way we feel is
often determined by our traditional myths.

Intercultural Communication (Handout) Department of Tourism Management
Sabaragamuwa University of Sri Lanka


What are they ways to build relationships with others? In a diverse cultural background such as
ours we need to discover new ways to connect to each other and establish trust in them. Here are some
points that will help you to communicate with someone from a different culture;

1. Start from your own culture: Do you have a culture and what are features of that culture? Think of
the way your cultural identity is made. You may be a parent, immigrant, an athlete, a businessman etc.
Being a parent or immigrant in a particular culture is a special identity which can influence the other
members of a community. The world views you differently if you have ever been a prisoner. One has
to be aware of such significant differences of individuals. Lets do a small exercise;

Exercise 01
Try to list out the cultural features you can identify in you
What is your
sexual identity
geographical region
Who are you?
a female
a writer
from an urban area
Have you ever been?
to a prison
to military

What difference can it make?
Example: I am a Muslim and
should attend prayers five times
a day.

Example: I am an urban female
and aware of the cosmetics I
should possess.
Example: I have been to
military and know how to be
obedient to serious officers and
follow orders.

2. Be a good listener: If you get an opportunity to hear stories about people, you can learn a lot and
build your relationship at the same time. Every person from any community has an important story to
narrate. Each story tells something about someones culture. Similarly, ask people questions about
their own culture, customs and views.

By listening to people's stories, we can get a fuller picture of how people's lives are made of -their
desires, their mistakes, dislikes and the richness of their lives.

3. Be aware of the biases in your own culture: What are the stereotypes and generalizations in our
culture about others? We have to be aware of the misinformation we receive about the other cultures.
For an example, statements such as Muslim traders are untrustworthy are a common cultural
stereotype (or stigma) which misleads your building a relationship with them.

Exercise 02
Can you narrate your story to the others in your classroom?

Exercise 03
What are the common cultural stereotypes in your culture about the other ethnic groups?
Intercultural Communication (Handout) Department of Tourism Management
Sabaragamuwa University of Sri Lanka


4. Show caring and concern for the differences: Remember caring is first principle to make a
relationship real. Everyone needs care. Dont make assumptions about others. Instead of imagining
things about others, politely ask questions about what you dont know about them. Make a concerted
effort make a bridge. Difference is what makes the world beautiful. When you are sincere in listening
to the differences in other cultures, they will tell you a lot.

5. Read about others cultures and histories: It is easy to understand others when you know
something about someones background; especially histories, heritages and beliefs. Though you do
not have to be an expert on culture, make an effort to read other religious, historical and cultural texts
than your own. Then you can ask questions that make sense.

6. Notice the communication styles: People have different ways in communicating with others; some
people dominate the discussions while others maintain a long silence. In some cultures, silence is not
commonly welcome and others speak more to fill the vacancy. In some occasions people from the
majority culture speak more while the members from the minority keep comparatively silent. This
does not mean that what is more vociferous is accurate and the less talked has nothing to
communicate. For an example, in public forums, women can be less communicative but it does not
mean that they do not have a message to deliver.

Figure 6
7. Risk making mistakes and learn from them: You may make mistakes when you try initiating a
successful relationship, but keep in your mind that only through mistakes we can really learn. So,
dont let making mistakes keeping you from going ahead. If you think or feel that you offended
someone, dont hesitate to apologize. Learn from the mistake and then try to build it better.

We have to actively get involved in certain cultural situations and contexts to know better. Just by
sitting on the sidelines and watching from a distance will never help. We have to educate ourselves
and then communicate with the others. It is we who have to make a difference against the cultural
stereotypes and discriminations.

Further Reading:
Top ten tips working with other cultures by Julia Ferguson Andriessen (2001) Annexed.

Prepared by Mahesh Hapugoda