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Intercultural Communication

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When one knows he or she is going to encounter another culture, different from his own, it is important to know at least something about this culture in order not to look like an intruder. To be on the safe side, one can try to find certain basic similarities between cultures, but best of all would be learn about the interlocutor in advance. By doing it, one will show respect and good intentions toward the carrier of the culture. There are many different communities based on ethnicity, religion, common traditions and beliefs, and other things, and meeting someone different is inevitable in the contemporary world.

In this essay, I will discuss several theories concerning intercultural communication and competency: proxemics, contextual framework, ethnocentrism, and social identity theory. These concepts will be linked with the examples from the film Outsourced narrating the story of an American manager who was sent to work in India.

Proxemics refers to nonverbal communication along with kinesics and paralanguage. It is a study of space that concerns interaction with the other people and interaction with the environment. Edward Hall divided personal space into special zones: intimate space, personal space, social space, and public space. Although, Hall gave the approximate measures for these zones, their borders may differ from culture to culture. Thus, violation of the intimate or personal space can cause misunderstanding during intercultural communication. Violation of personal space is one of the most popular mistakes during the conversation between the representatives of different cultures.

In the beginning of the film, when a manager Todd Anderson comes to India and goes by train from Mumbai to the town he is going to work in, he encounters proxemics problems. People seem to be too close sitting and standing to each other in public transportation. A boy gives Todd his place and as soon as Todd sits down, a boy sits down on him. For Todd it is a very awkward moment while neither a boy nor anybody else in the compartment feel uncomfortable. The boy just wanted the foreigner to feel comfortable in a way he understands comfort. In Indian public transportation people are used to contact with each other closely and do not mind it. The boy’s action can be defined as substitution of the verbal activities. On the one hand, the boy seems to joke on the foreigner or irritate him by sitting on his knees and making him uncomfortable. On the other hand, the boy does it subconsciously, so he does not understand he can look rude to Todd. He just tries to show respect to the foreigner in his own way, though Todd cannot understand or appreciate it. Indian culture is communal and it is natural to share personal space with others. For Todd this incident is outstanding because in American culture such close interaction is a violation of nonverbal rules of communication and is considered as an intrusion into one’s intimate space.

The Indian boy is too young to understand and pay attention to the cultural differences, so the responsibility for the case should lie fully on grownups. People around could have hinted on the boy’s inappropriate behavior. May be they were too busy with their thoughts and did not notice that something so common to them could seem extraordinary to the foreigner. Todd is the one who should have got acquainted to the culture of the country he was going to live and work in. He should have learned at least the basic rules of behavior in Indian society not to get into awkward situations.

Contextual framework is typical for intercultural interaction. The concept of conceptual frame implies people act and talk expectedly in certain context or frame. Frames are situations that help to understand and extract the meaning from the context. Norms of behavior within certain frames can differ from culture to culture. Personal cultural knowledge can make conversation rather fruitful when one understands what to say or how to act in a given situation and how to interpret what is said.  Author of the book gave a good example in the very beginning of the book. Behavior of the American woman for the frame in the story on the bus stop would be appropriate if she was in America, but it was inappropriate for the country this event happened. Thus, frames suggest certain rules of behavior. Frames also can assume identities or what role a person will take in a specific situation.

In the scene with Todd’s meeting Aunti in cozy home atmosphere, there are two examples of the main character’s lack of cultural knowledge. I will touch upon the first one from the point of contextual framework. There are three people participating in the conversation: Aunti, Purohit and Todd. Aunti is the one who asks questions, Todd answers them and Purohit mostly listens to the conversation. In the beginning, Aunti directly asks Todd first about his father’s doings, then about himself, to be precise, about his marital status and how much money he makes. It is strange for Todd, because in the USA they do not start conversation with such questions. Moreover, for Americans it is not appropriate, even rude, to talk openly about money. Purohit seems more understanding, though he just nods, may be because he is younger and learned something about American culture before receiving such an important guest. Todd does not show his confusion and answers all questions with a smile on his face in a typical for American culture polite manner. It is frame of the first meeting, when Indian women who have unmarried daughters ask men about their status, their heritage, how much money they make in order to estimate their social status. Aunti subconsciously suggests Todd an identity of a future husband for her daughter in this frame, so she does not think that she is rude. Arranged marriages in India are a tradition and a serious matter that is usually decided by the families when children are very young. If a girl was not engaged or married when she was a child, a mother feels responsible for finding her husband and will not calm down until she does it.

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Todd’s reaction to this frame is appropriate. He is polite, he just smiles and answers the questions, though he is surprised on the remark of his not being married in his age. In this conversation, we can see how different cultural views can be on the issue of marriage.

