Why is intercultural communication important to know? Summary from the interview with Dr. Milton Bennett
#1- Why is intercultural communication important to know?
Intercultural communication offers the ability to deal across cultures, which is increasingly important, as the world gets smaller. Getting smaller doesn’t mean the world is becoming identical, it means having more and more contact with people who are culturally different. Being able to deal with this cultural difference peacefully, never mind creatively and innovatively, is becoming a survival issue to thrive in a global world as a global leader.
#2- What are the different assumptions underpinning social science?
Katrina Burrus interviews, Milton Bennett on his book, Basic Concepts of Intercultural Communication: Paradigms, Principles, and Practices. He reviews the scientific paradigms of Newtonian, Einsteinian and Quantum Mechanics and how the extension of those paradigms apply to social science, which can be thought of positivism, relativism, and constructivism. Katrina then discusses with Milton how positivism, relativism, and constructivism apply to coaching. So what was Newton’s assumption?
Newtonian paradigm assumes linear causality, that is, with perfect knowledge, we could predict and control society. Research from this paradigm assumes that the observer is perfectly objective, that everyone looking in the same direction sees the same thing. The word “objectivity” comes from seeing objects from an outside perspective without any prejudice or subjectivity. This contrasts sharply with the religious paradigm that assumes only God can have perfect control. How does the Newtonian paradigm apply to the social science? It brought on positivism.
#3- The positivist paradigm
A positivist paradigm assumes that if you identify the right personal characteristics that you need, you will be able to be interculturally competent. It entails learning recipes of dos and don’ts of correct behavior to understand another culture. It does not account for the cultural dynamism or the multilayer aspect of culture. It perceives culture as being fixed versus dynamic.
#4- Consequences for coaches
Behavior is a response to a stimulus. If the coach enables the client to experience insight (the stimuli), the client will be in control and be able to change.
This assumption applied to an addiction will probably fail. However, a Newtonian (linear causality) paradigm would believe that it is a matter of identifying the right stimuli to get the desired effect. People addicted just need to control themselves. It is not seeing cultural as a process within a relationship.
#5- Consequences for intercultural trainers
It implies that to be culturally adept, people need to learn specific knowledge, attitudes, and skills with the intention of adjusting to another culture.
#6- The relativist paradigm
From Einstein, we have a relativist paradigm that looks at culture as being sets of systems that are operating in an almost autonomous way. Understanding culture from within those systems leads to learning appropriate role behavior that prepares people to operate in another cultural system. The image here would be two separate circles and preparing within the known circle how to jump into the other circle.
#7- The relativist paradigm applied to coaching
It brought awareness that one sees through our particular “tinted lenses” and perspectives.
When coaching, the coach is influenced by his/her own worldview and interpretation of what s/he believes the other is experiencing. It focuses on the context and boundaries of each person. It does not focus on the interaction of the different systems.
#8- The relativist paradigm applied to the organizations
But a real relativist view would say, these two cultures exist in different context and it’s important for us to recognize how they’re different. Particularly since in most due diligence, the differences have been used as part of the value of the acquired company. But then that value is usually destroyed because the acquired company is usually simply assimilated.
#9- What did Quantum Mechanics bring to the social sciences?
The constructivist view
A constructivist view focuses on observing cultural boundaries and categories in order to construct a third culture that makes use of both cultures. It is making people use the cultural perspective of the other.
Constructivist applied to coaching or intercultural communication
The bridging between two contexts and finding more meaning in that interaction.
#10- The constructivist view applied to organizations
This view prepares people from the different cultures to switch perspective with the other culture’s perspective through observation and empathy. It is operating mutually back and forth between two different systems from either cultural perspective with the objective of generating value to the organization.
#11- The constructivist view applied to the individual
This also applies to the individual, for example, I am a Swiss American that would have been immersed in both cultures, with parents from different cultures and I had the opportunity to observe, empathize and make the distinction between both cultures. This would enable me to slip in and out of the predominantly US or Swiss modes of functioning. Although seemingly integrating within one or the other culture might make me a “third culture kid” TCK, that is, I don’t identify completely with one or the other culture but am perceived by both the US or Swiss locals as indigenous. Third culture kids are frequently kids who have multiple cultural references. They are able to shift from one cultural frame to another. Not always, but if they do they have the potential to be the bridge between cultures.
#12- The pros and cons of each paradigm
In other words, relativism is recognizing the difference but not leveraging it as would the constructivist approach.
The relativist approach is more useful than the positivist approach that sees culture as universal. This idea we are all converging into a single global entity. Relativism has given us an alternative approach that all things exist in context and we have to understand that context.
The constructivism provides us with an approach that moves us more fluidly amongst those contexts, both individually by taking perspective and empathizing and collectively, organizationally by building these virtual third cultures.
#13- In summary
The static, positivism, relativism and traditional view of culture are no longer giving a dynamic view of culture. People that are a part of the culture are constantly creating it and, therefore, changing it. The relativist approach does not allow to fracture in the dynamic changes taking place within a culture as its constituents through language, through acceptable action and through accepted beliefs and values. Constructivism helps think how those contexts can be bridged in creative and innovative ways but not transcended. Transcending would entail moving above those cultures and maybe ignoring the differences and here it is all about creating bridges between the cultures that allow people to derive benefit from the cultural differences. This is key to multicultural societies, multicultural workforces, and global businesses.
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For more information:
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The book, Basic Concepts of Intercultural Communication: Paradigms, Principle, and Practices, Basic Concepts of Intercultural Communication. Available on Amazon and from the www.IDRInstitute.org