People Learn Culture, Rules, Through Communication

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Written By JohnBarnes

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Most of our waking hours are spent sharing thoughts, message or information with others. When we communicate, we are experiencing one of the most critical aspects of our lives.

With increased domestic diversity and globalization of the marketplace, we are experiencing a growing need to communicate more effectively at work and in our communities, as we try to better understand people representing cultures much different from our own.

To understand the basics of communication, we need to recognize that communication or how we share with others our thoughts and feelings, and culture are tightly interwoven. Culture – think of it as how we go about doing things, the rules we follow – is perhaps a less familiar word, but it is a way of life that is formed by and transmitted through communication.

Culture can also be defined as the rules for living and functioning in a particular group or society. These rules, of course, vary from one group or society to another and are learned through communication.

There’s an old song that goes, “Love and marriage, love and marriage, go together like a horse and carriage… and, you can’t have one without the other.” This is how closely these two functions of humanity work together — even moreso.

Try remembering the first time you went to an ethnic restaurant. Did you know what to order? Did you try reading the menu? If the menu was in another language, how did you understand what you were ordering?

Did you bring a pocket foreign language dictionary to use? Or did you watch what other people were ordering and order the same if it looked good? Did you try to signal the attention of a waiter and ask for help?

Did you make an educated guess and point at something on the menu? When your meal was over, were you satisfied with the results?

The point is this. Culture and communication are dependent on each other. Culture is formed and transmitted through communication and how people communicate is determined by culture.

Say that you visited a French restaurant and put your hand in the air, and quietly said “Garçon.” You would have been using impolite communication, contrary to what some of us have heard. In a French restaurant after you sit down, it is considered rude to use the word Garçon which means “boy” or “waiter.” Instead, saying s’il vous plaît or “please” will probably get you more responsive service. The more appropriate and respectful your communication is to the culture, the better the experience you will typically have.

For many, the word culture is a new vocabulary word. The U.S. is a large country and many do not have the opportunity of getting acquainted with people of other cultures. But as we become more diverse and global, this reality is quickly changing.

We learn how to function and maneuver in our own culture from our day of birth, as we model others and learn the rules of deportment; we keep learning about operating in our culture throughout our lives. Because our own culture is so familiar and so ever present, we sometimes say these rules and behavioral expectations are instilled or embedded, allowing us to react to social situations without having to think. Sometimes we think all cultures are alike, that we if understand our own, we can easily operate in others, drawing upon our instincts.

But what about entering a culture where the rules and means of communication are very different from our own? How do we grasp how things are done when visiting a different country? Or when spending time with an unfamiliar ethnic or social group? Or when changing jobs and moving into a new corporate culture?

“Gary” went to work in a very formal corporate culture. He didn’t last very long, because he wore loafers to work with tassels. After he was fired, a co-worker explained to him that the shoes were inappropriate for this company’s culture and caused his problem. What did he learn? Several things, he later told me – including that he would always be more careful of where he accepted employment, that he would first consider the culture.

Another culture story: my husband and I spent a week as guests in an Italian home. Our host carefully explained the rules of going to market. The first and most important rule is not to touch what you’re buying until you’ve paid for it. This may seem illogical because it is hard to tell if that a tomato is good if you don’t pick it up, but in Italian markets, unless you’ve been given special permission by the vendor, you’ll tell them what you want and how much of it you want and they’ll get it for you. In such settings, problems can arise, especially when it comes to communication of lack thereof. Had we not been told and/or observed these rules, we would not have been welcome and probably people would have talked about those impolite Americans, long after we returned home.

Culture and communication are tightly woven, both experiences show. People learn the culturally appropriate and expected way of doing things, or rules, through communication. We should expect that communication styles vary, if people’s behaviors vary from culture to culture. These differences go way beyond obvious difference of language and vary in both verbal and nonverbal communication.

How people use communication – when to use communication and why – are products of each culture, for instance. What works in one culture may or may not work in another culture. In cross-cultural exchange, the accepted, normal communication practices of one person can wind up being offensive to another.

A Russian exchange student, living with us during his junior year of high school, asked for us to help him correctly celebrate a friend’s birthday. The friend, also an exchange student from Russia, was missing his home and family. “Max” knew that Americans did not typically celebrate birthdays the way in which his friend was accustomed, spending all day and evening together, with lots of homemade food, extended family members, storytelling, homemade gifts and other such gestures.

We had a wonderful time, helping this exchange student feel some of the culture he was missing. And we had the opportunity to learn something unique and wonderful about his culture, too. As we diversity and globalize, these unique opportunities will only increase and benefit us,if we allow them to. Let’s enjoy these opportunities to their fullest.