The following (except for the last paragraph) first appeared in this month’s New Channel newspaper. Let me know if you have any thoughts or criticisms.
Do I think differently from you?
When we talk about culture, one of the topics that comes up again and again is the question of whether or not people from different cultures think in different ways. And if people do think in different ways, how does this affect the ways in which we communicate, or our ability to communicate with one another?
The simple answer to the first question is: Yes! Of course we think in different ways! In fact, our membership in many different groups, not just national cultures, helps to shape the ways in which we look at the world. Do you think your point of view is shaped by the province you are from? What about the school you went to or go to? The sports team you pull for? The clothes you like to wear? Your age?
On the other hand, even though we are shaped by the groups we belong to, there is also a sense in which every individual has their own way of thinking. While many people say that Westerners are more likely to focus on individualism, and East Asians (including Chinese) are more likely to pay attention to the needs of the group, that doesn’t mean that all Westerners are individualistic and all East Asians are not. We may share a language, a religion, a generation, or just simply our humanity, but while we are shaped by the groups we belong to, we still have our own way of looking at the world and thinking about the questions with which it presents us.
If we do think in different ways, then how can we communicate with each other? One simple answer to this question is language. We might have different cultural backgrounds, but if you learn English or I learn Chinese, then we can talk to each other about our differences, and even if misunderstandings arise we can work through them using language.
In my opinion, the most important aspect of successful intercultural communication is an attitude of humility. If you go into any interaction thinking that your way of doing things is certainly the only best way, then you’re likely to run into misunderstandings. On the other hand, if you approach an interaction with an open mind, you’re much more likely to have successful intercultural communication experiences.
One of the goals of my Cultural Communication class is to talk about the differences in the ways in which people from different cultures approach things. An even more important goal, though, is to talk about how we can overcome the barriers presented by intercultural communication and turn intercultural communication into an opportunity. While I might think differently from you, and you might think differently from the person sitting next to you, we still have a lot to learn from each other.