The culture to which we belong can have a strong influence over the way we communicate with each other. Styles of direct and indirect communication, customs and manners all affect the way people interpret what you are trying to communicate to them.
This means that the culture to which a person belongs shapes not just what people say but how they say it. Cultural styles also affect the context within which we choose to communicate to people, the kind of references we make and the examples we use to make our meaning understood.
One of the most obvious ways of communicating with others is verbally – through using the sounds which make up words and languages. Words alone have no meaning; they are merely sounds. Only by speaking words within a culture which has assigned specific meanings to certain sounds can we understand language.
Over 3,000 languages and major dialects are spoken in the world today. This reflects the diversity of cultures, societies and ways of seeing the world which make up our ‘global village’. Of course, this huge variety of languages can create difficulties between people who do not speak a common language and therefore have trouble communicating with one another. However, even those who speak the same language can have trouble understanding each other properly. So while we often think that verbal communication should eliminate misunderstanding – this can be easier said than done.
What this means is that we should not assume that our messages have been clearly received, as this is usually only the case when people share the same culture and histories or know each other very well. So it is important to be aware of the way you communicate, especially when trying to build new friendships or other interpersonal relationships. Sometimes this can be difficult, for example, the use of a particular word in one language may have very negative connotations in another language and you might inadvertently find yourself causing offence.
Volunteers must understand the possibility of these communication difficulties before they start on a programme. It is surprising how many conversations you can have in which you believe you are being understood, when in fact it is quite the contrary.
Here are some examples from returned volunteers:
“Personally, I underestimated the importance of the language, which caused some difficulties at the start. I wouldn’t recommend this kind of experience to someone who doesn’t speak Spanish! Some advice: study a minimum of Spanish before leaving.”
– Roberta (European participant in a workcamp in Nicaragua in 1999)
“Don’t be shocked if you are told: ‘You must give me… ‘. This is not more of an order than if you had been told: ‘If you don’t mind, I would like you to give me…’ You shouldn’t feel offended by this kind of discourse even if it sounds surprising at first.”
– Cristian (European participant in a workcamp in Togo 1997)
“In Latin America, aboriginal populations consider the term Indian as a real insult to them – it is better to say ‘native’.”
– Anne (European participant in a workcamp in Ecuador in 1995)
“It was a pity that I couldn’t speak Singhala. We had good communication possibilities with the local volunteers from SCI Sri Lanka as their English was good enough but it was more or less impossible to really speak with the local people of the village due to their total lack of English knowledge. So one had to take refuge in body and sign language which is nice for a short time but which in the end is totally insufficient to have a communication with others that goes beyond asking if somebody is hungry or cold or something like that. In any case, I felt that the village people appreciated it if you try to learn at least some basic words of their language.”
– Isabelle (European participant in a workcamp in Sri Lanka in 2000)
Listening in a Second Language
In order for the workcamp group to be as inclusive as possible, it is important to look out for differences in language abilities. On some workcamps there will be a majority of fluent English speakers who may exclude others by speaking too quickly or using too much unfamiliar slang. This can particularly happen when you are excited, angry or just feeling lazy. While it is often easier to only talk to those who are most fluent, this means that you will miss out on important aspects of your workcamp experience. Some ways of making sure you are understood by everyone include speaking slowly, pronouncing your words clearly and trying to use plain (not pidgin) English as much as possible. You could also try to make the context clear before you get to your main point and try to be consistent with your terminology. This is especially important when explaining how to do certain tasks or when making group decisions.
People do not only communicate verbally; they also use body language, or non-verbal communication. The elements associated with body language – gestures, postures, facial expressions, physical movements and voice – can be seen as a complex code that often conveys people’s emotions and feelings more clearly than their words. Regardless of what we might say, how we walk, sit, stand and move affects the way other people will treat you.
Sometimes your non-verbal communication can present an entirely different message to somebody from another culture that what you intended. Just read the following example:
“When I arrived in Europe, I saw young people wearing differently designed dresses and having multicoloured hairstyle. I thought most of them might be mad or half-mad. Honestly saying, at the beginning, I was afraid of those people and also tried to avoid them but after a few days, I learned that those dresses and hairstyles were the latest fashion in Europe.”
Ferdous (Asian volunteer participating in a workcamp in Germany and Belgium, 1999)
Direct versus Indirect Communication
A common source of misunderstanding between “Westernised” and “non-Westernised” cultures involves the use of different styles of communication, especially the use of direct or indirect communication.
