Going to China? Yes. Then know the Chinese Culture.

9 07 2012

Last year when my father went to America one of his American friends called him for dinner in an expensive restaurant. As it was time to pay the bill he was asked to pay his bill himself. Rude it might have sounded to him but my father must have been unaware about going Dutch way. Later when he was telling me this story he made fun out of it, “Hadn’t I carried any money I would have gone to jail”.

It was my father’s inadequate knowledge about the American culture and his American friend’s inadequate knowledge about Nepali culture that brought trouble to my father. Insufficient understanding of the culture of the person or group of person (if they belongs to a different culture) you are dealing with may lead to intercultural miscommunication.

Intercultural communication is the communication of any form between people belonging to dissimilar culture. If there some noises, distortions which influence the efficiency of delivery of message from the receiver then it are perceived as intercultural miscommunication.

There are many elements of culture like language, festivals, values, norms, symbols etcetera. When used during communication between people of different culture, most of the times, many of these elements give different meaning and sometimes they may lead it miscommunication.

Language is the most widely used element of culture during communication. Therefore there is high possibility communication going towards a wrong path when people belonging to different culture use same language. Through the use of this as idioms, translation errors, and wrong body language communicative skills can be incorrect. When these intercultural mistakes occur between the people speaking or moving it may be perceived by the opposite culture as funny, rude or confusing. With these considerations in mind, the combination of possibilities for misinterpretations is increasingly elevated. For example, “When Pepsi started their business in China, the translation of their slogan “Pepsi Brings you back to Life” was a little more literal than they intended. In Chinese, the slogan meant, “Pepsi Brings Your Ancestors Back from the Grave” “. (Takingontobacco, 2012).

There are many languages in the world , when spoken may sound similar like Nepali and Hindi, Spanish and Portuguese .They have many common words with same pronunciation and spelling which may sometime convey may convey same/similar or different meaning while used in different culture. For instance, few months back a song titled “Chikni Chameli” from the Hindi movie Agneepath was an instant hit in India and later in Nepal. The sense the idiom gave while used in Hindi means a beautiful Chameli but while used in Nepali it gives sexually offensive meaning. When the song was played in the national radios of Nepal in the public vehicles, I believe people listened to it with great affection referring to its Hindi sense.

Idioms are used in every language, which is why it is difficult to communicate in some instances. Different languages seem to create their own language, which may consist of words put together, or words made up by different societies. Most people who learn another language by another way than emersion learn the formal way of speaking a specific language and therefore when slang words, or idiomatic sentences are used, it comes across as funny, rude or confusing.

Another point that should be considered when verbal language is used to communicate is pronunciation. A same language might be spoken with different pronunciation in different countries and even in different regions of a same country. The difference in pronunciation may also lead to intercultural miscommunication. English for example is considered to be the international language. It is spoken in the most parts of the world. However, as mentioned before it is spoken with different pronunciation. In English, there are many different versions and accents to consider in places all around the world. For example, accents sometimes change an English word completely. A Chinese student wrote in his blog about his experience about intercultural miscommunication brought in by colloquial language.Once I told an American girl, I need a snap after lunch; she was really confused and asked me: why do you need a snap after lunch? I don’t need it .So why do you need it? Why wouldn’t I need it? I answered with anger. I must have a snap after lunch no matter you need it or not. She said “Ok, have your snap after lunch”. Then I had a nap after lunch, and she asked me: where is your snap? I said I had it. And she said – no, no, no, you didn’t have a snap, you had a nap.

Symbol is another element of culture. They represent something or have some connotative meaning. Same object might represent different thing in different cultures. If a black cat crosses the road while one is travelling, it is thought to be unfortunate in Nepali culture. On the contrary in Japanese culture black cats are thought to be fortunate. So people keep them as pets whereas in Nepal they don’t even think of doing so. So when a Nepali walking in a street of Tokyo with a Japanese friend encounters a black cat crossing the street might spit on the road or want to avoid moving any further. His Japanese friend could think the Nepali to be ridiculous, uncivilized and not abiding by the rule of Japan.

Norms play important part in determining if an intercultural communication would go the right way or not. They dictate the behavior of people. Geman people are direct while expressing themselves whereas Japanese are not as expressive as Germans .A German Engineer had an experience of being involved in intercultural miscommunication. He was sent to Japan as a counselor to give solutions to some problems in a bridge project started by a local building company. There he had given three solutions after listening to the project manager. However later he later found out that none of the solutions worked .In fact, all the solutions were inappropriate for the problems. The Japanese was unable to explain the problems properly. His inadequate aptitude in English language and his failure to disagree with the purposed solutions despite knowing they were not appropriate for the problems.

Similarly cultures also differ in their standards and values, such as the way ‘sorrow’ and ‘joy’ are experienced. Also the way people value and makeup time is different, in one culture it is a compulsion or obligation to be on time, while in another culture, there is more flexibility upon tracking time. Similarly other values such as individualism, competition, equality, informality, belief in fate, achievement, action, work and materialism can get their effect in the efficiency of intercultural communication.

So how can be the efficiency intercultural communication improved. As the noises would always be present in those communication processes, their efficiency would never be 100 % .However they can be minimized. Before going to the place where people follow a different culture, it is important to have sufficient knowledge about the culture of the people. You might raise a question, “How much knowledge is sufficient?”

To avoid intercultural miscommunication in a place where people follow different culture than you follow or while dealing with a person with different culture, you should have at least some knowledge about every element of that culture. Other people, although they may dress like you, speak your language or work in the same company, are different. You will work with people who have different backgrounds, languages, gestures, humor, sense of time and ways of doing business. It is important to know the rules, if you are interacting with people from other cultures; you need to know something about them. Inter- cultural understanding does not come overnight, it will only come with preparation, effort, and an open mind.

You might raise another question. Why should we avoid intercultural miscommunication? Is it really important? Yes it is. When you go to a place with different culture intercultural miscommunication could lead to conflict among individual or groups. Had my father known about the Dutch culture, wouldn’t he mentally make up his mind about paying money after having dinner with his friend? Of course he would have .It could have saved him from experiencing intercultural shock. Similarly, if Pepsi Company of China had known about the elements of the language while translating their slogan in Chinese, the sloppy and derogatory slogan could have been avoided. That slogan in particular made them difficult to compete with coca-cola which was already strong in the Chinese market. Likewise, if the German engineer or the Japanese project manager had known something about each other’s culture the problem in the project could have been solved. While generalizing, it is better to say that avoiding intercultural miscommunication could help people avoid cultural shock, establish a healthy relation with other people, sign business deals and make their communication with people belonging to different culture effective, beneficial and interesting.

So if you are going to China, have adequate knowledge about Chinese culture. Otherwise, Pepsi might bring your ancestors back from the grave.

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