Culture Is Communication and Communication Is Culture

1 January 2017

Every culture around the world has a unique language. This language is made up of ideals, values, beliefs, traditions, and further attributes that constitute the essence of one’s ways of communication. Understanding how a culture communicates will, not only, allow people to convey a message to one another the way it was intended, but it will also help individuals to find identity in the differences and commonalities of the numerous cultures. The miscommunication or ignorance of a cultural group can cause segregation, division and, even war.

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In looking at culture and communication, undoubtedly, the written and spoken language is one of the most obvious distinctions. All the same, Edward T. Hall (1959), an American anthropologist, outlines the importance of recognising that communication proceeds in more ways than this. It is not just the visible deed of exchanging information or a message from one person to another through words, pictures or the arts. But a less visible yet, the more dominant substance of communication is the unspoken, the “silent language”.

It is in the non-verbal gestures; the commonalities, within the culture in which they are part, of attitudes towards work, leisure, learning, values, beliefs; it is in the way relationships are handled and in the way ‘time’ and ‘space’ is treated. It is in the enlightenment of these modes of communication where we can discover culture. Furthermore, it is in looking at culture where we can find the means to communicate. Consequently, Hall states, “Culture is communication and communication is culture. ” (Hall, 1959, p.??? ) Culture and communication exist in accordance with each other.

So as is the verbal language, where words exists to verbalise things that could be a norm of thought to one culture but, in another, cannot be translated into just a single word. A word could have a deep significance that has been shared amongst a cultural group for many generations yet; another group of people could only capture the surface of its meaning when shared, and not fully grasp the essence of it. For example, the word ‘hongi’ in the Maori language cannot be translated directly into a single word but needs to be explained as a gesture in which one presses nose and forehead with another.

It has a similar objective to a handshake but also represents the exchanging of breath or the ‘breath of life’ (Wikipedia). The cultural implication of this word goes as far as to represent a gesture that is passed down from the gods. Many languages, including English, involve communicating ‘time’, ‘past’, ‘present’ and ‘future’. However, a number of cultures have either a vague concept of time or none at all. The Aboriginal population of Australia, for example, count 670 languages and dialects and not one of them have words to communicate the concept of time (Davis, 2011).

Cultures that put more value into having a more specific organisation of time will find this difficult to grasp. The Aborigines live with the satisfaction that traditions answer all that is to know of the how and whys of existence. The absence of these words does not, by all means, show that they are ignorant of ‘time’, but their values and concepts of the movement of life lie, almost literally, in other realms, such as dreams. (Davis, 2011). Moreover, M. E. Guffey and D. Loewy (2011) explains that, “Language does not serve as a tool for communication, but in addition it is a “system of representation” for perception and thinking. Wade Davis (2011) writes: “A language is not merely a set of grammatical rules or a vocabulary. It is a flash of the human spirit, the vehicle by which the soul of each particular culture comes into the material world. Every language is an old-growth forest of the mind, a watershed of thought, an ecosystem of spiritual possibilities. ” Language has been proven to reflect the way in which different cultures think. Or vice versa. Lera Boroditsky (2011) and her team conducted several tests to see if this was true.

They found that, indeed, languages and the way thoughts were processed coincided with each other. In a test to see how people of different language groups treated time and space, individuals were shown pictures of progressing motions like a banana being eaten and a man growing old, and they were left to put them in order. They found that the language that relied solely on absolute direction, like the Kuuk Thaayorre, did not place the order from left to right but from east to west. No matter which direction they faced the cards started from the east and ended at the west.

The Aborigines sense of absolute direction is remarkably accurate as it is a cognitive requirement that encompasses the language. It seems the orbiting of the world is all they need in measuring time and space. The way a culture communicates can display the different cultural views on gender. Nancy Bonvillain quotes: “Through communicative processes, cultural models of gender are both portrayed and reinforced, contributing to the socialisation of female and males into their expected roles and also creating their ideas about themselves and each other. ” (Bonvillain, 2003, p. 213)

In English speaking cultures Bonvillain found that there were a few hints in the grammatical and stylistic language of the two genders to show that there was a regard for males to be a more dominant figure in the social structure. Women tend to make more polite choice of words and speak with more rising intonations than men. The men spoke more assertively with less intonation. Japanese men and woman differentiate masculinity and femininity through the way they speak and their choice of words. Dominance is more determined by a number of factors such as class, gender, and age.

The native people of Bolivia, who speak Chiquita, show a difference in the way males see themselves and how females see males [Bonvillain, 2003]. In their communication males tend to refer to themselves with metaphoric nouns that referred to supernatural beings. But the women refused to use these terms and socially reject the notion that men are in any way superior. This disagreement is seen as a cultural norm amongst the women. Despite the ‘traditional’ way men and woman are communicated in different cultures, there are evidential changes in the attitudes of both genders in this continually developing world.

