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  • Writer's pictureCarlie Sitzman MA, CT

Answer These 3 Questions to Improve Cultural Awareness

It is no secret that cultural awareness can play a major role in the success of communication between professionals from different countries. With culture itself being a somewhat abstract concept, however, it is often difficult to know how to improve cultural awareness for better intercultural communication. In this article, I will present three questions you should answer to improve cultural awareness at work. Having the answers to these questions will allow you to analyze your interactions with professionals from foreign countries to identify differences and interpret the meaning of cultural differences as they arise.

1. What is the context of the interaction?

Are you building a bridge together? Negotiating an international trade deal? Going out for dinner to network? The other person’s conduct in these situations is likely to be deeply impacted by the rules of conduct that govern these contexts in their home country or native culture. Cultural differences may manifest themselves as behavior that boldly flaunts your strongly held beliefs about proper conduct in the context at hand. Individuals from a more closely related culture, however, may only display mildly irritating or slightly contradictory behavior that deviates from your norm. You may be tempted to attribute these subtler cultural differences to the other person’s mood or perception of you. If the same thing occurs frequently and with different people from the same country, however, it is probably a cultural difference. Keeping this in mind can help you identify cultural patterns that occur in specific contexts and take steps towards better understanding them.

2. What is the other person’s intention?

When identifying intention, it is just as important to consider the intention behind small actions as it is to consider the person’s intention within the overarching context. Knowing the person’s overall intention can help you understand individual interactions that may appear puzzling at first. If you know someone is in favor of the trade deal you are negotiating, for example, yet they keep acting as if they are not, they may be using cultural norms you are not familiar with to show their agreement. Conversely, connecting seemingly strange individual behaviors with known intentions could later help you infer a person’s overarching intentions in future interactions. If individuals from another culture ask a lot of rhetorical questions during a presentation, for example, then tell you afterwards they were extremely skeptical of the content, asking rhetorical questions may be a common way to show skepticism in their culture. You can keep this theory in mind and either perform some research to see if you are right or test it next time you interact with individuals from that culture during a presentation.

3. What is the functional purpose of the other person’s actions?

Once you have identified the context and intention of the interaction, you can use these to uncover the functional purpose of a person’s actions. Start by identifying the functional purpose of your own actions within the specific context for the given intentions. Knowing the functional purpose of your actions can help you recognize the different ways in which others achieve the same communicative goal. Let’s take a look at a brief example.

Example: Effective Intercultural Communication in Action

Let’s say you are meeting someone from another culture for dinner to get to know them better. They are acting very congenial and you are both having a good time. The food arrives and they start making completely unnecessary, loud chewing noises. In the United States, that would be considered extremely bad manners. Are they trying to offend you? Are they being rude and disrespectful? Let’s answer the three questions to get to the root of the matter:

Consider the Context

You are eating dinner with a stranger from another country.

Consider the Intention

You are both having a good time. You suspect that the other person wants to keep the ball rolling and continue to enjoy a pleasant evening with you.

Consider the Functional Purpose

Now ask yourself what the functional purpose of your own interactions within the context of dinner with a stranger from another country usually are, given the shared intention of getting to know each other and enjoying the evening. You usually want to show respect to the other person through good manners. You might want to indicate that you are enjoying the food through polite comments. You might want to show appreciation for the meal and for the other person’s time by being punctual. You might want to ask questions about the person to get to know them better.

Develop a Theory

It seems unlikely that loud chewing noises are associated with getting to know someone or respecting their time. It probably relates directly to appreciation of the food or to table manners for showing respect. You might guess that the other person is trying to show appreciation for the food by chewing loudly. This theory can be filed away and researched later or tested next time you interact with someone from the same culture. You can also try to test your theory in real time by asking a follow-up question such as “What do you think of the food?”. If you are feeling especially bold, you might even discreetly launch a conversation about cultural norms governing table manners and exchange stories about the different cultural norms in your respective countries. No matter how you decide to proceed, remember that there is always more than one way to skin a cat. It is not the end of the world if your interaction is a bit strange and off-kilter. Try to appreciate this new experience and go with the flow. You may discover a new way of looking at the world in the process!

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