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Conference workshop focuses on learning to communication across cultural chasms.

Thomas Kochman, Ph.D., and Celia Young will tell attenders of IABC's international conference CONNECTIONS 1992 that there is a lot more to cross-cultural communication than taking a single workshop. Valuing diversity is a multifaceted and lifelong commitment - one that neither an individual nor a corporation should undertake lightly.

Kochman's and Young's presentation, "Cultural Patterns and Communication Styles," is being sponsored by IABC's Multiculturalism Committee.

Kochman, a management consultant and recently retired University of Illinois professor of communication, and Young, whose company specializes in providing interpersonal skills consulting and training for multicultural businesses, help people perceive their unique cultural biases and values, understand how these patterns influence day-to-day behavior, and discover what each individual can do to melt the boundaries and enhance communication.

"The central issue has to do with differing levels of emotional intensity," explains Kochman, who cites African-American and Anglo male interactions as a common example of cultural miscues. "The African-American standard allows for the ability to handle emotionally intense exchanges. Emotion isn't 'edited out;' in fact, it's a valuable commodity, because it signifies conviction and sincerity.

"Anglo culture, on the other hand, is more subdued, more moderating. There's more consideration taken not to 'offend' people's sensibilities, rather than allowing and respecting emotionally expressive behavior.

"So when a disagreement arises between an African-American male and an Anglo male, the African-American's emotionally vested position requires the receiver to be able to handle the heat. But if the Anglo is trying to protect his own and his colleague's sensitivities, he can't comfortably respond to the African-American's emotional intensity."

This disparity in communication styles leads us to interpret what happens through our own cultural filter, and attach personalized meaning to behavior. Thus, says Kochman, "What Blacks call 'getting at the truth,' Whites might term, 'starting a quarrel.' And what Anglos call 'peacekeeping,' AfricanAmericans would call, 'avoidance of truth seeking.'"

The same principle applies to other cultural groups as well. Kochman cites the example of one Anglo man who said, "I never knew I had a temper until I worked for a Japanese company." Says Kochman, "His 'normal' level of self-assertion was set at too high a level for, in this case, a Japanese sensibility - they thought he was angry or about to become angry."

For Hispanic and Asian cultures, advancement opportunity in the work place hinges on cultural assumptions about who has primary responsibility for getting an employee's needs met. Unlike Anglos, who are taught to speak up if they feel they've been undeservedly overlooked, Asians and Hispanics regard the authority figure as the appropriate person to initiate action on behalf of the employee. So while a Hispanic or Asian employee is waiting for an Anglo boss to make the first move, says Kochman, the Anglo manager is wondering why the employee doesn't take action to promote himself.

This derives from a basic difference in each culture's world view. Explains Young, "The Anglo cultural imperative, 'I am ultimately responsible for myself,' manifests as self-determination, a sense of 'I take care of my needs, you take care of your needs, and society has order.' But for Asians, the smallest unit of society is the family, not the individual. To stay in the group, the belief is, 'We must take care of each other. I must do for you, you must do for me.' This concept goes everywhere, so that inside a corporation, whether the Asian is the employee or the boss, he feels ultimately responsible for others."

In an even sharper contrast to the African-American/Anglo interaction, Young depicts a possible Asian/African-American exchange: "The Asians will want to protect everyone and avoid any potential conflict in the first place, so there will be no discussion - a total communication breakdown." How can communicators bridge these inherent cultural gaps? First, says Young, understand yourself. "Realize you have your own filter, and that it has a lot to do with the way you're raised, the way you're taught. The next time you look at another person's behavior, watch how you react. Know that you're not really reacting to the behavior, but to the meaning you've assigned to it -- and that all those meanings have more to do with your own cultural biases than with the truth the other person's trying to present. Give yourself a buffer zone - five seconds to check your own reactions. Then, start asking questions to verify that what you interpret from the other person's behavior is really what they meant."

Adds Kochman, "Entertain the possibility of an alternative cultural pattern, and perhaps adopt a piece of it. For instance, the Anglo male could say, 'I realize that for me, introducing emotion represents a high risk, because I believe it undermines rationality and self control. But let me not be ethnocentric here and universalize that to everybody. Maybe I can expand my boundaries and learn to tolerate more emotionally intense interactions.' At this point, communication with AfricanAmericans will improve dramatically, because the latter group will no longer feel they have to hold back, and can be more expressive when they're communicating with you.

"Each culture needs to learn that another culture's behavior patterns aren't intended to be devious; in each case, it's just a normal response to a situation that threatens to disturb their basic values or comfort level."

Both Kochman and Young caution that there is no easy "formula" for improving cross-cultural communication- "Having a recipe doesn't make you a chef," says Young. "You can't open a drawer and pick out a solution. That's too reductionist - it's a way of putting people in a box, and does more damage than good to the cause of valuing diversity."

Kochman likens the cultural awareness process to map making. "We need to enlarge our universe, ask for new information, and add cultural frames of reference to what we already know. Managers need to ask, 'What strategies or programs can I develop that will be more inclusive of this individual, that 1 wouldn't have developed if I were operating only on my own cultural assumptions?'"

"Corporations need to do this if they expect to be able to compete globally," asserts Young. "In a right-sizing economy, smart companies are asking, 'Can we afford not to take advantage of every employee's creativity and abilities?' And that means checking to see if you really care about your employees as individuals, understand and value diversity, and encourage your employees to be who they are. It's a lifetime commitment. Once it starts, it doesn't stop."

For more information about IABC's International Conference, CONNECTIONS 1992, please call (415) 433-3400, ext. 117.

Marcia J. Pear is principal of Pear Communications, a San Francisco-based marketing communications firm, and a member of lABC/San Francisco's conference committee.
COPYRIGHT 1992 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Update; CONNECTIONS 1992
Author:Pear, Marcia J.
Publication:Communication World
Date:Apr 1, 1992
Words:1114
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