International Affairs Forum:
Your research mainly examines the intersection of language, communication, and culture. How can your findings be employed in both daily cultural exchanges and in foreign policy decisions?
In my research I look at the impact that culture has on the communication process and how one’s cultural values and assumptions shape one’s world views and interactions. I try to caution against both jumping to conclusions about another person based on that other person’s ways of doing things, and judging that person from an outsider’s perspective. There’s always more than one interpretation of a specific action and sometimes there is a world of difference between intent and impact. Analyzing the intricacies of daily interactions is fascinating and it provides valuable insight into what might be the cause of cross-cultural breakdowns or miscommunications.
In terms of foreign policy, I would say that the current U.S. approach in regard to Cuba and North Korea provides a model example of the correct way to proceed in this field. Through open dialogue and more interactions, the U.S. will be better able to create incentives for a particular country to change its practices and perhaps adopt new ways of doing things. Communication is always better than isolation from the rest of the world.
Let’s first examine an important domestic issue dealing with this field. The swiftly growing Latino population in the U.S. has brought its language and culture to this country. How can cross-cultural communication be applied to improve relations between the English-speaking majority and the increasingly important Spanish-speaking minority?
Latinos are indeed the largest and the fastest-growing population in the U.S., and having a better understanding of the Latino culture can go a long way toward having a better relationship with that community.
First we need to understand that a culture is a set of values, beliefs, goals, and practices, and while members of one culture do share those beliefs and values and practices, they might not be shared across cultures. And the fact that someone’s way of accomplishing a task is different from yours or mine does not mean that it is not as good—it is just different. We need to move away from ethnocentrism - that belief that our culture is superior to that of other groups - and the idea that if these groups are living in the U.S. then they should adopt the Anglo ways of doing things and give up their own culture or language.
Secondly, we need to stay away from stereotypes and keep an open mind about people of different cultural backgrounds. If you do not understand something, ask questions and try to see the other person’s point of view. Stereotypes—whether they are negative or positive—have a powerful impact on society. As the Expectancy Theory describes, people feel obliged to live up—or in certain cases, live down—to certain expectations. Stereotypes are often internalized, and they can hinder potential. An example of this can be seen in the common stereotyping of Hispanic-Americans as lazy and uneducated; because of this stereotype, some Hispanic adolescents may feel that it is perfectly okay to drop out of school at an early age and not pursue their full potential. This is a prime example of what is known in the field as “self-fulfilling prophecy”. Therefore, it is important to note that society’s expectations may hinder one’s development.
Do you foresee future governments naming an official language for the United States? What would the ramifications be if this occurred?
This debate about English as the official language of the U.S. has been around for years. The group that is the driving force behind this desire to declare English as the official language of the U.S. is called U.S. English. Members of this organization firmly believe that because immigrants come to this country knowing that it is an English-speaking country, they should speak English. Interestingly enough, U.S. English was founded in 1983 by Senator Samuel Ichiye Hayakawa, who is himself an immigrant; he was born in Canada to Japanese parents. Currently, there are about 29 states that have declared English as their official language. But doing so on the federal level would mean that all official government business must be conducted in English only—including public documents, records, legislation, hearings, official ceremonies. This would not teach English to one single immigrant.
If the goal is indeed to teach immigrants English, then perhaps the effort should be to provide more funding for English as a Second Language programs. Making English the official language would basically make it difficult for certain members of our society to get services that should be available to all of us. Furthermore, this fear of English being threatened by immigrants has existed since colonial times. Benjamin Franklin expressed fears that because of the concentration of German immigrants in Western Pennsylvania, we would all end up speaking German one day; and we know that this never happened. Every time there is a wave of new immigrants to this country, those fears and those anxieties reappear. There’s no evidence whatsoever to suggest that English is being threatened by Spanish. In fact, patterns of language acquisition suggest that the mother tongue is lost by the second generation of immigrants unless there are steps taken explicitly to preserve that first language. This was the case 200 years ago, and it is definitely the case today.
How can cross-cultural awareness be applied in U.S. foreign policy to improve relations with other countries?
I can give you some specific examples of successful implementation of cultural awareness in U.S. foreign policy. My first example would be Obama’s video message to the Iranian people on Nowruz, or the Iranian New Year. The timing and the format of the TV broadcast with Farsi subtitles emphasized its broad appeal. It appealed to the entire population, not to a select group of government officials, and it also appeared at a time of traditional celebration. Of course, that message has been criticized for not exactly touching upon some key issues. But nevertheless, it demonstrates a desire to establish ties between the two countries and definitely to begin open dialogue.