In “Western” cultures it is often desirable to use direct communication, or to “come directly to the point”. This is especially so when dealing with matters regarding work. It is a common trend to handle conflicts openly; to point out a problem, talk openly and democratically about it and to criticise inappropriate behaviour. For example, if a person believes that someone in authority is not telling the truth about something they may feel able to insist on the need for clarity, as well as the right to point out contradictions and to make constructive suggestions. People feel the need to understand clearly what they have to do, but also why they have to do something. When they don’t understand the meaning of an activity they don’t feel very motivated to do it.
On the other hand, “non-Westernised” cultures such as Asia, most of Africa and Latin America more often use indirect communication. This can involve beginning a conversation on a personal level, enquiring after family health, how their business is going and so on, before eventually working around to the matters at hand. When issues are contentious, they can appear to be ignored completely. If this doesn’t work then indirect communicators might try to reduce the importance of the issue or to focus on common interests.
Both groups of cultures may interpret the other’s behaviours differently. Direct communicators may believe that indirect communicators lack sincerity or openness. The tendency to initiate personal conversation before business can also be interpreted as a reluctance to deal with the issue.
On the other hand, those used to more indirect ways of communicating with others may find direct communication to be cold and impersonal. Attempting to deal with matters right away may seem arrogant rather than honest, and may make others feel that you are only interesting in the problem and not the person you are communicating with.
Sometime this can cause a lot of problems:
“In our workcamp in India after the first week we got the feeling that our work was really senseless and stupid. We had to move earth from one comer of a schoolyard to another one and some volunteers even presumed that the camp before us had moved the same earth hill from where we had to bring it to where it was now. So we decided to form a committee (only Europeans were elected to it – the Indian participants abstained) and ask for an appointment with the school director. It was a lady. We asked her – maybe in a kind of confronting manner – to give us an explanation why we were doing this kind of work. She didn’t reply directly but answered with a question whether the work was too hard for us. She would give us another work. We said that we just wanted to understand why we have to do it. We would like to know the reason – then she asked other question like whether the climate was too hot for us Europeans or we didn’t like the food. We said No, the food was excellent it was just some of us felt the work senseless. And she offered again another work. We thought her strategy was to comfort us but at the end she asked questions whether we liked India or not. And we realized she just didn’t want to give us an appropriate answer.”
Heike (European participant in a workcamp in India)
Sometimes the different styles of communication can have some funny results:
“The first time I came to Europe, Germany, I was hosted with a local SCI person. He took me to his house. It was around 7 p.m. He asked me if I wanted to eat something. Even though I was very hungry, I said “no” because in Sri Lanka it is not polite to immediately accept an offer of food and drink. One first has to refuse a few times and give the host the opportunity to ask you again and again. So that is why I said “no’: although I was really hungry. But the host didn’t ask me again for the rest of the evening, and I certainly didn’t dare to ask for food, so I went to bed with an empty stomach. Only after several visits to Europe, I learnt that in European culture, people take a “no” for a “no” and this is very different from the Indian Subcontinent culture where it is not polite to be so direct. “
Muza (Asian staff member in SCI)
One of the most important aspects of IVP workcamps is learning how to participate in democratic decision making within your group. Particularly because it is in this area that differences between direct and indirect communication can be the most obvious.
Making a decision between many different alternatives is difficult within a group because you have to balance what you personally would like to do with what others are interested in doing. This can mean more than just compromising, but can also mean trying to read between the lines of what the others seem to be saying. This can be confusing for people who are comfortable with discussing common activities in a group and are used to dealing with a clear “yes” or “no”. They can sometimes expect this level of clarity from everyone and become irritated with those who try to avoid contracting others. It helps to recognise that people who are used to dealing with a clear “No” or direct rejection of a proposal are often simply not trained to read between the words or understand tiny differences in someone’s voice or body language (non-verbal communication). So instead of assuming that the absence of an clear disagreement means a “yes”, volunteers should try to look for other clues about how different members of the group feel about a particular decision.
This means that it is important to remember that “Yes” can mean much more than an agreement. It can mean “I am listening to you”, “I understand”, “Maybe but I have my doubts”, as well as the standard “I agree”. Also shaking your head doesn’t always mean no – in some Asian countries such as India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, and some Eastern European countries such as Bulgaria, people shake their heads to indicate agreement, instead of nodding. A firm shaking means agreement; a wavering shaking means there are some doubts. This can be quite confusing to people from other cultures.