Voices from the Idaho EdNews Community

Interacting effectively across cultural lines requires perseverance and sensitivity

Michael Strickland

Mark, an American, is sitting next to Sheila on an airplane. She is a first-time traveler to the United States, from England. They strike up a conversation.

Mark: So, Sheila, are you feeling ready for your first trip to the states?

Sheila: I’m excited about starting, but I feel a tad paggered. Last night I got pretty pissed.

Mark: Aw. That’s a bummer. Who upset you?

Sheila: No one. My friends and I just talked about farty things. No dicky fits.

Luke: Uh, Oh. OK? (Mark’s friend, Luke sits in the third seat)

Mark: Luke, this is Sheila, from London.

Sheila: Hello. Nice to meet you. Mark and I were just having a bit of intercourse. Would you like to join us?

Luke: Really?!

Mark: No! No! No! We were just talking!

In Sheila’s England, the word paggered means tired. The slang term pissed refers to to getting drunk. When something is farty, that means it is insignificant. A dicky fit is an emotional outburst, and intercourse simply means to have a conversation. Simply put, Sheila was tired because she had been drunk the night before. But she didn’t find it to be a big deal. When Luke sat down, she simply invited him into the conversation.

I have been fortunate to spend the last several years teaching courses that highlight the necessity of equipping ourselves with knowledge and skills in intercultural communication so that we can live harmoniously and function effectively as citizens of this global community. The capacity to communicate with people from diverse cultures is a form of competence that is increasingly growing in importance. Working with the international community for economic survival means countries and cultures can no longer operate in a vacuum. Because of this, intercultural communication is no longer a choice but a must.

Idaho is changing. On the Boise school district website, you can click for translations in Cantonese, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Tagalog, Vietnamese, Korean, Russian, and Hindi. Teachers in Idaho and Utah have told me they have encountered students with 12 – 25 different first-languages and national origins in a single classroom. Boise’s Taft Elementary hosts students from over 15 different countries speaking 13 different languages and provides Halal lunches for children of Muslim faith.

Interacting effectively across cultural lines requires perseverance and sensitivity to one another’s differences. This encompasses language skills, customs, ways of thinking, social norms, and habits. The term global village was coined by Canadian media culture analyst Marshall McLuhan almost six decades ago. It describes a world in which communication technology brings news and information to the most remote parts of the world. This is no longer an abstract idea, but the very place we now live in. We can exchange ideas as easily and quickly with people across the world as our ancestors did within the confines of their village. We encounter people from different cultures in business, at school, in public places, in neighborhoods and in virtual space.

Our world is a much smaller place than ever. This is evident in the everyday items we use. For example, we may wear clothes made in Mexico, purchase seafood from Norway, dine out with friends in a Korean restaurant, work at a computer made in Japan, or drive a car manufactured in Germany. The list goes on. Each encounter with food, clothing, languages, products, services, or practices teaches us something new. It broadens our horizons and helps us to appreciate the diversity of the world around us. More than ever before, we realize that our lives are intertwined with people, places, practices, and events outside our own “village” culture.

A number of factors contribute to these dynamics, such as immigration, cross-border business, international education and digital technology-enabled virtual communication. Given that intercultural encounters bring opportunities for understanding between people as well as possibilities of misunderstanding, I spend a lot of time talking with my students about challenges that cultural diversity brings. Misunderstandings resulting from a lack of familiarity with another culture are often embarrassing. Blunders in this area can make it difficult, if not impossible, to reach an agreement with another country or close a business contract with a foreign partner. For travelers, a faux pas can also make interactions more awkward.

There are many ways in which people all around the world are similar, yet it is our differences that truly define us. To put it simply, communication is the exchange of ideas and information between individuals by any means, verbal or otherwise. Sharing knowledge with others requires familiarity with social norms, body language, and etiquette. I encourage people to get involved in organizations where intercultural communication is valued and practiced. One of my favorites is the Idaho Office of Refugees. See: https://www.idahorefugees.org/get-involved.html

Having the ability to communicate effectively across cultural boundaries is critical for the success of any intercultural or multinational endeavor. It helps improve relationships by facilitating two-way conversations, which in turn foster mutual understanding between people of diverse backgrounds. We need to continually pave the way for everyone to appreciate the necessity of developing intercultural knowledge and skills so they can confidently and competently address the many challenges of living in the global community.

Michael Strickland

Michael Strickland

Michael Strickland teaches at Boise State University and studies at Idaho State University.

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