Another example of successful implementation of cultural awareness is Obama’s recent visit to Egypt and his address to the Muslim world in Cairo. This is a particularly great example of cultural sensitivity and political savvy. Obama used direct language to call for a fresh look at deeper divisions, both between Israel and its neighbors and between the Islamic world and the West. And even though Obama spoke of Al-Qaida, he never mentioned explicit inflammatory words such as terrorism or terrorist. He did quote extensively from the Qur’an, and even sprinkled his remarks with Arabic. He began his address with the traditional Arabic greeting “Salaam aleikum”, or “peace be with you”, and this definitely helped him connect with his audience.
From your observations, what elements of cross-cultural communication does the Obama administration implement particularly well?
Both as candidate and as president, Obama has repeatedly said that he does not see the role of the U.S. as dictating to others how they should run their countries or their lives. He seems to recognize the limits of American power and address each foreign policy case on its merits. In terms of specific strategies that are related to cross-cultural communication, I would point out that the current administration demonstrates willingness to engage in dialogue; an ability to listen carefully to the other party; readiness to find common ground; respect for the other party’s perspective, even if they do not espouse the same views; and the ability to see the world through someone else’s eyes. These are aspects of cultural exchanges that all of us in the cross-cultural communication field hold dear to our hearts, and I am thrilled to see them being implemented by the Obama administration.
Many sources have cited Obama as a “Third Culture Kid”. Can you explain this concept and share your opinion about these claims?
The term “Third Culture Kid” refers to someone who as a child has spent a significant period of time in one or even more than one culture other than his or her own. Consequently, that person has integrated elements of those two cultures—the birth culture and the new culture—into a uniquely third culture. If that person happens to be past the school age years, we call them “Global Nomads”.
The term itself, “Third Culture Kid”, was first coined by sociologist Ruth Hill Useen in the 1960s. In general, third culture kids come from military, missionary, business, or government families; of course, there is always the category of “other”, which is the case with Obama’s family. As I mentioned, the third culture kids have their birth culture, their new culture, and their unique third culture, which is often a mixture of the two. Third culture kids tend to be especially adept at building relationships to all these cultures and, as a result, they have an exceedingly complex sense of identity.
Obama himself observed that his years in Indonesia and later travels to Pakistan were very important in shaping his views. While campaigning in 2007, he noted that without some understanding of these cultures, it is very difficult to make effective foreign policy decisions. When he was elected president, Obama remained loyal to his own multicultural background, which is exemplified by his Cabinet selection. For example, Obama’s domestic policy advisor, Valerie Jarrett, grew up in Iran and remains close to her Persian culture. The treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, lived in Zimbabwe, India, and Thailand and later studied abroad in Japan and China. James Jones, the National Security Advisor, lived for most of his childhood in France. Scott Gration, Obama’s special envoy to Sudan, is the child of missionaries in the Congo. All of these advisors were third culture kids who can now apply their experiences to their current positions in the administration.
Obama lived abroad throughout his childhood. In particular, he lived in the Muslim nation of Indonesia between the ages of six and ten. Do you think this gives him greater insight into the Muslim community?
I would not say that someone has a better understanding of a culture just by virtue of having lived there; it is not enough just to have lived abroad. One has to have an open mind and a willingness to engage with people with different customs and practices—and of course be respectful of those customs and practices.
That being said, I would say that Obama does have considerable insight into the Muslim community—but not only because he happened to live in Indonesia. This insight and respect for another culture can be manifested in a number of ways. Just to give you one recent example, when Obama met with Turkish students in Istanbul in a town hall meeting, he said that he would try to end the meeting before the approaching call to prayer. It is gestures like this one that can far-reaching effects in re-shaping the perception that the Muslim world has of the U.S.
Do you think that Obama’s multicultural heritage—Caucasian American mother, Kenyan father—has affected his foreign policy? In what way?
There’s no doubt that Obama’s heritage has affected his approach to foreign policy. And, again, I can give you a couple of examples. We already talked about his team of expats and the refreshing view of foreign policy that they all bring to the table. In terms of specific examples, there is definitely a movement away from Samuel Huntington’s ideas on the impossibility of peaceful coexistence among different cultures. This is a nice change from the with-us-or-against-us approach of George W. Bush’s first term. Obama’s early resistance to the war in Iraq is an example of his superior intuition on foreign policy and his firm belief that war is not the answer. He is pulling out of Iraq, but on a cautious timetable. He is sending more troops to Afghanistan, but at the same time reviewing and revising the strategy because it has not been as successful as it should have been.
