Argyle (34:1991) further explains how most cultures have a number of forms of polite usage of language, which can be misleading. For instance, Americans ask questions which are in fact orders or requests (Would you like to…? ). In all the cultures there are special features of language, certain words or types of conversation, which are considered appropriate for certain situations, e. g. introducing people to one another or asking someone for a favour.
There are differences in the amount of directness/indirectness one chooses and in the structure of conversations. The usual question-answer speech sequence is not used in all cultures and, for example, negations (the word ‘no’) are not used in some Asian countries. In any case, language fluency is a necessary condition in order to make intercultural communication function. In addition to verbal language there are great differences in cultural norms and practices of nonverbal behaviour.
Nonverbal communication refers to all intentional and unintentional stimuli between communicating parties, other than spoken word. These nonverbal processes are sometimes accounted for as much as 70% of the communication. Successful interaction in intercultural settings requires not only the understanding of verbal messages but of nonverbal messages as well. Characteristic to nonverbal communication is that it is less systematized than verbal communication; it is culture-bound and ambiguous. A form of nonverbal communication would be body language.
The four most common body activities are facial expressions, eye contact, hand gestures, and touch. Severe misunderstandings can occur if one does not know the rules of, for example, touching others or level of eye contact in another culture. Another example is the proxemic theory of Edward T. Hall which refers to the study of how we use space in communication process. This space can mean anything from architecture and furniture to the distance between interactants in communication situations.
Hall believed that different cultures have different cultural frameworks for defining and organizing space. People have their own space boundaries which vary from culture to culture. For example Asian, American, Northern Europeans are non contact people. Latin European, Arabs are contact cultures. Furthermore, another reason why communication behaviours are often expressed and interpreted differently from one culture to another is because every culture creates stereotypes of other cultures and people they don’t fully understand.
Making generalizations about people who are different from you is a common yet problematic reaction to the fear of the unknown. Some stereotypes are harmless, some are complimentary and some are misinformed. An example of stereotyping from George Orwell (Horizon-May1940) as quoted in The English, by Jeremy Paxman is ‘Frenchman-wears beard, gesticulates wildy or the Spaniard, Mexican-sinister treacherous’. However, it is important to understand that stereotypes are often completely untrue and they always interfere with your ability to really understand a new culture and new people.
Becoming immersed in another culture is the best way to deconstruct damaging stereotypes. To conclude, across cultures, core beliefs and values are in diversity, totally or partially. Music, clothing, hairstyle, and sexual norms show different influences in different societies. While one can argue that understanding, respecting and being tolerant are important communication behaviours these and many more of our differing practices, beliefs, and attitudes may provide confusions, misunderstandings, and miscommunications if we are not aware of cultural differences.
In every case, vicarious learning or learning through observation, reflection, and understanding is the key concept in trying to gain insights into human behaviour (Atkinson, 1996). According to Atkinson (1996) although our intuitive attempts to incorporate the scientific process of explaining and gaining insight into one’s culture or behaviour in association with our daily life is amazingly effective, there is a huge chance of making analytical mistakes in interpreting these social actions.
Finally I would conclude saying that a very important key in gaining insight into a foreign culture is to stop comparing one’s own culture with another or identifying which culture is best. One must bear in mind that open-mindedness always helps in one’s process of adjustment not just in understanding cultural diversity but in understanding life in its entirety as well.