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Three Views of the Study of Intercultural Communication

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    The study of intercultural communication (ICC) as a disciplinary study in its own right does not seem to have had a strong influence on language teaching. As I have set out in chapter 2, other theories have been brought to bear upon language teaching. However, I believe that it is worthwhile to take a brief look at different views in use in the discipline of ‘intercultural communication’ because this disciplinary area is focused on actual communication – ‘what happens when people engage in an exchange of meaningful semiotic symbols’ (Blommaert, 1998: 1). There are various historical overviews of this area of study, but I will use a talk given by Blommaert (1998) which charts three views of intercultural communication with different ideological underpinnings. Whilst Blommaert charts these views, by his own admission, in a sketchy manner, it is relevant for my purpose, precisely because he takes an approach which concentrates on how ‘culture’ affects, or is seen to affect speech styles. And, whilst my research is not about speech styles as such, it is about language and culture connecting in everyday speech in everyday communicative events.

    Culture and Difference

    The first model which Blommaert highlights is a strongly essentialist one. He points to a large body of work which shares the theoretical premise that modern nations have dominant national character traits which can be revealed by measurable data. Cultures in this model are described as essential values and practices and are therefore seen in terms of their difference from one another. This model is particularly dominant in the area of ICC studies (intercultural communication) for business purposes (cf. Pinto, 1990; Hofstede, 1994). Culture in this model is seen only in terms of behaviour or as a set of fixed values and beliefs. Culture is then viewed as a problem that can lead to misunderstandings: culture as a problem to be overcome. As Hofstede said on his website in 2010, ‘cultural differences are a nuisance at best and often a disaster’, although this statement has now disappeared from the website in question.

    It is undoubtedly the case that in order to make sense of the multitude of ideas, impressions, and information that we experience in our everyday life, humans need to order these impressions into categories. To be fair to the body of work produced in the business-related field, this work is not produced in the context of education with its developmental and intellectual aims that I argued for in chapter 1, but in the context of training with its instrumental aims. The aim is not to understand the complexities of the world, or to be critical but to understand behaviour which would otherwise be ‘puzzling or unacceptable’ (Verluyten, 2000: 340 ) or lead to ‘misunderstanding, miscommunication, and mismanagement, of which damage to business and personal interest can be the result’ (Pinto quoted by Blommaert, (1998: 2)). And with the increasing emphasis on instrumentalism in language teaching in Higher Education, it is prudent to be alert to these argumentations which are borne out of commercial self-interest. The problem with the different views of ICC is precisely the simplification of a complex social and cultural world to a coherent, manageable set of fixed ideas. As I argued in my previous chapter, language teaching should help students to recognize the complexity of the world and not focus on ideas that lead to stereotyping.

    Blommaert strongly criticizes the essentialized ‘difference’ model, not only because this model posits a simplified notion of culture, but more problematically still because this model draws a direct and simplified link between ‘culture’ and communication. Kumaravadivelu (2007: 213) quotes Hall, who developed the first courses in ‘intercultural communication’ for American diplomats, as having declared unequivocally that ‘culture is communication and communication is culture’ (Hall, 1959: 186). The model assumes that the way that people communicate is related to ‘their’ culture, frequently interpreted as a national culture, rather than to a range of other social, political or individual factors. As referred to in chapter 2, seeing a national culture in terms of shared values and norms begs the question: are these values shared by everyone all the time? It also assumes that nationality and identity are natural givens, rather than constructions which are perpetuated through everyday conceptualizations of the nation, such as in weather reports, what Billig (1995) called ‘banal nationalism’. Nationality does not dictate a particular communicative style. At the very most, people’s nationality or ethnic identity may suggest tendencies; the ‘possibility of ethnic or cultural marking in communicative behaviour […], but it in no way imposes ethnic or cultural characteristics onto the communicative behaviour a priori.’ (my emphasis). Moreover, presenting intercultural communication as dealing with the ‘other’ who has his/her own set of different values and behavioral styles that follow on from that, leads to a ‘massive overestimation of the degree of and the nature of different in speech styles’ (Blommaert, 1998: 5).