Another example of how Obama’s multicultural heritage affects his foreign policy is the movement away from the crusade against Islam, as demonstrated most recently by his visits to Egypt and Turkey. In his speech in Cairo, Obama said, and I’m going to quote here, “I consider it part of my responsibility as President of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear. But that same principle must apply to Muslim perceptions of America. Just as Muslims do not fit a crude stereotype, America is not the crude stereotype of a self-interested empire.”
Furthermore, Obama projects a genuine sensitivity of world affairs and has demonstrated a willingness to meet with leaders of nations who have made hostile remarks about the U.S. in the past. He is extending his hand to his adversaries, but at the same time he is not being overly-conciliatory.
Of course, despite all these changes, there is no guarantee that Obama’s foreign policy will immediately resolve some of the long-standing problems in the world. But I do believe that these changes and these new strategies will produce results in the future.
What insights can cross-cultural awareness offer us into the current crisis in Iran?
What is happening currently in Iran is very unfortunate, and it provides a good example of two different segments of society coexisting within a bigger culture.
On the one hand, we have the pro-Ahmadinejad group who have been reared in the mores of the Iranian Revolution from 30 years ago and have come to adopt its ideals and ambitions. This generation prides itself on Iran’s survival in the face of many internal and external challenges.
On the other hand, we have the supporters of the opposition candidate, Hussein Mousavi, who took to the streets to protest the re-election of Ahmadinejad. Over the years, this group has become increasingly disenchanted with Iran’s international isolation and the Islamic governance.
Unfortunately, these two segments of society, as Abbas Barzegar observed in The Guardian, have little contact with one another. They live in separate sections of the cities and they socialize among their own. Consequently, they have come to see the future of Iran in entirely different trajectories. And that manifests itself in the street riots and protests we are currently witnessing.
Globalization has made the field of cross-cultural communication more important than ever. What are some insights from the field of cross-cultural communication that U.S. companies can use when doing business with culturally diverse nations such as China, India and Russia?
Economic globalization does bring new opportunities for business and opens doors for foreign trade and commerce. When a business organization expands its activities and attempts to enter the field of international business, it is absolutely essential for its management to be aware of various cross-cultural backgrounds and potential challenges when dealing with overseas partners. It’s necessary to thoroughly study cultural and historical traditions of the other country; its language and customs; key values of the foreign business culture, which might be very different from your own; approaches and expectations; and, as always, social attitudes and standards.
I can give you an example from Edward T. Hall, who is a Foreign Service veteran. He makes a distinction between high context and low context cultures to talk about differences in communication styles. Most Asian countries are classified as high context cultures—very little is made explicit, and people have to rely primarily on contextual clues to figure out the rest. The U.S., Canada, and most of Europe are classified as low context cultures in which contextual information is made more explicit. While this is a useful distinction, we should not forget that in this modern, interconnected, interdependent world, we may very easily find ourselves in a high context situation within a broader low context culture. But the important thing is that we should be aware of those distinctions, and we should not go into a foreign country thinking that they will adopt our way of doing things.
What can be done to improve cross-cultural awareness among the American public?
When I teach cross-cultural communication, I always ask my students what sparked their interest in another culture. And among the answers I invariably hear are a trip abroad, a new language, watching a foreign movie or reading about a foreign place, a friend with a foreign background, and even trying foreign food. All of these are examples of ways to raise cross-cultural awareness.
I’d say that one thing that could be done to improve cross-cultural awareness is to put more emphasis or more effort into acquiring a foreign language. Currently about 14 percent of the U.S. population speaks two languages, as opposed to 56 percent of the European Union population—clearly, the U.S. has some ground to recover. Since I work with college students, I always encourage them to take a trip abroad or spend a semester abroad. And most importantly, I encourage them to get out of their comfort zone as often as possible. Of course, we do not have to leave the U.S. in order to experience cross-cultural encounters or raise our cross-cultural awareness. The U.S. is a country composed of a mixture of different cultures. By actively celebrating these cultures, we’ll get to know them even better. For instance, there is the African-American heritage month, Hispanic-American heritage month, Asian-Pacific heritage month, and so on. These are venues through which we can increase our cross-cultural awareness without even leaving the United States.
IA-Forum: Thank you.
Dr. Diana Marinova, a trained sociolinguist, has taught at Georgetown University and is now a professor of Cross-Cultural Communication at American University. Her research analyzes the intersection of language, communication, and culture.
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| Very interesting! It was a pleasure reading this interview.