Members Area

HomeMembers AreaPage 29

MEMBERS AREA

Communication

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.

Verbal communication

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.

Non-Verbal Communication

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.

Social Customs

Gender Issues on International Exchanges

The relationships between men and women in different cultures can be quite different and as a result there can often be misunderstandings about the way men and women relate on a workcamp. This means that it is important to consider the culture and ethnicity of a person before judging their views on how men and women should behave. It is all too easy for women from western cultures to view non-western women as being oppressed, with few rights or access to what they believe is a proper way of life. On the other hand it is just as easy for non-western women to view western women as “loose”, with no self-respect or values.

It will be important that the volunteer keeps in mind to distinguish the “workcamp reality” from the “the reality of the country”, where the workcamp takes place. In most cases, the situation on the workcamp is much more flexible.

In written reports of past volunteers, you will sometimes find strong comments from western volunteers about the conditions of the women in the countries where they volunteer, or hear inappropriate comments about the ‘freedoms’ women in western countries are believed to ‘enjoy’. But often people forget to link such comments with the broader social, cultural and historical context of the country they are staying in, and unintentionally judge men and women on the basis of incomplete information and their own perceptions, which are often from a very limited angle. In culture there is no absolute truth, and wisdom should be sought in trying to understand why cultures operate the way they do and how changes in society and culture occur.
Gender Balance in the Workcamp

Generally in non-western countries there is a minority of local women participating in the workcamps, whereas the majority of volunteers in western workcamps are women. Volunteers in non-western countries often complain about this gender imbalance, while the volunteers from these are quite surprised to find such a high number of female volunteers in the workcamps in Europe, America and Australia.

It can be difficult for women from some non-Western countries to be involved with a voluntary international organisation, often for socio-economic or other cultural reasons. For example, they may lack foreign language skills or have no free time to spare, particularly if they are expected to participate in the traditions of their culture, such as household chores and living at home. This leaves them with less free time to engage in voluntary work. However, there can also be issues to do with maintaining a certain reputation or standing within a particular community.

“On the workcamp, there was only one Indian female volunteer, the others were all male volunteers. A pity for us, girls, because contacts with Indian men are more difficult.”
Barbara (European participant in a workcamp in India 1992)

“5 girls among 20 boys, it’s quite few! And no local girl apart from the campleader!”
Cecile (European participant in a work camp in Ghana 1999)

“Being the only girl of the camp, I had a sort of honour treatment. Everybody was kind to me and they made everything to let me feel easy; even, when we went to the market, a typical masculine environment, when we went to visit the groups of women, when I was invited to a marriage party, when we went out of the village for excursions.”
Roberta (European participant in a workcamp in Bangladesh 1998)

Intimate Relationships in the Workcamp

Volunteers, both men and women, have to be very careful in establishing relationships with other volunteers of the workcamp, especially local volunteers.

Local volunteers can misunderstand behaviour which for the international volunteers might be considered normal. When participating in international workcamps, volunteers should try be aware of any adverse consequences of developing close relationship with other volunteers in the workcamps or with local people outside the workcamp, which might be due to different cultural understandings of what such a relationship entails. If you are either gay or lesbian it may be difficult to identify whether or not cultural cues operate in similar ways to those of cultures which are more familiar to you, so it is important to make sure you understand these cues before starting a relationship.

In some countries, there is a a skewed perspective of the sexual attitudes and availability of Western women, often due to media images. This can result in the harassment of some female volunteers on workcamps in both Western and non-western countries, but it is more likely to happen in workcamps in Western countries, where there is nearly no social control on an individual’s behaviour. In some cases it can really spoil a workcamp for the female volunteers involved. The problem is partly based on the assumption of the volunteer that the sexual freedom of western women means they are sexual available for all men. It is difficult for some to understand that the personal sexual freedom of some women does not necessarily mean sexual promiscuity.

We were a group of 23 volunteers and there were no local female volunteers, only male. There were only 3 girls, me and a French and a Swiss girl. Between the Swiss girl and the Moroccan volunteers there was a heavy atmosphere; this was because her behaviour and her attitude to dress. It was nothing “special” for us (northern volunteers) but for the locals it was a misunderstanding behaviour…
Anna (European participant in a workcamp in Morocco 1999)

While a cross-cultural romance can give you the opportunity to glimpse another side of the culture of the country where you are volunteering, please be aware that you may not always be aware of the consequences for yourself or your partner. Many cultures do not approve of casual sexual relationships or same-sex relationships, which means that reputations may be compromised, undue expectations raised or there might be more severe consequences. As a result it is important to think carefully before being swept up in a new relationship.

How to behave as a female/male volunteer in the local community

On some workcamps there can be very different expectations about how you will behave while in the local community versus how you can behave within the workcamp. This means that you should try to get to know more about the culture and habits of the local community where the workcamp is placed. This includes learning about what kind of behaviour is appropriate when you go to the market to buy food, look for a bar or club to go to at night, accept invitations for dinner, visit the city or attractions, and so on.