    Whilst he criticizes the essentialized model of difference as represented by intercultural consultants such as Pinto and Hofstede and numerous others, Blommaert also criticizes the cultural relativist idea of what he calls horizontal stratification. Differences in terms of differentials such as age, nationality, ethnicity, gender, class, are seen as just existing on an equal par with one another. We might like to think, Blommaert says, that all languages, cultures, all groups, in fact all people are equal, but in reality they are not. And it makes no sense to talk about cultural differences as if they are all equivalent. Vertical models of differences which look at power differentials, he argues, are more in line with reality. An approach to ICC which has the potential to take account of the relevance of power differences in roles and status is that of ethnography.

    Ethnographic Approaches to Communication

    To illustrate this particular model of intercultural communication, Blommaert refers to work by Gumperz and Hymes. The importance of this model, he says, is 1) that it recognizes the complexity of the relationship between culture and communication, and that 2) differences in communication in this model are not marked by national culture, but, critically, by differences in the context in which communications take place. Nationality is only one of the factors in that context of the situation. Gumperz’ contribution to the study of intercultural communication, Blommaert says, is on the one hand that he highlights that it is not so much ‘culture’ in the sense of values and norms which has an effect on communication, but instead ‘communicative repertoires’, such as conventions, speech styles and narrative patterns. These repertoires are formed by ‘traditions’ such as those of class and ethnicity which have become part of the language; ‘we don’t just use ‘a’ national language, like Dutch or German, but instead, we always use a variety of ‘a’ language; ‘a genre, a speech style, a type of interaction’. People identify themselves on the basis of such speech styles, which often relate to social traditions of class, gender, ethnicity, etc. An important aspect of this is that these traditions and identities cannot be separated from issues of power. It makes a huge difference, Blommaert indicates, who the dominant party is in a particular interaction, whether, for instance, the interlocutor is the immigration officer or the asylum seeker for instance.

    The all important role of a wider context means we cannot predict what will happen in an intercultural exchange purely based on someone’s ‘culture’, whether national or otherwise, as the horizontal difference view holds. There are too many factors in different contexts at play. Moreover, we cannot predict what will happen in such an exchange; people might mutually adapt to one another’s speech styles, both or either participant may sacrifice or exaggerate cultural conventions. In fact, more often than not, Blommaert says, ‘ethnically’ or ‘culturally’ marked aspects of communication are influenced by emotional factors such as feelings of frustration, anger or powerlessness. In other words, there is no fixed link between certain speech conventions and certain cultural groups; the reality of communication is too complex.

    Paradoxically, the model of ethnography of communication was the main inspiration for communicative language teaching, but it was interpreted in a reductive manner, as I discussed in previous chapters, so that the principles of this model, which Blommaert describes as allowing for nuanced analyses of communicative events, were almost completely lost.

    Incidentally, even though Gumperz carried out important work in this context by showing that a range of social factors influence communicative styles, including the power difference between interlocutors, when Gumperz applied his work pedagogically in a training context in ‘Crosstalk’ (1979), he largely ignored the notion of power. In Crosstalk, Gumperz does exactly what Blommaert criticizes; he makes the trainees aware of the direct link between particular cultures and particular speech conventions. This highlights the issue of the training context, where pedagogy is more neatly organized and focuses on a limited, clearly defined area, where there generally is no room for reflection and complexity.

    Whilst Gumperz, as Blommaert said, noted the role of power between participants in a communicative exchange, Hymes (1996) showed another aspect of power in intercultural relations; language varieties themselves are not neutrally valued, as some of these varieties are seen to be ‘better’ than others. Particular language varieties or even languages tend to be associated with certain attributes, particularly status, which immediately imposes a power structure on the interaction. But, apart from different hierarchical relations, what is important in relation to intercultural communication, is that power legitimizes certain views over others, it legitimizes certain languages and certain language varieties over others. And as language or language variety tend to be associated with a particular social group, the question becomes as Blommaert states, ‘whose culture is being used in intercultural communication?’, which we could paraphrase as ‘whose version of reality counts’? The differences which occur between participants from different cultural backgrounds are not neutral. The many intercultural communication courses in a business context convey a very specific global form of intercultural communication where the language of interaction is almost always English and the participants are generally highly educated. But where intercultural communication involves a meeting of people who are members of different social groups such as in immigration contexts, these meetings take place in contexts where one interlocutor has more status and power than the other. Another factor then is the larger context of interethnic relations in that area or at that historical point of time and, I would suggest, the discourses which are in operation around otherness which would inform the assumptions and stereotypes which are held. When these discourses become dominant, such as ‘the Clash of Civilisations’ (Huntington, 1998), they become powerful as supposed ‘truths’.