As is the traditional attitudes towards hierarchy which in some cultures used to regard so highly (such as, the emerging of Korean youth who openly disrespect elders in public [Reference? ] and the protests in Iraq towards their government). Any change in a culture requires a change in the communication; as cultures evolve so do their language. And when new innovations, concepts and items are adopted these are accompanied by new expressions or labels in order to communicate them to others. In the process, things that previously meant one thing can also change in the efforts of providing a word for these new changes.

In the sixteenth century the Spanish introduced sheep to the Tzeltal speaking people of Mexico (Davis, 2011). They did not have a word to name this new animal so began to call it “cotton deer”. Centuries later, as sheep gradually became a part of their economy the expression for these “cotton deers” simply became “deer”. Now this word simply means “sheep” in the Tzeltal language, and a new name was given for deers as “wild sheep” . (Bonvillain, 2003). Indigenous words have, in many cultures, been adopted to give meaning to new implementations.

Also, in a lot of languages, words from other cultures have integrated into the normal everyday use in another culture showing the diversity in how language spread across the globe with centuries of cross-cultural interaction. The English language has borrowed words from over a dozen other languages including the word ‘telephone’ from the Greek language, ‘canyon’ which derives from Spanish, ‘orange’, ‘candy’, ‘sugar’ from Arabic, ‘tea’ from the Chinese (Bonvillain, 2003).. The list could go on. Words from English have been contributed to other cultures as well.

Like the word ‘noomba’ which the Navajo speakers adopted with the introduction of numbers. In the meeting of two different cultures one could find that communication style is also very different. Some cultures such as the Arab, Nigerian, Latin American, Native Americans and Asian cultures have a more ‘contextual’ or ‘circular’ style of communicating. This is cohesive to the lifestyle and values of these cultures. For example, if one was to ask a Nigerian to share of an experience they would be inclined to also include the smallest details to paint a picture of the context.

This way of the storyteller would be a norm of how situations were communicated this culture. However, the more ‘linear’ style of communicators such as the European American people of the U. S. could perceive circular communicators to be evasive and illogical as they know only to be to the point and specific with their verbal expressions. On the flip side, a culture more inclined to the circular notion of communication could perceive people with a linear style to lack contextual richness and come across as arrogant or too intense. (Guffey & Loewy, 2011).

The wrong perception of different cultures can lead to stereotypes and prejudice. Culture is a key stimulant of perception which affects communicational thought processes in forming and responding to a message. J. W. Bagsby’s research on binocular rivalry (1957) had people from America and Mexico to look though a set of binoculars with various picture showing in each eye – one side would show a picture from Mexico and the other from America. When asked in a small amount of time what they saw most they all focused more on pictures that were familiar to their culture.

This not only showed that people did, in fact, perceive out of what they are familiar with but it also tells us the impact that culture has in the shaping of one’s thoughts. Communication throughout different cultures can either be ‘high context’ or ‘low context’. High context is to describe those whose ways of communicating put more emphasis on the more nonverbal aspects of a meeting like ones manners, politeness and ambiguities. (Clampitt, 2010). This can be seen in a lot of Asian cultures such as the Japanese, Chinese and Koreans.

On the other side of the spectrum lies the U. S. and Germany. These cultures are examples of ‘low context’ communicators who are more verbally direct and less vague when it comes the exchanging of messages and information. Evidently, the contextual levels of different cultures are reflected in language and communication. It is also apparent that language, as culture does, can change over time. The way one communicates to another also reflects how groups of people have adjusted to the surroundings in which they live.

The Mazatec language of the people of Wahaca, in Mexico, is an example of this (Davis, 2011). Because they live in the vastly forested mountains they have come to rely on a system of communication which involves whistling which penetrates through the thick forest and carries through the valley. This form of communication is just a part of life skills learnt in growing up in this environment. Culture, as is communication, is learnt and it is shared by one generation to another and more so now with a great part of the global community.

Yet, out of the 7,000 recorded languages only half of them are not being taught. This means that when oldest generation of a culture dies all the wisdom, traditions and values will go with them. And a group of people that once communicated in the same language and shared these values and traditions will be extinct. (Davis, 2011). It is evident throughout history that the people that initiate communicative means in preservation of culture flourish and continue to reproduce. Countries such as Canada show that different cultures, despite history can live harmoniously under one Flag.

In 1969 the Canadian government made French and English, both, the official language of Canada “for all purposes of the Parliament and Government of Canada, and possess and enjoy equality of status and equal rights and privileges as to their use in all the institutions of the Parliament and Government of Canada”. (Grosjean, 1982). And the natives were given a choice to be educated in their native language as well as English and French. (Bonvillain, 2003) Communication in any form, if preserved, is evidential of culture. So to understand culture one must listen.

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