“The problem to be a girl, single not married, a non-believer (not even a Catholic) which means that you are certainly going to be followed in the street; to be whistled at, honked at.”
Aurore (European participant in a workcamp in Morocco 1998)

“Girls must pay attention, when they are alone after the sunset. Generally even during the day, in the more tourist places they are followed by local men. It’s always better to dress with long skirt or trousers, and never with a top that shows too much… “
Marzia (European participant in a workcamp in Sri Lanka 1999)

As you can see from the examples above, many of these cultural expectations will involve different understandings of how women and men should behave. In many African, Arab or Asian cultures, for example, the division between men and women is almost a division between two different worlds, both with proper rules and attitudes…

“When I first came to Bombay – I wanted to visit someone I had met before. I had been given his address but I couldn’t find his house. When I was looking around I saw a young lady passing on the other side of the street and I crossed the street to ask her for the way. When she saw me approaching her, she looked at me in a kind of panic and ran away as fast as she could in her sari. I felt shocked. I mean she behaved as if I had made attitudes of attacking her. It was during the day and there were other passengers in the street, so what? I even had not yet opened my mouth to ask her a question”
European participant in a workcamp in India

“We could understand the role of each member of the family, the women’s role which is really a major one (to take care of the children, to cook, to clean, to wash, to fetch water… Girls don’t go to schools, they help the women, boys generally go to the Koran school and sometimes to a public school when the family can afford it, but they should also help in the fields. No doubt they are better considered than the girls.”
Thomas (European participant in a workcamp in Morocco)

“The man makes sure that the weak women do not work too hard and keeps the heavy stuff for himself. The problem is that women can do 98% of the tasks and the men wait to do 2% for the whole day. In the fields, the men ride the horses while the women keep running across the fields.”
Tancrede (European participant in a workcamp in Senegal 1998)

“All over the country women’s conditions are very low, even if in the towns some women are employed in offices and work outside the house. Generally women are shy and seem to accept their subdued condition. Many women, especially in the country, wear black dresses and cover their face when outside the house. Mostly in town but also in the countryside the law of the strongest is applied in all sectors of life and hierarchies are always respected….It’s normal that men order women…”
Roberta (European participant in a workcamp in India 1999)

Dress codes and personal hygiene

All over the world you may find different dress codes which have their roots in culture, religion, tradition and climate. Social norms may differ widely from culture to culture – while it might be acceptable to walk up to a Miami (Florida, USA) or Rio de Janeiro (Brazil) shop front in just a bikini and shades, in certain countries it could result in being stoned to death or imprisoned indefinitely.

Especially in countries ruled by religious authorities, dress codes may be defined by religious practices seen as more important than personal liberty. A woman without a headscarf in Afghanistan commits a crime punishable by beating, but in another country it might be a reason for execution. In such countries you simply have to follow the dress code if you don’t want to get into serious trouble. Yet even in countries with a more liberal approach a certain degree of care must be taken. The best thing to do is to follow the example of the local people.

What you wear may also depend on the occasion, such as weddings, funerals, services, and theatre. Western volunteers often dress far too casually for formal events. In Europe you might be stopped in front of the church if your top has no sleeves and you are wearing shorts or a mini skirt. In Asia – in India, for example – it is felt that displays of the naked body (both male and female) in public places are disrespectful, especially on a foreigner. Women should especially cover the upper part of their arms and body, as these areas are considered erotic.

Western volunteers, unused to hand washing, may often wear clothes that appear unacceptably dirty to the local people, to whom cleanliness is essential.

“I travelled to the next town and queued for ages at the bank. When I got to the counter, the teller looked in disgust at my dusty apparel and said ‘Come back when you wash your clothes. ‘ This was really awkward, as I couldn’t then get back for two days. She refused to serve me in filthy clothes.”
Leif (Norwegian volunteer, Ghana 1988)

Generally in a workcamp situation wearing long trousers should prevent undue attention, as well as safeguarding against sunburn, mosquito bites, thorny bushes and so on. Bathing during workcamps in Sri Lanka is usually at public water spots such as wells, streams, and rivers. Women who participate in workcamps will need to practice adorning the “diva reddha” (bathing sarong from Sri Lanka) from the neck to the knees.

“The living conditions of the native populations don’t exactly match the ones volunteers are used to… However, careless dressing habits on the part of the volunteers (dirty or torm clothes) really offend the local people who are always carefully and properly dressed.”
Anne (Ecuador 1995)

More generally, while in some countries it is not uncommon for males and females to share the same shower facilities, this certainly cannot be done in others. In many places it is not acceptable that a volunteer of any gender will wash him or herself totally naked in front of somebody of the opposite sex, or allow a situation where they could be confronted with this. These and similar matters will require some sensitivity from international volunteers.

MEMBERS BLOGS