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Issue 81. Differences October 3, 2009

Posted by Bettina Hansel in Culture and Communication.
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As a small child, I often wished that I had a twin sister. The fantasies were vague, but the general idea was that she would be someone just like me in every way. We of course would always get along, share our toys, and be best of friends. With a little more experience, I began to grasp the point: Being with someone exactly like me is about as interesting as being alone. The joy in life comes from being with people who are different than I am. This is good because of course I never found anyone exactly like me.

But at the same time, it’s not always easy. Building relationships across differences means that sometimes — even frequently — we might disagree. Even if this is someone from our own culture, who has lived through more or less the same experiences, listened to the same radio stations, watched the same movies, read or watched the same news, we might still disagree. In such cases, we tend to feel very free to judge the other person. We see this especially across divides of political opinion. How, we wonder, do they see all the same facts and come up with such an illogical conclusion? We may try to persuade them to rethink their logic — usually a futile exercise — or we may “agree to disagree,” a common solution in the USA when people want to maintain relationships. Typically this means that we tend to avoid these problem topics where we see things differently, and focus instead on all those things we have in common. Very rarely, and mostly with those we love the most, we might try harder to understand the other person’s point of view, and allow that other point of view to be part of how we also see the world.

Building relationships across cultures means navigating even more differences. Of course, there will be similarities and that can be helpful. But we usually recognize right away that there are many differences; whether it’s the food, the language, the climate, the religion, or the political system. There may also be visible physical differences. Even dressed in a salwar kameez, I could never pass for a native in India and so I was often greeted by shouts from children: “Hello! What country are you from?” If we have a generous soul, these very noticeable differences tend to make us reticent to judge the other person or the other culture, though of course in some ways we often do judge, and that is why we may tread lightly around some of the differences we find. We may avoid mentioning the differences we find because in fact they do sound like judgments in our ear. We may worry that we will offend or embarrass the other person. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

On my first visit to Japan, I stayed with a lovely family who generously gave me meals and a place to stay while I worked and explored Tokyo. I remember the dinner when my hosts first served me a miso soup that was oishi — that is, it was delicious! But my hosts couldn’t tell that from my behavior; they were the ones to comment: “How funny that you eat the soup silently.” That would be how I was trained to eat soup in the USA, so I did it quite naturally, but now that this differences was called to my attention, I realized that everyone else at the table has been slurping the soup. Far from being embarrassed or offended, I was glad that they brought this up. It was another aspect of the Japanese culture I could try out.

Many differences are less visible (or audible) as whether or not you slurp your soup. Generally differences in non-verbal behaviors are much easier to accept and adapt to than differences in what we believe to be true in life, religion, or in politics. I remain the same person if I decide to slurp my soup when in Japan and eat it silently in the USA, but my identity may feel more vulnerable if I decide to explore other religious or even political beliefs. And yet, even that doesn’t have to be true if I think of my self as a growing and evolving person. Years ago when I was traveling alone in Montreal, I had time to spare and was willing to fill out a survey. I had thought it was a marketing survey but it turned out to be a Scientology personal assessment. When I discovered this afterwards, I closed up. I was coaxed into the debriefing but determined that I would leave immediately afterwards. Though I still wanted to be polite, my defenses were in high alert. I did not want to be converted. I never joined the Scientology church and still have no intention of doing so. However, in the intervening years, I have come to understand that the debriefing did offer a particular insight into my personality that I now recognize to be true, and it’s been helpful to me to know about it and to have a label for it, to embrace it and to compensate for it. It’s also given me an understanding about the value that other belief systems may hold.

I was reminded of this in August when I attended the IAIR conference and heard the keynote address by Min-Sum Kim. (See “Research and Relevant Bits” for more on the IAIR conference.) She was humorously self-critical about her resistance to religious missionaries who saw her as a “worthy target” for conversion, and challenged us all to be more open to, and less fearful of differences.

It is a big challenge, and I know I have a long way to go.


Issue 67. Acting Interculturally Competent May 17, 2009

Posted by Bettina Hansel in Culture and Communication.
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ORANGE_BOOKHave you ever seen a really stunning performance by an actor? Belatedly, I recently viewed The Lives of Others for the first time and was blown away by the performance of Ulrich Mühe, for which he named “Best Actor” in the European Film Awards.

I’ve been thinking about actors recently because I began to realize how their skills and awareness are related to the kinds of skills and awareness that we need to empathize and to communicate well across cultures. Much of this has to do with the way that skilled actors handle and communicate emotion. They also need to have different repetoires of physical expression of emotion. Much of Ulrich Mühe’s award-winning portrayal was handled in stillness rather than motion, with subtle shifts in facial expression, with tall or slumped shoulders.

Actors need to be highly aware of their body language and of the various non-verbal elements of their speech such as the tone of their voice, the speed and rhythm of their delivery, pauses, and so on. Most of the meaning is not found just in the text of the lines they deliver. This is why I always prefer to watch movies in the original language, with subtitles, rather than a dubbed version where another actor — even though that person may be equally skilled — supplies the audio portion of the performance. I want that contextual communication first hand, not interpreted. The text itself I can as easily read as hear. Since I don’t speak German and could not grasp on my own the nuances of the language, it may also be true that I paid much more attention to the non-verbal communication than I might for a Hollywood production.

It has been proposed many years ago by Edward T. Hall that cultures can be distinguished by being High Context or Low Context. Though the USA is generally considered to be a “Low Context” culture, for reasons I understand, it is still true that much of the communication within the USA is high context, particularly the informal communication among friends or colleagues, where it is no longer necessary to explain but only to refer to shared knowledge and experiences. Emotional communication in particular is contextual. Though the self-help culture and years of psychotherapy try to encourage us to express our emotions verbally, it is still not the words a person speaks that tell me how that person is feeling, but rather body language and non-verbal communication: the lack of words, the untouched food, the sparkling eyes, the tightly-clenched jaw, smiles and frowns, an expression I can only describe as “puzzled.” 

There is also the particularly powerful non-verbal communication that I think of as electric or chemical, when you viscerally register the emotion communicated by another person. When this type of reaction is triggered by the performance of an actor, I often wonder how the actor managed to do that. Actors probably perform best when dealing with characters that are culturally familiar to them, and from his biography, it seems that the film character was created with Ulrich Mühe in mind.  When Mühe was asked how he was able to portray the Stasi agent so effectively, he replied, “I remembered.” 

And for those of us who did not have the experience that Mühe remembered, we have his unforgettable communication that impacts our understanding of that experience.