Culture is defined as “a system of values and norms that are shared among a group of people and that, taken together, constitute a design for living” (Vance & Paik 2006, p.39). In the past century, scholars have directed commendable efforts towards understanding various cultures and their impact on global human relations.
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As a result, concepts, theories and principles have been developed in this regard. This paper shall set out to explore various terminologies used in studying culture. To this end, a brief description of these terminologies shall be offered and an illustration of the same given.
‘Culture is ordinary’
This is a saying formulated in 1958 by the famous theorist Raymond William. This dictum means that society develops from the common meanings and directions that its members’ share and it grows due to the pressures that arise as a result of contact learning and discovery.
For example, in the Chinese culture, the concept of loosing face is core to the livelihood of the Chinese people. Fang (1999, p.143) observes that in Chinese tradition, losing face is “equivalent to [literally] losing one’s eyes, nose, and mouth.” As such, every activity carried out by the Chinese people is geared towards saving face. This practice therefore holds a shared meaning and has grown in the Chinese culture through learning, experience and contact.
Cultural identity can best be defined as the way individuals define themselves in regard to their cultural norms and beliefs (Adair, 2009). It is a relatively new concept in cultural studies that aim to analyze the effect of various identifiers to culture. Cultural identity helps people understand themselves and how they relate to others around them. As Adair (2009) states, cultural identity contributes significantly to the wellbeing of a society. The author attributes this to the fact that it gives people a sense of belonging and security.
High context culture/low context culture
These are terminologies developed by famous anthropologist Edward. T. Hall back in 1976. These terms refer to a situation whereby a group of people that have similar experiences develop a new mode of communication that only them can understand and decipher. As such, high context culture refers to a communication routine in which few words are used to communicate complex messages within the in-group.
For example, people who use e-mailing as a mode of communication use words such as ‘ASAP, LOL’ and ‘TMI’ to shorten the message. People outside the group may not understand the meaning of such words but those within the group do. On the other hand, in low context culture, the communicator has to communicate more explicitly since the value of a single word is not as important. As such, in this culture, more words are required to give a message its meaning.
The social field theory was developed by Kurt Lewin and it aimed at analyzing social situations through the elements that affected them. As such, a social field in this context refers to social elements and forces that are topologically organized. A social field enables us to identify, interrelate and observe various social elements and forces and how they affect each other.
For example, shyness I a sociological force that hinders people from realizing their goals in a social setting while confidence (a helping force) helps people achieve their set goals.
Simply put, haptics refer to our ability to manipulate and explore the world through touch. According to Mehrabian (2007), haptic communication has been used across different cultures to convey emotions since it facilitates the sense of unity between two or more people.
For example, in most cultures, hugging and holding hands are perceived as emotional cues implying support, reassurance and care. Haptics are forms of non-verbal communication that have proven to be effective in communicating emotional messages. For example, in the Chinese culture, holding hands among men is a common place since it symbolizes friendship. However, in most western cultures, this is viewed as an anomaly indicative of an intimate relationship.
According to Greene and Burleson (2003), ethnorelativism refers to man’s ability to view certain values and behavioral traits as cultural rather than universal. In essence, ethnorelativism argues that how we view the world and events greatly depends on an individual’s cultural heritage.
This means that we perceive different cultures perceive similar situations differently. For example, most cultures assume that each person can best advance their interest when the situation at hand is thoroughly understood by means of direct verbal communication (Cardon & Scott, 2003).
This assumption results in the adoption of directness in interpersonal communications. This is not the case in Chinese culture which places greater emphasis in preserving harmony. The Chinese are therefore only direct in the occasion where no one including themselves is at a risk of losing face.
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Individualism refers to the belief that all rights, values and responsibilities originate from an individual. As such, this concepts views man as a sovereign being who has an innate and natural right to his life, decisions and actions. A good example regarding this concept is the United States and china.
Arguably, U.S is an individualistic state because people often think about themselves before they think about others. As such, U.S is a ME and I state. On the other hand, China advocates for unity and equality. The Chinese culture advocates for unity and people are obligated to share whatever they have.
Types of non-verbal communication
According to statistics, a significant portion of our communication is often non-verbal (Greene & Burleson, 2003). Non-verbal communication entails the use of gestures, facial expressions, touch and posture among others during our interactions. Regardless of the technique one applies, non-verbal communication plays a pivotal role in revealing who we are and it affects how we relate to others (Mehrabian, 2007). Some types of non-verbal communication include the following:
Looking, blinking and staring have been documented as being important non-verbal behaviors. For example, when a person sees someone or something that he/she likes, the blinking rate increases and the pupils dilate.
As such, the eyes can be use to show feelings of hostility, attraction and even interest. In the western culture, the eye gaze is very important especially in matters regarding to the chain of command. If you are out of control, a stare from a person of authority is enough to tell you that you have crossed the line and need to calm down.
How we dress, our choice of color, hairstyle and other factors are non-verbal cues that communicate our identity. Research into color psychology has shown that different colors elicit different moods from people. For example, blue and brown have been known to give people a calm sensation while red and black evoke hostility.
First impressions always count. These judgments are based on an individual’s appearance. In America where people practice a corporate culture, appearance is important since it determines the level of respect you earn from others. This is why it is always important to dress appropriately when going to an interview or a meeting.
Arguably, facial expressions are pivotal in face to face interactions. Consider how much a person can learn from a frown or a smile. These facial cues convey sadness, happiness, anger and disgust among other feelings during a conversation. These cues are important in my culture since they can help one understand what another person feels regarding a certain topic or event.
Culture plays an important role in intercultural communication. As such it is important that we all try to understand different cultures so as to avoid the inherent conflicts that arise due to cultural diversity.
Adair, J. (2009). Effective Communication: The Most Important Management Skill of All. New York: Pan Macmillan.
Cardon, P., & Scott, J. (2003). Chinese Business Face: Communication Behaviors and Teaching Approaches. Business Communication Quarterly 66: pp. 9-22.
Fang, F. (1999). Chinese business negotiating style. New York: Sage.
Greene O., & Burleson R. (2003). Handbook of communication and social interaction skills. New Jersey: Routledge.
Mehrabian, A. (2007). Nonverbal Communication. USA: Transaction Publishers.
Vance, C., & Paik, Y. (2006). Managing a global workforce: challenges and opportunities in international human resource management. California: M.E. Sharpe.