Communicating and Training Across Cultures

It is always a challenge to cross into another culture and to attempt to communicate with someone who has grown up with different experiences and been raised to see life from a different perspective. This challenge is compounded when one enters an intercultural situation that involves teaching and training. It is essential for those who are together in a training environment to have good communication. Bad communication, or lack of communication, undermines the potential of successful training. Therefore, learning good intercultural communciation is essential for those who will be involved in cross-cultural training.

One of the most important issues in intercultural communication is readiness to be adaptable, to deal in an accommodating way with the challenges that one will face. In an intercultural context more than in any other situation, both the teacher and the learner must be prepared to face differences of opinion, differences of technique and differences of worldview. It is encouraging to note that, according to studies, entering into an intercultural situation can actually be a catalyst that causes an individual to be more “learning-prone.” One researcher, Tough, did a study on people crossing cultures and concluded that “…life transitions or the anticipation of them accounted for the initiation of…learning projects.” (Cross 1981:95) For many people, therefore, it seems that an intercultural context is a natural encouragement to the people involved to be adaptable and ready to learn new things and new ways of doing thing.

Another vital issue in intercultural communication and training is the issue of critical thinking. Brookfield, in his book Developing critical thinkers: challenging adults to explore alternative ways of thinking and acting, says that critical thinking includes “identifying and challenging assumptions.” (1987:7) When a person is immersed in another culture, especially in an interactive setting, it is vital that he identifies and challenges assumptions. First of all, he needs to identify and challenge assumptions of his own culture, being willing to acknowledge blindspots from his own worldview. Second, he needs to be ready to identify and challenge assumptions in the culture that he has entered; as an outsider, he will be aware of false assumptions that those within the culture hold, but may never recognize without the help of someone from another culture.

It is within this issue of critical thinking that acculturation and enculturation play a significant role. We all are enculturated into whatever culture we grow up in. We take for granted that the way our culture does things is “the way it’s done” and the perspective that we take on things is right. For example, in the United States it is considered perfectly acceptable for children to dress up like witches and ghosts and walk around knocking on doors the night of October 31. This practice would be shocking and abhorrent to someone from a culture that had close interaction with the spiritual world and that used masks or costumes in serious spiritual ceremonies.

Critical thinking thus becomes a vital part of acculturation, adopting (at least partially) a new culture. Unless one examines and challenges assumptions that he has held previously, and unless one imagines and explores the possibility of the other culture having a superior or acceptable way of thinking, he will never succeed in communicating or training cross-culturally.

Being an effective intercultural communicator and trainer requires that one be ready to learn new ways of thinking, and ready to identify and challenge assumptions that one has made. If a person is not teachable and adaptable, he will not succeed in an intercultural training situation. Ms. Hiromi Ohara, a middle school teacher from Tokyo, Japan, brought special Japanese items with her when she went to teach in other countries. She found, however, that the young people were not very interested in the exotic items she had brought so thoughtfully. Instead, they seemed more interested when she would bring in items that were familiar and readily available for her students. Ms. Ohara adapted her teaching style and began to bring in everyday objects for the students to use and learn from.

It is this sort of adaptability that is required from anyone who would succeed in an intercultural context: the ability to let go of methods that we have held dear in order to replace them with methods and ways of thinking that may be more successful and well-received in the culture we have entered.

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