Ethnocentrism is assuming that one’s own group or community is the center of the world and overrules other groups. Ethnocentrism causes stereotypes, assumptions on the minority groups imposed by the dominant group. For example, white people in the United States often do not admit themselves having any cultural identity, they take it for granted and compare others to themselves. To my opinion, the book does not cover the concept of ethnocentrism to full extent. The course of intercultural communication is aimed at nurturing the ability to respect and appreciate differences and similarities of cultures and we must pay attention to the issues connected with learning how to avoid ethnocentrism.

From the beginning of the film the main character, Todd, is ethnocentric. He shows it in how he acts in different situations. We see that he did not prepare for the trip; it seems he does not know anything about India. This fact tells about his ignorance and ethnocentrism, because he considers his own culture dominant over the others. He considers his nation to be the center of everything and compares Indian society to it. The scene that culminates it is rather amusing and shows that Americans can laugh at themselves. When Todd teaches the Indian employees, he shows the slides with the goods his company sells and answers the questions. He tells about the devices his country invented. In fact, unnecessary trifles that he hates, but still when he explains their meaning, he kind of a shows superiority of his culture, of his progressive nation. The things he introduces, such as the cheese hat or an iron for beefsteaks branding are ridiculous, but for Indians they have specific meaning. When Todd explains about cow branding, we can see terror on the faces of the employees, which he falsely takes for curiosity. It is because in India cows are sacred. In the end of the scene one of the employees, Asha, who is not that easy to be terrified, suggests Todd to learn Indian culture, which confuses him for the moment and then makes to reflect on acculturation.  

If not Todd’s ethnocentrism, he could have found out in advance that the cows were sacred and would not make such a terrible mistake, showing disrespect to another culture. Fortunately, Indians are very tolerant and this is just a film. The main suggestion in this case is again learning about another culture in advance and be open to learn, not to focus on one’s own culture as the center of the world. Todd should not be indifferent, but involved and empathetic to his colleagues.

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The social identity theory is based on the concept that every society consists of a group of majority and minority with the last one usually connected with negative expectations. Social identity theory asserts that there are three ways of reacting to the negative social identity: 

  • Minority agrees with the expectations and try to blend into the dominant group.
  • Minority directly fights the majority.
  • Minority tries to change the negative image.

The author of the book explains the fallacies of the theory. I agree that the main fallacy is that theory concerning the interaction between the majority and minority groups discusses only the ways minority reacts to the situation. The author emphasizes the importance of the dominant group learning to see good in the others and react adequately to situation.

Although, the main character came to India, he does not yet feel himself as the minority identity because of his ethnocentrism (discussed above). Todd still feels he is from U.S. where Indians are considered minorities. Todd is used to the U.S. ways of doing business, the strictness, nothing excessive. Although, Purohit tried to speak about his family and his engagement to become closer to Todd, the way he is used to work in India, the latter acts like a boss. In India, they live and work in communes, it is different from the U.S., but Todd does not want to get closer, instead, he distances from the Indian society and stays in the dominant, from his point of view, group, which is American. When he shouts on Purohit trying to explain that they have to work in a more productive way, he mentions their previous talk and does not even remember the name of the girl Purohit engaged to. Purohit’s tolerance and reaction is amazing, he does not show he is insulted, but he quickly assimilates to the situation, understanding that his boss is not interested in his life, and is ready to do anything to win the boss’s favor. Another, nonverbal act of distancing from the minorities is ordering a glass, in order to be literally fenced from the Indian employees. The Indians in their turn react by trying to change Todd’s negative views on them and their culture. It takes some time to persuade Todd that he needs to learn Indian culture to assimilate successfully into the local society, but the results worth it.

If Todd was more attentive to the employees and looked at them not only as on the workers but on people which differ from him and have other beliefs and values, he would have understood that the main task, which was to lower the average time for call, was extremely difficult for these people due to the cultural differences they experienced in talking with the American clients. On the other hand, the lack of the precedent in learning Indian culture, and his American style of doing business helped him to achieve this goal by serving as a mediator and interpreter between the Indian and American sides.

The main problem of Todd is the lack of cultural knowledge and his ethnocentrism that closes him from learning and getting new knowledge. Thanks to the Indian employees, who are tolerant enough, Todd quickly understands the importance of intercultural competency for his work and life, opens and learns how to act and talk with Indians.

Intercultural competency is an important part of building up fruitful relationship with the representatives of different cultures. Unless we live distantly from other people, we frequently encounter cultural differences. People need communication, it is an integral part of their learning of themselves and the world around, and intercultural communication can be very useful for people’s development.

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