    What is relevant to the foreign language teacher in this work is the notion that in intercultural communication we do not just deal with a national language, but that if we want to prepare our students for real intercultural exchanges we must make our students aware of language varieties, discourses, register, genre which, as Bakhtin showed, reference socially charged contexts. Or to use Risager’s terms (2007), we should not just think about language and culture at the differential, but also at the generic level. And as Blommaert shows, it is not just being aware of the existence of these varieties, but also the value or status which they are afforded in certain contexts and in relation to other language varieties or genres. But intercultural communication is still more complex than that and, as Blommaert points out, ‘difference is not always there, can appear in one context one time and not another time, and is also ‘caught in patterns of social evaluation’ (1998: 11).

    Crossing Ethno-linguistic Boundaries

    The third view that Blommaert identifies in the study of intercultural communication allows for difference and complexity in a much greater sense. Intercultural communication cannot be seen without taking account of the social dynamics amongst people within communicative events. Blommaert uses Rampton’s (1995) study as the prime example of this view and argues that this could be a way forward to studying examples of intercultural communication. Rampton showed how young adolescents in urban areas in Britain did not stick to clear ethnic boundaries when using language associated with a particular ethnic descent. Instead, they performed regular ‘language crossing’, switching in and out of ethnically marked varieties of English when communicating with friends from different ethnic groups or in different social settings. Ethnic identities were being manipulated and negotiated; the study showed ‘how identities can be picked up, dropped, altered, combined and so on, in ways that defeat any form of simplism or singularity’. Rampton also concluded that the different speech varieties were not associated with one specific context of use, but were sometimes used for even conflicting purposes, whether as a sign of resistance, an expression of solidarity, or showing recognition of prestige. Culture for these adolescents then, Blommaert says, serves as a set of resources which partly operates automatically, but can also be strategically activated in different circumstances and for different purposes.

    This view of intercultural communication which Blommaert suggests here as a step forward in thinking about interculturality, is a marked change from the ‘difference’ view; not only does it not primarily focus on a national culture, it also emphasises that people move in and out of various forms of cultural symbolic behaviour, in terms of using different language varieties or genres, and indeed by feeling different allegiances. Moreover, it also shows that the same behaviour or language can be utilised for completely different purposes. The idea of context is made much more complex precisely because it allows for the use of conflicting discourses and indeterminacies.

    There is a parallel in the boundary-crossing model with thinking about identity and cultural complexity. Our sense of ‘belongings’ is formed by the affiliations to the various roles, relationships, and memberships of ‘communities of practice’ people feel they are part of, as Kumaravadivelu (2008) says. None of these communities are fixed and stable entities in themselves. Instead, they are complex mixtures of ‘pleasure and pain’, of ‘trust and suspicion’, of ‘friendship and hatred’ as Kumaravadivelu says, quoting Wenger. How these complexities of the different realities can overlap was illustrated by Baumann in an ethnographic study of Southall, a very diverse and multicultural area in London. ‘The vast majority of all adult Southallians saw themselves as members of several communities’, each shifting and potentially conflicting with one another. ‘The same person could speak and act as a member of the Muslim community in one context, in another take sides against other Muslims as a member of a Pakistani community, and in a third count himself part of the Punjabi community that excluded other Muslims, but included Hindus, Sikhs and even Christians’ (Baumann, 1996).


    This page titled Three Views of the Study of Intercultural Communication is shared under a CC BY license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Gerdi Quist (Ubiquity Press) .

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