Saturday, October 01, 2011

Conflict skill #8: Intercultural communication and conflict

In your bank of nonviolent skills, intercultural communication and conflict management is a critical competency, at least as complex as most and possibly the most complex of all conflict skills. This is in part because, in the estimation of some conflict experts, all conflict is intercultural conflict, since each of us is an identity group of one, a culture unto ourselves. Conflict with your sister who is two years younger and thus identifies as younger sister means she is part of a different culture. There is a culture of people who were born in the same year as she was, who attended her school, and who, in the formative years of their lives, viewed you as much older.

Then your communication with the gay guy who is your age and gender is also an intercultural communication if you are not gay. Well, even if you are also gay, perhaps he is Irish American and you are African American. Same age, same middle school, same gender, same sexual orientation, but different ethicities and historical family cultures.

While it's true that some cultural gaps are small, many are much more vast than we know. Some look inconsequential on the surface and can open wide and deep underneath. Just touch the wrong nerve and watch that gulf open. It was the secret of Anwar al-Awlaki; find the alienation point, drive in a faith-oriented wedge that exploited every cultural difference, and--boom!--another terrorist created out of a meek and quiet man. It is the open secret of the Tea Party. Find the worldview differences that people want to shout about and be the first one to say it out loud. Confer legitimacy on racism and religious hatred by talking about others in code but make that code understandable by those in your cultural group. You can rally your cultural companions around you with divisive culturally coded language and gain some power.

The basic concepts from culture to culture that are different are numerous. Obviously, language is the highest, first, barrier. Even fluent multilinguists often miss cultural cues, and many who try to be culturally sensitive are stopped by language inability. Some basic cultural categories that are different from culture to culture:

  • power differentials
  • time 
  • gender
  • tolerance of religious freedom
  • tolerance of freedom of expression
  • high or low context
  • individualist or collectivist 

These cultural differences are not bundled; they appear in unique patterns. A culture may be quite pluralistic and thus low context but have great power differentials and perhaps a monochronic relationship to time. In other words, a person from that culture will likely appreciate a great deal of explanation, will show extreme respect for someone of even slightly higher status, and will expect everything and everyone to either run on time or be regarded as inferior. Or perhaps a person is from a corner of a country that is isolated and fairly island-like, with a very high-context culture but a polychronic view of time and low power differentials. That person will be biased toward making assumptions about the messages you send and receive, will give and expect to receive little explanation about "normal practices," will often be late for a meeting out of deference to finishing a previous meeting properly, and will greet a high status person informally.

Since the anthropologists tell us there are at least 800 cultures on Earth and as many as 14,000 (depending on their school of human grouping taxonomy), we can assume that no one understands all the ground rules for all cultures. The key, once again, is respect and humility. If you are working with someone, show that you wish to learn more and more about their culture. Explain that you are never meaning any disrespect and you appreciate correction. Doing this will avoid the first 99 percent of intercultural communication gaffes and conflict. If you are the center node for people of various cultures, deal with this transparently so everyone can help and so everyone is inclined to appreciate your efforts and learn about their associates from other cultures.

Use the Rawlsian veil of ignorance. Ask yourself if you would appreciate someone from another culture making assumptions about what you find acceptable. Then listen to the other and adapt until you are on the same team, if not the same wavelength. View intercultural work as collaborative learning and approach it with that transparent admission of ignorance and willingness to learn. This is how we transition from being ugly Americans to respected world citizens. Intercultural competency is how we globalize nonviolence. Bullets and bombs need no intercultural sensitivity. Nonviolent practitioners need a great deal.

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